MINNEAPOLIS — The scent of political change is in the air. There appears to be a grinding political shift afoot in America, fueled by dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and the exploding budget deficit. It's been made more tangible by last week's Democratic primary defeat of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman by Ned Lamont.
But amid the sense that November will bring a fresh start, there's been a great deal of clamor – coming from pundits on the right, left, and what remains of the center – about the need for Democrats to come up with "a plan."
Just ask Rep. Rahm Emanuel, (D) of Illinois, and head of the Democratic Leadership Council Bruce Reed. They've titled their new book "The Plan: Big Ideas for America," and suggest, in their introduction, that it contains "a new social contract for the 21st century and a new patriotism and responsibility to make it happen."
The underlying assumption: Democrats really need a new social contract for the 21st century.
The secondary underlying assumption: Something was wrong with the old one.
But the problem isn't that mainstream Democratic ideas – such as maintaining a system of progressive taxation; federal regulation of food, drugs, and the environment; nationalized Social Security; a multilateral, pragmatic foreign policy – have been discredited. It's that Democrats, lacking control of the White House and Congress, therefore lack a national leader. And without a national leader, it's far more difficult for Democrats to whip their own members into shape with political carrots and sticks, and to speak with a unified national voice.
The result is that every individual member is free to zig or zag on almost any issue, presenting the appearance of a party in disarray. For example: Colorado's Democratic senator, Ken Salazar, is supporting Senator Lieberman's independent bid for reelection at the expense of his own party's official nominee. His Republican equivalent would be (rightfully) drummed out of the GOP overnight.
Democratic "weakness" isn't a lack of strong ideas; it's a pure lack of political discipline, a weakness magnified by the efficient internal discipline of the Bush-Cheney-Rove machine.
Voters don't need a fancy new plan to be convinced to move back toward the Democratic status quo, despite what right-wing pundits have said about a hunger for some grand vision. It was, after all, a grand vision for democracy in the Middle East that popped the top off Pandora's box. And a grand vision for "reforming" Social Security turned out to be the least popular thing since New Coke.
The Democratic plan, therefore, doesn't need to be discovered, or forged by a team of visionaries. It's already out there. It's the return of good – or at the very least, harmlessly gridlocked – government. That means regulatory agencies headed by experts (not former lobbyists) and old-fashioned checking and balancing.
It's the return of taxes being pushed in a progressive direction – with the megawealthy, who have gained the most from America's infrastructure and its well- educated, healthy workforce, contributing the most per dollar earned to maintain the public good.
It's a restoration of the separation of church and state, which history has shown is supremely healthy for both.
It's coming back to the idea that America respects the idea of national self- determination, which means that American troops don't belong anywhere they are unwelcome occupiers – such as the Shiite and Sunni areas of Iraq.
It's also a return to the idea of a common American natural heritage, which demands a restoration of the protection of land and species made vulnerable to developers by the GOP.
It's a return to the idea that human rights and civil rights trump convenience – if you need to torture, hold someone for years without trial, or restrict basic freedoms in order to get something done, you just have to find another way to do it.
And finally – and here's something traditional conservatives can rally behind, as well – it's a move back toward a government that governs less and governs better. That may mean the end of exhaustive government spying programs, but so be it.
That's the revolution Democrats should be promising voters in November – a return to an era where problems were manageable, and an accountable government was working to solve them. Once we've gotten back to those halcyon days, Democrats and Republicans can both sit down and come up with a new plan to figure out where to go next.
• James Norton is a former editor at the Monitor and the author of "Saving General Washington: The Right Wing Assault on America's Founding Principles."