After the Fall of the Right

The Plan: Big Ideas for America by Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed (Public Affairs, 224 pages, $19.95)

Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea by George Lakoff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pages, $23.00)

Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success by Paul Waldman (John Wiley and Sons, 266 pages, $25.95)

Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South by Thomas F. Schaller (Simon and Schuster, 352 pages, $26.00)

Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community by Douglas B. Sosnik, Matthew J. Dowd, and Ron Fournier (Simon & Schuster, 260 pages, $26.00)

Democrats have become “the party of second opinions, wandering from one pathologist to the next,” Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed write in their unexpectedly witty policy manifesto, The Plan.

“Consultants,” they say, “told the Democrats to talk more about God; bloggers told them to talk trash about Bush; political self-help books urged them to use their words, rediscover their values, and stand and fight for what they used to believe in.”

One of the real growth industries in the United States involves the provision of books offering Democrats advice, theories about what ails them, and elixirs promising a return of pep and drive. A virtual megastore out there proffers master concepts to provide a roomy framework for all the center-left's good intentions.

Michael Tomasky, the editor of this magazine, has made a powerful case that Democrats should rally behind a pursuit of the “common good.” George Lakoff -- taking a cue from an important book published last year by John E. Schwarz, Freedom Reclaimed -- sees “freedom” as the idea the center-left must rescue and make its own. Peter Beinart has urged us to look back to Harry Truman's marriage of social justice and assertive internationalism. Paul Waldman says progressives need to toughen up -- to “get off their knees, stiffen their spines, look their foes in the eye and give as good as they get.”

For what it's worth, I have offered entries in this sweepstakes. Some years ago, I made an argument similar to Tomasky's on the virtues of civic republican, common-good politics. More recently, I proposed “progressive patriotism” as a useful starting point for liberal politics in the world after September 11, 2001. In his fascinating 2005 book The Two Americas, pollster Stan Greenberg offered his “100 percent America” vision that brings together the common good and patriotic approaches.

It's tempting -- and not even a bad idea -- to see all these frameworks as embodying aspects of the liberal tradition, American-style. After all, the American liberal creed was greatly influenced by the ruminations of the “new liberals” in late 19th-century Britain on the proper understanding of freedom. Against the anti-government ideas of laissez-faire liberalism, the new liberals saw government intervention in the marketplace as enhancing the opportunities and thus the freedom, of individuals.

The British philosopher T. H. Green argued the “ideal of true freedom is the maximum power for all the members of human society … to make the best of themselves.” This is not a bad description of the goals of the New Deal, the GI Bill, and the civil-rights movement.

In turn, some idea of the common good is essential to this notion of freedom, which depends for its achievement on collective or community action and opposes itself to a radical individualism indifferent to social outcomes. And in both the United States and Britain, the rise of a common-good politics has typically been linked to the core patriotic sentiment, “We're all in this together.” The British Labour Party's expansion of the welfare state after 1945 was spurred by the spirit of solidarity created during World War II. The GI Bill, an American version of the same story, served as the great postwar engine of upward mobility, though its benefits were well short of universal. The American political establishment embraced civil rights during the Cold War in part because racial subjugation undermined the moral claims of the United States in its conflict with Soviet communism.

All this suggests that the problem for the center-left, as represented by the Democratic Party, may not lie in its ideals, which have been more coherent over the years than Democrats themselves usually imagine.

The temptation is then to say that the difficulty must be in the presentation of those ideals or in the wily way the conservative enemy has distorted the public debate, or in some comforting combination of the two. That helps explain the popularity of Lakoff's earlier arguments that the center-left needs to become as good at “framing” issues as the center-right has been.

“Why have so many Democrats snapped up Lakoff's manual?” Emanuel and Reed ask. “Because it tells them exactly what they want to hear. … According to Lakoff, Democratic arguments are bouncing off the electorate's collective subconscious because conservatives have set the frame and we haven't.”

Emanuel and Reed are charitable enough to note that “Lakoff isn't wrong about everything,” and they credit him with understanding “the importance of values and an agenda.” Lakoff's new book might be seen as a salutary effort to put some meat on his frame. He's surely correct that liberals should not have let the word “freedom” get away from them, though his exertions to hang the entire liberal agenda on a single concept make you worry that the whole thing might topple over at any moment.

To the extent that Lakoff has encouraged liberals and Democrats to think more about how their arguments actually sound to other people, God bless him. Lakoff is right that words matter. In his sprightly and well-informed political self-help volume, Waldman is also right that conservatives have been better than liberals in creating a “master narrative” that speaks to the “values and beliefs” behind their policies.

