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Democrats’ quest for the ‘big idea’

The party is full of optimism but is still refining its vision.

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“You’re going to see greater federal activism, because there will be the expectation that he reacts to the country’s problems and finds answers to them,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek. “If he doesn’t, the Democrats will be out on their ear from Congress.”

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In a way, though, that approach may clash with another piece of what Obama has promised as president: a “bottom up” approach. Like the community organizer he once was, he plans to tap into the energy and ideas of those he serves, rather than command from on high, he says. Although Obama has presented myriad policy proposals on the main issues of the day – withdraw from Iraq in 16 months, a plan for near-universal health coverage, job creation through investment in clean energy, to name a few – his interest in getting things done may preclude adhering to an ideological line.

And thus, it may be that Obama is being intentionally vague about his approach, other than to call it “post-partisan.” But at least one veteran Democrat questions whether he can reach the Oval Office without giving voters more to go on.

“During the course of the campaign and debates, what people have to find out is, where’s his bottom line?” says Leon Panetta, a retired congressman and Clinton administration alum. “Obama’s all about change and compromise, but … in Washington, the first lesson you learn is you can only compromise from strength. Strength means that people know what you stand for. That’s what he has to define, before the Republicans do.”

Voters yawn when they hear a long list of proposals, and the public pays little or no attention to the party platform. So Obama and the Democrats have to get specific, Mr. Panetta says: “What are the four or five goals that they plan to accomplish?”

In a broad sense, the Democrats are still Democrats, sticking to their belief in government as a force for good, a provider of a hand up if not a hand out for those in need, and a willingness to raise taxes on the better-off to pay for services. But near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the world is a markedly different place from what it was even 20 years ago, when New Democrat centrism came to define the party.

In an obscure office at 21st and L Streets in downtown Washington, the Democratic Party is being reimagined.
The occupant of that office, Ken Baer, and his friend Andrei Cherny, cofounder of the journal Democracy, don’t pretend to have all the answers. Rather, these former speechwriters for Al Gore believe that the future of the party rests in the power of ideas, not just in charismatic personalities or a piecemeal approach to governing. And so two summers ago, they started the magazine as a forum for ideas – much the way, they hope, William F. Buckley’s magazine National Review gave voice to the ideas that eventually became the backbone of the conservative movement.

“By and large, the conservatives shaped politics for a generation,” Mr. Baer says. “Now they’re out of answers. So there’s this ripe moment, and we need to fill that moment.”

Baer rejects the idea that “big ideas” don’t matter and that all Democrats need to do is be “smarter” about policy on a case-by-case basis. It is big ideas he says, that capture the imagination of voters and reset the political playing field.

What that vision should be is still a work in progress, Baer and other Democrats say. Economic globalization, which has advanced dramatically in the past 20 years, is a central issue. So is the US role in a multipolar post-9/11 world.