- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

For the past several months, I and many other political commentators have been speaking of the “lack of new ideas” of the Democrats in their confrontation with President Bush and the Republican Party. The inevitable conclusion most readers might draw from the phrase of a “lack of ideas” is an absence of specific proposals such as viable Social Security reform, new education policies, a breakthrough in health-care delivery, and so forth, as if such specifics could alone solve the Democrats’ chronic political problems. There is a reason why nearly everything the Democrats talk about sounds stale, pompously rhetorical and unappealing to most voters other than their relatively small party base.

This is the compulsive Democratic habit to hold on to the assumptions and language of their past. When Democrats attack “big business,” and the “interests of the rich,” they are merely repeating for the zillionth time a verbal formula that was successfully employed in the 1930s, and last worked effectively in the 1964 presidential election.

When Democrats attack free-trade policies, they assume that employed voters are still the monolith they were up to the 1970s. When Democrats attack tax cuts, they ignore the clear lessons of recent history, beginning with their own icon, President Kennedy (whose tax cuts brought the nation out of recession in 1962). When Democrats propose vast new health-care spending programs, they forget the budget balancing of their last successful president, Bill Clinton, who produced surpluses and reduced the national debt.

In short, the Democrats cannot produce “new ideas” from political content that precludes innovation and problem-solving.

As always, there are exceptions that show a way out of this dilemma. Centrist Democrats, heirs of Mr. Clinton’s economic policies, do exist, and express an alternative domestic policy that has huge potential appeal to American voters, particularly independent voters who belong to no party. The administration of Mr. Bush has been “conservative” only in part. Since 2001, the United States has gone from deficit to greater deficit. Not only war spending but domestic spending as well has been unchecked while Republicans controlled not only the White House, but both houses of Congress and a majority of state governments as well.

The Democratic response has appeared to be their attempt to outbid the Republicans in spending. Often Democratic leaders employ the rhetoric of economic restraint, but inevitably their proposals amount to even greater spending and greater deficits. When reform proposals in Social Security, education and health care are made by the Republicans, Democrats scream “privatization” and return to their decades of interest-group politics. In foreign policy, Democrats often confuse natural public impatience in the war in Iraq with voters’ deepest-held beliefs about national security and foreign policy and also with the nation’s most vital national interests.

To their credit, some Democratic senators and other party leaders — e.g., Sens. Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and Gov. Mark Warner — have not made this mistake, and have tried often to give American foreign policy the bipartisan attention it critically deserves. New Democratic faces, such as Sens. Barack Obama and Tom Carper, do challenge party orthodoxies.

But the Democratic Party’s leading spokespersons — including Chairman Howard Dean, congressional leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and perennial leftists such as Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer and Tom Harkin — drown out those in the liberal center. Leftist and isolationist commentators who threaten to walk out of the party if their radical agenda is not adopted are also part of the problem.

Mr. Bush has made one public-relations blunder after another since he began his first term. His poll numbers are very low. He has been unable to successfully launch his second-term agenda. Confidence in the members of his administration and staff is ambivalent at best. This should mean a huge victory for the Democrats in the mid-term elections, and the likely return of the Democratic Party to power in 2008. But this is not yet (nor seemingly likely) the case.

I suggest that the price of victory for the Democratic Party is no less than its self-transformation into a party that makes sense to a majority of voters in a new political era. Mere techniques of raising money via the Internet or grass-roots organizing of the party base is not going to do the job. The isolationist, anti-business, politically correct, left-liberal base of the party can only deliver one more national political defeat in 2008.

Self-transformation cannot happen without pain. The Democratic Party’s principles of compassion, human-rights advocacy, fairness and historic problem-solving need not be compromised. But its outdated rhetorical habits, interest-group self-indulgences and a newly acquired isolationism will have to be abandoned.

If this self-transformation does not happen, and happen soon, we will see the return of populist independent movements and candidates in the years ahead, and that does not bode well at all for the Democratic Party.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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