But, as Emanuel and Reed suggest, there's something just too reassuring about laying everything on framing and narrative. Ronald Reagan, great communicator though he was, did not beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 primarily because he “framed” his tax cut well. He won because the country faced simultaneous economic and foreign-policy crises. Under those circumstances, many voters who did not believe in Reagan's ideas were willing to give them, and him, a try. Bill Clinton was Lakoffian before Lakoff: Boy, did Clinton know how to frame! But voters gave him a chance in 1992 because they sensed listlessness in Washington after 12 years of Republican rule and saw in Clinton's energy a bracing antidote.

And, yes, there was the economy, stupid.

* * *

The most helpful answer to the questions “What's Wrong With the Democrats?” and “What's Wrong With the Center-Left?” may be the least intellectually satisfying: There is, in fact, no single answer, and the questions themselves may be defective.

It is simply not the case that the Republicans are the nation's dominant political party. The United States is at or near political parity. Over the last four presidential elections, the Republicans averaged just 44 percent of the popular vote, and actually won it just once, in 2004.

Yes, the Republicans have held the House since 1994 and the Senate for most of that period. But the Republicans' margins have never been large, and their narrow majorities reflected less a major shift in the nation's philosophical orientation than a rationalization of American politics as southern conservatives moved into the gop's ranks. From 1942 to 1994, Congress was, more often than not, under effective conservative control because of the informal coalition that developed between Republicans and southern Democrats. Bold liberal or reforming Congresses (such as those elected in 1964 and 1974) were the exception.

Given this conservative backdrop, the real political miracle is that in the 26 years since Ronald Reagan's first victory, Republicans have never achieved their goal of creating a durable majority coalition comparable in power to the New Deal alignment. Whenever the country seemed ready to make a decisive move right, it pulled back -- which it may well do again in November's elections.

This points to a truth different from the one typically diagnosed by the Democratic pathologists: Neither of America's two major parties is backed by a stable coalition. Both Republicans and Democrats need substantial support from moderates and independents to win. True, self-described conservatives outnumber liberals by a margin of roughly 3 to 2, an advantage for the Republicans. But as Waldman points out -- Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson also made this case in their essential book, Off Center, being issued this fall with a new afterword -- the electorate is actually closer to Democrats' positions on many of the central issues, a fact brought home by the failure of President Bush's campaign to privatize part of Social Security.

Hacker and Pierson's insight is that Republicans have managed to govern from a place well to the right of America's political center. But they may well pay the price for that approach this fall. Moderate voters, including Republicans, will put up with a right-wing party for only so long. The shift of the South to the party of Lincoln is likely to be answered this year by the shift of Republican seats in moderate northern districts to the Democrats.

That raises the interesting issue at the heart of Thomas F. Schaller's timely book, Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. Given how strongly entrenched Republicans have become in the Deep South, shouldn't Democrats expand the political playing field elsewhere?

Democrats will keep losing, Schaller writes, if they “continue to think retrospectively” about their old days of glory in the South. “That would be a tragedy and a shame,” he says, “for there is a future Democratic majority right in front of their eyes if they are only willing to let go of the past to see and seize it.”

Schaller and his fellow advocates of a Rocky Mountain strategy are persuasive in seeing a large potential for swing in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Montana. Each of these states has voted Democratic for president at least once since 1992. While Democrats retain opportunities in some southern states -- Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana among them -- there can be no denying that the demographic transformation has opened large parts of the West to political change.

But if geopolitics is part of majority building, the current instability of voting alignments means that the key to victory in the short term lies in exploiting and aggravating divisions within the other party's potential majority. Please forgive that Machiavellian thought. It happens to be true, and in the last two presidential elections, Republicans have understood it better than Democrats and have accordingly pried votes away from Democratic constituencies.

One of the singular successes of Bush and Rove has been their targeting of moderate-to-conservative Catholics. As William Galston and Elaine Kamarck point out in their paper, “The Politics of Polarization,” Catholic voters gave Bill Clinton a 16-point advantage in 1996 -- and Bush a 5-point advantage in 2004. This remarkable shift was key to Bush's 2004 popular vote victory, and to his success in Ohio and, probably, in Iowa.

We are talking here about swing Catholics, not reliably Republican activists in the right-to-life movement. Such voters may have liked the sound of “compassionate conservatism” and were influenced by the national-security issue, which also pushed down the 2004 Democratic vote among women. Republicans have used religion, fear of terrorism, uneasiness about gay marriage, and Bush's projection of a down-to-earth personality to hive off what might otherwise be Democratic votes.

