Tuesday, May 27, 2003

To the Democratic Party, I say, look in the mirror: Do you see Robert Taft, Wendel Wilkie or Ronald Reagan? The Democratic Party is at a crossroads, similar to where the Republican Party found itself in 1940: Increasingly ineffective as a reactionary, old guard opposition party; flirting with mimicking successful governing party positions; and unconscious of the possibility of applying its abiding principles to the changing world of the near future.

In 1940, after eight years of reactionary opposition to FDR’s New Deal and internationalism, the GOP rejected the old guard presidential nomination candidacies of Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, and nominated Wendel Wilkie — the recently former Democrat who endorsed FDR’s internationalism, while criticizing his Tennessee Valley Authority domestic radicalism.

For the next 40 years, the Republican Party nominated presidential candidates who endorsed most of the liberal FDR programs and agenda (with the exception of 1964, when they nominated Barry Goldwater), but said they could manage it better and a little cheaper. When the Democrats stumbled (Harry Truman in Korea, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam), the Republicans would pick up the White House — but they remained in Congress and in the hearts of the public — the minority party, until 1980. And even then, it took another 14 years before they took back the House of Representatives. Me-tooism, as those 40 years came to be known, permitted Republicans in safe House, Senate and state seats to hold on to their offices — but at the cost of ever winning the nation’s mind and heart to Republican principles.

Today, the Democrats face the same dilemma. The Republicans have convinced a majority of the public that their central domestic policy (low taxes, free markets, self-reliance and traditional values), and their central foreign policy (security through military strength and aggressive strategy and tactics) is right for the times. The Democratic Party — in its collective heart and mind — opposes such programs and values, but can’t find plausible alternative strategies. So, they support the war on terror, sort of, but gripe about its execution. They oppose tax cuts to stimulate a sagging economy, but can only propose smaller tax cuts as their cure.

Democratic presidential primary activists and voters seem fairly evenly split between those who thirst after one last swig from the bottle of reactionary old-time liberalism (Sens. Kerry, Gephardt and Gov. Dean), and those (such as Sens. Lieberman, Graham and Edwards) who think they can run Republican policies better than Republicans. In other words, either Robert Taft or Wendel Wilkie. Neither path is a formula for a sustainable Democratic majority in the country. Of course, if things turn drastically wrong for President Bush in the next year (as it did for Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968), any Democrat might be able to win. But at some point, the Democrats are likely to follow the Reagan path to a new majority.

Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich (with an assist from William F. Buckley Jr.) in their turns, led the long march of conservatism from its reactionary to its modern condition — they made their policies, programs and rhetoric relevant to a new age. President George W. Bush seems to be solidifying those gains in an age of terrorism and uncertain world economics, much as FDR solidified liberalism’s gains in an age of depression and war.

There is as much a future for a fresh, modern liberalism today as there was for a new conservatism in 1940 or 1964. There is no permanent party dominance in American politics. For instance, a major new poll by the American Enterprise Institute shows that the younger generations “trust the government, and especially the U.S. military, more deeply than their baby boom parents ever have. This is a generation that knows nations really matter. They trust government. They are also steeped in the values of cooperation, teamwork and service … all these things argue in favor of trust, or support, of the military.”

Those attitudes clearly favor the Republicans right now. But a patriotic, muscular liberalism or collectivism might well tap into those sentiments to build a majority for new big liberal programs in the future. After all, as Americans developed a trust in government during the hardships of the Depression and WWII, they also came to trust big liberal social programs.

But before the Democrats can begin to prepare to offer Americans a new liberalism, they must be prepared for a long, sacrificial march. And as the New York Times’ Adam Clymer wrote on Monday: “Democrats are composed of an awkward coalition whose clan chiefs have not yet gotten over the idea that power is the Democrats’ entitlement and who therefore have not yet learned to sacrifice for the greater good.” As a conservative, I am delighted to see Democratic power-lust forestall the beginning of their march back to relevance. But ultimately, our country is better off with two healthy parties offering strong alternative, patriotic visions.

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