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Democrats’ quest for the ‘big idea’

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

(Page 3 of 3)



On the domestic front, today’s social safety net in many ways corresponds to a world that no longer exists – when most women stayed home with their children and workers stuck with the same company throughout their careers.

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One essay published in Democracy, “Families Valued,” which proposes a new social insurance system for families in times of need, was touted by conservative columnist David Brooks as one of the best magazine essays of 2006. More recent pieces explore “Pentagon 2.0,” “A Helsinki Process for the Middle East,” and “Wiki-Government.”

For years, Democrats have bemoaned their paucity of bottom-up infrastructure – think tanks, magazines, and broadcast media – that’s analogous to the infrastructure the Republicans began to build decades ago. Now that is changing. After Clinton left office, former Chief of Staff John Podesta started a think tank, the Center for American Progress, which is now a hub of Democratic thought and activity.

The centrist Democratic Leadership Council, down from its heyday of the Clinton years, is nevertheless still in the hunt. The group just released a collection of proposals for the next president in “Ideas Primary,” many under the signatures of top elected officials.

In media, MSNBC-TV has boosted its lineup of liberal talk in the evening to counter the conservative Fox. Liberals still don’t have an answer to Rush Limbaugh on radio, but on the Web, the left dominates, though the right is rising.

To Robert Borosage, head of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, it’s about countering the conservative echo chamber. “Having an infrastructure independent of the party arms the activists,” Mr. Borosage says. “When they’re at their neighborhood barbecue, they’ll have answers when someone claims that, say, Obama is Muslim.”

Nailing down Obama’s exact views on key topics, however, may be more complicated. His love of nuance on issues like trade has kept even the congressional Democratic Caucus guessing. But come November, that may not matter, says Bill Galston, another Clinton alum and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“If you ask what’s distinctive about Obama, I would say it has much more to do with leadership style and generational appeal than it does with a clear departure either doctrinally or programmatically,” Mr. Galston says.

Mr. Dallek, the historian, agrees. He says Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t clear about what he meant by “a new deal” when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1932. His opponent, President Hoover, found Roosevelt so hard to pin down he called him “a chameleon on plaid.”

With presidents, there’s a powerful impulse to get things done, Dallek says, which is why they should avoid pledges like “read my lips, no new taxes.”

“It’s hard to know what [new presidents] are going to do, exactly,” he says. “I don’t think they know.”

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