Democrats’ quest for the ‘big idea’

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

Bill Ross/AP
In Denver: As the Democratic National Convention begins, the party is bursting with optimism. But larger questions remain about the party’s vision.

Washington – As the 2008 Democratic National Convention kicks off in Denver, the party is bursting with optimism and a sense of possibility.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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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