Saving the Liberals in 2000

A useful Bradley-Gore split in Democratic primaries

It was a rebound that Bill Bradley was bound to catch.

The former basketball star has won over many Democratic voters in the primaries who think Bill Clinton and Al Gore - the "New Democrats" who put the economy first during their White House years - missed their shot by not being "liberal" enough.

With the federal budget in surplus and the economy barreling along, "old" Democrats are asking why all this extra wealth can't be redistributed to take on new social causes and boost old ones.

They're particularly upset that the Clinton-Gore team wants to use the budget surplus to pay down the national debt by 2013 instead of "investing" that money to fix other national problems. And despite the dozens of new social programs that President Clinton offered in his State of the Union speech, most of them would be accomplished with tax breaks.

Mr. Bradley, in challenging Mr. Gore's liberal credentials and the White House claim that its policies have reduced unemployment, says the Democratic Party should be more than "a job placement bureau." He makes light of Gore's "tinker around the edges" approach to solving such social problems as poverty. Bradley compares himself to John McCain as being the true reformer of his party. The vice president has elbowed back at the "big ideas" of Bradley by claiming they are fiscally irresponsible.

Such sparring on the primary stump has reopened an old and useful question: What is a liberal?

Liberal is a loaded word in these post-Reagan days. This traditional label used by Democrats has given way to the less-pejorative tag of "progressive."

But in some quarters, it's alive and well. Some 20 percent of the electorate would probably willingly claim the "L" word. Fundamental liberal issues - combating poverty, civil rights, and protecting the environment, for example - still mobilize large numbers of voters. Politicians across the spectrum have to address most of these issues - as they should.

While the liberal agenda may still be with us, however, the way of addressing it has decidedly shifted, most notably within the party that has long championed these issues.

No one has had a larger part in that than Bill Clinton. He successfully campaigned in 1992 as a "New Democrat," taking the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson into the broad middle-ground of politics where budgets must be balanced and social programs must work.

His failed attempt in 1993 to implement comprehensive healthcare only reinforced the notion among New Democrats that the political forces were against big, national spending programs.

One of those new forces was a growing consensus that the federal government cannot always be the enabler of needed social change. Problems are often too complex, and Washington-directed solutions often too cumbersome. That helped lead to welfare reform being implemented largely by the states.

And after the recessions of the 1970s and early 1980s, economic policy now stresses fiscal restraint. Market forces are not seen as negative. There's a useful emphasis on local and community decisionmaking.

The Democratic coalitions of the 1960s that focused on civil rights and the environment have either largely succeeded or been set back by a conservative trend in the 1990s.

Even Mr. Bradley, often referred to as the more traditionally liberal of the Democratic hopefuls, suggests a fairly sweeping national healthcare plan that would nonetheless rely on using vouchers to allow people to purchase insurance on the market.

His "big idea" education plan would spend millions to create more charter schools - hardly the preferred approach of a stalwart liberal constituency, the teachers unions.

Mr. Gore, meanwhile, is careful to maintain the Clinton-Gore emphasis on fiscal responsibility. Both men, however, know that many of their party's primary voters have not taken the "New Democrat" road. These voters want someone who won't waffle on affirmative action, for instance. The Democratic candidates make that pledge, with some passion.

It's good that they do. The country needs a strong liberal tradition, with its commitment to social justice and concern for the poor, just as it needs to keep conservative principles clearly in view. The best government results from a thoughtful blending of these political currents.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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