Matt Welch has an idea so crazy it just might work:
There's a better and arguably more attractive ideological option than being
anti–"pro–free market," and it's sitting right in front of the Democrats'
noses. When the party you despise controls most of the levers of government,
it's an excellent time to run against government.
Disparate threads of limited-government rhetoric have begun to pop through
the seams of the New Old Left unity. In the wake of the gay marriage
wipeout and unpopular federal laws concerning the environment and medical
joys of federalism.
"Fiscal responsibility" has cemented itself as boilerplate Democratic
rhetoric, and not just as an excuse to jack up tax
Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, has been
praise from Cato
for slashing his state's income taxes, and pushing his fellow Democratic
governors to follow his lead.
I couldn't disagree more. (I tried, and sprained something.) For one thing, we'll have the same problem John Kerry had when he tried to say he opposed gay marriage: No one will believe us. Unless we're willing to abandon things like Medicare, Social Security, and good public education, we'll never be able to take the argument to its logical conclusion. Opponents will say we're half-assing an ideological commitment because it polls well. And if we adopt any strategy that garners Megadittoes from the guys at Cato, they'll be right. More importantly, it's not who we are. Liberals don't dislike government. To many liberals, Reagan's
declaration that "government is the problem" amounted to political hate
speech. I still bristle at Clinton's "era of big government" schtick.
Worst of all, Welch's suggestion is short-sighted. Suppose Democrats do define themselves as opponents of big government. Fast-forward that tape to 2008, when there's a Democrat in the White House. What's our agenda? We can't promote gay rights or universal health care; those would be Big Government things to do. It gives us nowhere to go, and further calcifies the frame that Reagan spent a decade constructing.
Interestingly, the second thing Welch said hints at a much more appealing option. None of the causes he listed - none of them - are supported by liberals because
of a belief in limited government. Our support for gay marriage stems
from a belief in equal rights; how many liberals would use the limited-government argument to oppose a constitutional amendment guaranteeing gays the right to marry? Support for
environmentalism and marijuana legalization stem from a belief in
providing the best natural environment and health care possible,
irrespective of ideology. Our paeans to fiscal responsibility are
premised largely on our disgust with what created our current deficits:
A dubious foreign adventure, and two unnecessary tax cuts that screwed
the middle class with their pants on. (Would liberals object as harshly
if Bush had spent the money ensuring universal health care?) Even
Richardson's tax cuts were aimed at the middle class; he calls them
"sensible" so often in the course of a single article
that you'd think he had Tourette's. Democrats have lots of values, and
small government isn't one of them. But, these issues do have a common
thread that unites them: They all emphasize material benefits over
ideological goals, and are premised on facts, not beliefs. In short,
they are a microcosm of the two fundamental values that are
liberalism's secret weapon: Relying on facts and making people's lives better. So, let me propose an alternative Democratic message: We are the party of Real Solutions That Help Real People.
We ought to end the conversation Goldwater started, and pull up the
curtain on the big government/small government dichotomy, exposing it
for the ruse it is. We should make the case that government is just
like anything else: In good hands, it does good. Bill Clinton got this;
at his best, he dissolved Americans' resentment towards Washington, and
showed that wise leaders could use its power to produce tangible,
shared benefits. Unsurprisingly, Hillary has picked up the idea, asking
pro-lifers (as William Saletan put it): How many abortions are you willing to endure for the sake of avoiding the word "condom"? Quoth Lord William:
Once you embrace that truth—that the ideal number of abortions is
zero—voters open their ears. They listen when you point out, as Clinton
did, that the abortion rate fell drastically during her husband's
presidency but has risen in more states than it has fallen under George
W. Bush. I'm sure these trends have more to do with economics than
morals, but that's the point. Once we agree that the goal is zero, we
can stop asking which party yaps more about fighting abortion and start
asking which party gets results.
Is there any doubt which party would win that conversation? (Hint: FDR was one.)
It is counter-productive and foolish to try to become the party of
small government. The entire idea of small-versus-big is, to paraphrase
Lincoln, a dogma of the quiet past that is inadequate to our stormy
present. Instead, we should convince Americans to stop tying their
votes to an arbitrary bureaucratic statistic, and award them to
the party that doesn't let ideology cloud its emphasis on results. This
is what Howard Dean is asking when he asks southerners what they have
to show for forty years of voting Republican: Do you want leaders who
get you angry and resentful? Or do you want leaders who get you low
abortion rates and good health care? Democrats should spend the time
between now and 2008 making a persuasive case for reality-based,
results-oriented leadership. If we do it right, the party of Real
Solutions That Help Real People will soon be the party of Picking Our
New China Pattern For The State Dinners.
Update: I have a brief follow-up back at my place.