Democrats’ quest for the ‘big idea’
The party is full of optimism but is still refining its vision.
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Come the Nov. 4 election, Democrats are likely to build on their slim majorities in both houses of Congress, and their new standard-bearer, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, has a serious chance of retaking the White House for his party after eight years in the wilderness. On most issues, from the economy and the Iraq war to healthcare and education, a majority of voters say they favor Democratic positions over Republican.
But what is the “big idea” animating the party and fixing a 21st-century Democratic brand in the minds of voters? From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to the conservative Reagan revolution to Bill Clinton’s New Democrat centrism, American presidents have sought to put an ideological stamp on their era and convey to voters boldness and vision.
So far, Senator Obama has risen from long-shot candidate to presumptive nominee on a message of hope and change, and while his campaign is awash in policy proposals, his program defies easy characterization. Still, Obama may well win the presidency simply by not being the Republican, as the GOP struggles against an image in shambles.
Two years ago, the Democrats retook control of Congress without the benefit of a Contract With America-type manifesto, and they could succeed again this November on the strength of the same larger atmospherics – a deeply unpopular Republican president, economic woes, and war weariness.
For now, the Democrats’ governing philosophy is “to be announced,” says Byron Shafer, political-science chair at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Obama is “relatively careful to make sure you understand that he’s not a quote unquote New Democrat, but he also makes clear he’s not an old Democrat.”
The Republicans’ task of reimagining the future is clearer cut: The party is in crisis and is anxiously debating what to do. The Democrats have also moved away from their old models, but their rosier prospects this fall make for less urgency about the future.
If Obama loses in November, that will all change. The Democrats will have their own crisis, as they try to fathom how they could have failed in such a favorable political environment.
If Obama wins, Washington will become a one-party town again, and all eyes will be on the Democrats to produce. Given what happened the last time the Democrats controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue – their congressional majorities were swept out of power, just two years into Mr. Clinton’s presidency – an Obama administration is expected to do all it can to prevent a repeat.