But deep tensions and contradictions in the Republican coalition have come to the fore in Bush's second term. Republican rank-and-filers are genuinely alarmed that the words their leaders speak about fiscal discipline are belied by their deeds. The 2004 intervention of the federal Republicans in the Terri Schiavo case turned off conservatives as well as moderates. The immigration issue divides business-oriented Republicans from those who fear the influx of newcomers. Latinos, among whom Bush posted substantial gains, have recoiled from the approach of House Republicans to the immigration question. Quietly, many Republicans -- believers more in foreign-policy realism than in democratic crusades backed by too few troops -- are pulling back from Bush's Iraq policies. And deteriorating wages have many middle-income social conservatives wondering whether their interests lie with a coalition so heavily dependent upon corporate money.

In George W. Bush's final years in office, it is the center-right, not the center-left, that is shattering to pieces.

* * *

But what will Democrats and the center-left make of this opportunity? Politics is about tactics, strategy, and high purposes. On the first two, the Bush Republicans have -- until recently -- been the more competent party.

For one thing, Republicans actually behave as a party. Republican interest groups show genuine solidarity and are disciplined enough to compromise with each other over what the party's priorities should be at any given time. Many progressives feel no sense of solidarity with the Democratic Party -- which is why Ralph Nader got enough votes to force the 2000 election to the Supreme Court. The Democrats' “cacophonous jumble of narrowly focused interests,” as Waldman calls them, typically places their particular goals far above the shared interests of the coalition of which they're part.

Because they have raised scads of cash and spent it wisely, Republicans have also invested heavily in the best technology money can buy. Applebee's America, the new book by Democrat Douglas Sosnik, Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, and Associated Press writer Ron Fournier, is worth reading for its look at how politicians, businesses, and preachers find votes, consumer dollars, and followers by paying attention to the values of their target audiences and the widespread desire within them for a sense of community. (The book's title is drawn from the name of the highly successful chain that quite brilliantly touts each of its restaurants as a “neighborhood grill and bar.”)

The book is especially valuable for what it teaches us about the Bush campaign's use of consumer data to segment the electorate into tiny pieces. The sense of this book -- and I suspect it's right -- is that Democrats are running behind Republicans in figuring out exactly who is out there, who will vote, and what “values” will move whom.

“The choices people make about politics, consumer goods and religion,” Sosnik, Dowd, and Fournier write, “are driven by emotions rather than by intellect.” This is less than 100 percent true, and it's not an altogether new idea, but it's worth pondering. The point should be to ally emotion and reason.

That is why policy matters a lot, but in a more complicated way than the “wonks” Emanuel and Reed write about with both respect and humor usually understand. The broad signals sent to voters by policy choices can be as important as the raw details. The Plan's plausible, middle-ground policies -- in such areas as progressive tax reform, citizen service, universal retirement savings, children's health care, alternative energy, and a modest shot at an alternative approach to the war on terrorism -- are not revolutionary. They will not transform the world. But they would likely make the United States a bit fairer, and no progressive would lose an election because of them. That is their point, given that they come from, respectively, a congressman overseeing the task of electing a Democratic House majority and the president of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Some on the left will be disappointed because these ideas do not represent a frontal assault on globalization, NAFTA, and the growing inequalities that are a central and deeply disturbing part of American life. What's interesting is that Emanuel and Reed's analysis is more radical than their solutions. “The economic compact we grew up with is largely gone,” they write. “The American family has been through decades of turmoil. Forced to work more, parents spend less time with their children and more time worrying about them. We are endlessly torn between community and convenience: a famously gregarious nation of people at risk of turning into iPods passing in the night.”

As this magazine's Harold Meyerson has often pointed out, center-left parties everywhere are fully aware of the crisis created by globalization and yet, when they're honest, admit to lacking a fully developed response to the problem. There is a lot of serious work to be done to replace a broken social contract and also to dig the country out from under a foreign policy that has diminished our influence and reduced our ability to combat terror. The answers will have to be more daring than the ones Emanuel and Reed are willing to put forth on the eve of an election.

But center-left parties such as the Democrats have the advantage of acknowledging the tribulations created by the new inequalities. They should understand that what passes for a culture war reflects complicated but rational anxieties rooted in both cultural and economic change. The greatest gap in the Democratic “narrative” is a plausible account of how moral and economic concerns interact. That's the real “values” nexus.

Voters get a sense of what parties and politicians care about more by noticing the issues they choose to highlight than by studying 10-point plans. The center-left has some believable proposals that address problems voters themselves sense as real and that would make life not perfect, but better and fairer. The people down at the neighborhood Applebee's don't ask for a lot more, but they don't expect less, and they'd like to know that politicians asking for their votes are paying respectful attention to who they are, what they say, and what they value.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University. His books include Why Americans Hate Politics and Stand Up Fight Back.

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