Mark Schmitt

Mark Schmitt is director of the program on political reform at the New America Foundation and former executive editor of The American Prospect

 

 

Recent Articles

Remember When?

As the vague outlines of President Bush's Social Security privatization plan rise up in the mist ahead of us, a question naturally comes to mind: What did Democrats do the last time a conservative Republican president proposed massive changes to Social Security? That is, how did they fight back against Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s? The answer, though, is sadly unhelpful. The Social Security debate of 1981-83 shows only one thing: The world sure was different back then. The Reagan story starts off somewhat similarly to the George W. Bush story: A president declares a crisis and proposes to solve it. From there the story diverges. First, Reagan had already learned -- from the 1964 Goldwater campaign -- that privatization was a losing issue. Second, the crisis was real. Social Security had expanded too rapidly in the 1970s and inflation was choking it; the day of reckoning that today is loosely projected to be perhaps 40 years off was then quite certain, and barely a year remained...

The Reform That Backfired

If you follow politics, you're probably familiar with the idea that reform sometimes backfires. You've probably heard the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform cited as an example of such unintended consequences. Critics say McCain-Feingold eliminated the one form of political money on which Democrats had an advantage, while increasing the kind of money -- contributions from individuals -- on which the Republicans had the edge, without actually stemming the flow of large contributions. In fact, McCain-Feingold is not an example of this paradox. Campaign finance reform, together with the polarizing effect of the Bush administration, has forced the Democrats to do what they should have done a long time ago: build an individual donor base instead of relying on corporate interests. And as the party is no longer principally a banker for that corporate money, it can begin to renew itself as a real political party, one that mobilizes citizens, coordinates campaigns, and fosters ideological...

Kids Aren't Us

Now that millions of words have been devoted to assessing the mixed legacy of Ronald Reagan's presidency, let's take a few hundred to recall one of the attempts by liberals to respond and counter Reagan and his strategies. Since his anti-government philosophy is as alive as Reagan is dead, these responses are also still very much in play. The most resilient of these responses, one that gained traction late in Reagan's second term, is made up of language and policies that fall under the rubric of "Kids as Politics," to borrow the title of an influential 1987 memo by pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. (I had a yellowing photocopy of this memo in my files for years before deciding just a few weeks ago that I could safely throw it out; fortunately, like everything else, it's now on the web .) It's hard to imagine now, but twenty years ago the idea that children could serve as a political theme was fresh and could even be controversial. When Bruce Babbitt, then governor of Arizona, devoted his...

The Permanent Raw Deal

Like the dream of immortality, the vision of political power that outlasts the eight years of a single presidency can be an irresistible lure to politicians. One version of the dream involves electoral power. For example, Karl Rove is said to have a plan for the Republican Party to dominate for 30 or 40 years, much as it did after the election of William McKinley in 1896, which helped break a period of partisan deadlock. The other version of the dream involves structuring policies and statutes that will protect themselves against democratic change, conditions that a future majority cannot break. Constitutional amendments and the appointment of ideological judges are one way to reach into the future, but perhaps the most successful tactic ever to dictate the terms of government policy for generations to come was what has been called “The Permanent New Deal.” The entitlement programs that began in the 1930s with Social Security, blossomed into other social-insurance programs in the...

History 101

American liberals suffer from a well-earned inferiority complex. How often do we hear phrases like, “We need a Heritage Foundation for our side,” or, “We need ideas and a framework, like the right has”? Robert B. Reich has put forth the most comprehensive such argument in the May issue of the English magazine Prospect : “The radical conservatives have a movement, which explains their success … they have frames of reference used in the policy debates … and they have developed a coherent ideology… Democrats have built no analogous movement.” It's not that this is wrong. It's inarguably correct (though changing, with the establishment of the Center for American Progress and a few other outfits). But to pretend that all that stands between progressives and power is money, message discipline, rapid response, and a friendly cable-news network or three is a dangerous delusion. By so often looking to the right for the model of ideological success, we risk cutting ourselves off from our own...

Pages