IN PRAISE OF NEW IDEAS. For columnists, that is. Over the weekend, The Los Angeles Times's Gregory Rodriguez fretted that Democrats were looking to the Iraq war to save their party when what they really needed were Big Ideas. Call it the conventional wisdom remix, with Rodriguez's new beat being his concern that Democratic rhetoric on Iraq will foster debilitating political divisions and destabilize support for government as a whole. And, while he had the good form to base his column mainly off of quotes from articles written by Prospect supreme beings Mike Tomasky and Paul Starr, it's still an aggravating effort.
The problem for the New Ideas division of the Columnist Corps is that they, well, have none. It's easy enough to spin a few hundred adjectives extolling fresh thinking and dismissing tired bromides, but whenever these offerings finally skid towards the constructive paragraph marking the column's close, the whole project falls apart. Rodriguez, for instance, wonders why "[Democrats] aren't generating 'big ideas' -- comprehensive healthcare reform, for example, or finding new ways to address growing economic insecurity."
Ned Lamont, whose win seems to have sparked Rodriguez's remix, loves to talk about universal health care. But if it's white papers Rodriduez wants, he should've paid more attention during July, as Tom Vilsack, Hillary Clinton, Russ Feingold, and Pete Stark all proposed plans offering varying levels of comprehensive reform. That Rodriguez appears to have missed all these offerings is evidence enough that merely generating "Big Ideas" is something less than a foolproof political strategy.
Moreover, health care is hardly a subject that requires new ideas of any sort -- let everyone buy into Medicare and comprehensive reform just happened. Want to curb inequality? Keep the estate tax, jack up the marginal tax rates to impose an effective ceiling on wealth, restructure the revenue code to prize earned income over assets, institute a guaranteed national income of some sort (an idea so new George McGovern had it), and call it a day. Meanwhile, there are few Big Ideas more urgent or important than the cessation of the Iraq war, if for no other reason than the trillion or so that conflict will eventually suck up will effectively end any hope of paying for medium sized ideas, much less big ones. So long as massive deficits loom and existing programs lack full funding, no new Big Ideas will be remotely enactable. So while the Iraq war may indeed be bad for liberalism, progressives will see no salvation in its survival.