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On the Importance of !&*@# Ideas

(Parental advisory: in an effort to boost readership and move my blogging in a decidedly macho direction after references to Sex and the City and frappuchinos, I have included profanity in the following post. Viewer discretion is advised.)

I’ve thought Jonathan Chait’s claim that ideas are overrated was flawed since he first made it last year [subscr. only]. With the publication of Strategist contributors Ken Baer and Andrei Cherny’s Democracy, Chait has offered an updated version of this argument, here and here. Essentially, he thinks that conservatism lends itself to big ideas and bumper-sticker slogans in a way that progressivism does not:

Conservatives venerate the free market and see smaller government as an end in itself. Liberals do not venerate government in the same way, and we do not see larger government as an end in and of itself. For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody's education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody's blue jeans? No. And so on.

[snip] Everybody knows what [Republicans] stand for. They're for lower taxes, strong defense and less spending — even if they habitually fail at the spending part and have royally screwed up the defense portion of late.

But nobody knows what Democrats stand for because you cannot, and should not, formulate sweeping dogmas when you're operating on a case-by-case basis.

Of course we don’t view big government as an end in itself, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no end around which we can’t organize the Party. Chait’s example of Clintonomics is instuctive:

Consider the Clinton administration. What did it stand for on, say, economic policy? Well, progressive taxation, reducing the deficit (but not at the expense of Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment), expanding health coverage, investing in technology, and … you see? We're long past the point where it can be described by a single overarching theory, and I haven't even gotten to the scintillating proposals for sequestering the Social Security-related budget surplus.

With all due respect, whatchutalkinbout, Willis? How about this for a “single overarching theory”: equal opportunity and security. We don’t value progressive taxation except to the extent that it helps us create more opportunity for the disadvantaged. Reducing the deficit is important to the extent that it increases economic growth (promoting opportunity in this generation) or reduces the share of future budgets that go toward interest payments on the debt (promoting opportunity in future generations). Health coverage – including Medicare and Medicaid – reduces insecurity. Education and technology investment promote opportunity. Environmental protection is vital for the opportunity and security of future Americans. “Saving Social Security First” was a brilliant tactical gambit by Clinton to simultaneously pay down the debt, preempt opportunity-limiting Republican tax cuts, and (debatably) shore up Social Security for future generations.

Chait notes that Clinton switched from an economic plan centered on investing in human capital and middle-class tax cuts to one focused on deficit reduction at the beginning of his first term. But this decision was made because Clinton ultimately decided that placating “a bunch of fucking bond traders”, in the memorable phrase attributed to him by Bob Woodward, would be more successful in growing the economy than the policies he campaigned on. That is, it was the best way to expand opportunities and increase security.

And opportunity and security can serve as the basis for governing in other policy realms. In foreign policy, progressives seek to ensure national security (there’s that word again), promote domestic economic strength (opportunity), and promote opportunities elsewhere through development. On “values issues”, progressives believe that gays and lesbians should have the opportunity to marry the one they love, that women should have the opportunity to control whether a pregnancy will alter their life plans, and that all Americans should have the opportunity to practice their chosen faith – or none at all – secure in the knowledge that the state will not discriminate against it.

I have more to say about the strategic importance of ideas, but I’ll save that for tomorrow. The point for now is that, contra Chait (and Yglesias), Democrats can succinctly state their governing philosophy clearly and concisely in a bumper-sticker phrase. And there is great strategic value to doing so. Policies can then be formulated to hang on the ends that we value and thereby create a coherent approach to governing.

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Chait is correct when he states that "Everybody knows what [Republicans] stand for. They're for lower taxes, strong defense and less spending..." But then he goes on to admit that they've failed at the defense & spending parts. And if our deficits continue to mount, they will likely have to go back on the "lower taxes" part too. So its not really clear what the Repubs stand for anymore...other than god, guns, gay-bashing, anti-abortion, and stopping the great national threat of flag-burning. If Dems want to successful win votes away from the Repubs, they need to bring these clear contradictions out in greater relief & attack the traditional image of Republicans stated by Chait.

As for defense...Mark Shields & David Brooks both noted last night that liberals turned out to be quite correct in their analysis & opposition to the Vietnam War. However this did not translate into political support. And they have since been identified with weakness on security.

If Dems want to win, they probably need do the opposite. They need to create a sense that Repubs are creating *insecurity* at home & abroad: economic, personal, etc.


A good example to illustrate Scott's point is the "agenda" developed last fall by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, titled "The Progressive Promise: Fairness for All."

This framing of a progressive agenda is so much clearer and more evocative than the Democratic Party's recently posted "New Direction" agenda, which has earned many yawns...

The central argument of this post -- that ideas do, in fact, matter -- is right. But this post once again highlights the immense challenge facing progressives. Namely, Scott calls for "equal opportunity" and "security" to be our organizing ideas. This is not dissimilar to the Tomasky's call for "common good" to serve as our message anchor. But here's the problem: compare these terms with "lower taxes" "smaller gov't" "bigger national defense." Notice the difference? On our side we have general aspirations. On their side they have specific, concrete, tangible actions. Who isn't for equal opportunity? Who isn't for the common good? They are inspiring words, but when left unattached to specific policy ideas they are easily hijacked by anyone.

I don't have any easy solutions to this conundrum. But i feel certain as we head into this election cycle that the Democratic Party is about to receive another whipping by mediocre Republican candidates running canned ads accusing Dems of being for tax hikes and cutting and running on national defense. And once again, our candidates will find they have no choice but to responsd. Until the day comes that we accused Republicans of being against a policy idea that we support and they are against that isn't related to defense of a New Deal era entitlement program or the minimum wage we are not going to return to majority status.

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