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Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2005 / 6 Adar I, 5765

Michael Long

Mike Long
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Wanted: A Set of Guiding Principles for Modern Liberalism | What's the cure for Democratic losing?

As Howard Dean assumes the position (if not the work) of party chairman, Democrats struggle to figure out how to start winning elections again. Sen. Hillary Clinton says that when it comes to abortion, it's a problem with language and public relations. Sen. Joseph Lieberman says the party needs to turn more hawkish on foreign policy. Chairman Dean says the party could win if only it handed the reins to the anti-war faction (though who knows if he will continue to say that as chairman.)

So, which is it? A. Marketing; B. Issues; or C. Both.

It's D. None of the above.

Since the mid-1980s, Democrats have been on the defensive, and it's caused them to ignore the forest for the trees. Frustrated by their inability to trump successful conservative policy initiatives, they have spent twenty years nay-saying what they don't like, promoting a patchwork of unrelated programs and, in the process, forgetting that successful programs flow from guiding principles.

This has been the case for so long that many liberals under the age of 45 have no memory of a vigorous and articulated set of positive ideas that define both their personal beliefs and those of their fellows across the nation.

How did they fight Reagan? It wasn't with a competing agenda. They ridiculed him as a doddering fool. How did Clinton succeed? By moving from minor issue to minor issue to keep disparate interests in the fold, and by co-opting conservative ideas such as welfare reform and deficit reduction (which is no longer much of a Republican priority). What was the basis of John Kerry's candidacy? He wasn't President Bush.

For better or worse, most of the big policy ideas since 1980 have been driven by Republican conservatives: Star Wars defense. Tax cuts as a boon to the economy. The export of democracy. Completing the defeat of communism.

What the Democrats need now is not a great leader or a single great policy but a few intellectuals who think big, who know the history of their movement, and who can define liberalism in positive terms— as something other than being opposed to President Bush.

We Republicans tried the all-hate-all-the-time strategy with Clinton in the 1990s. It didn't work.

These big thinkers that the Democrats need just now must recall, polish and elevate the animating principles that inspire the entire range of liberal causes.

What will be this unifying notion for the 21st century? I don't know. Most Democrats and liberals don't seem to know yet, either. They're too busy buying "Not My President" bumper stickers, reading websites that compare George Bush to a chimp, and bellyaching how their moral superiority goes unrecognized.

Love it or hate it, most of what conservatives and Republicans do flows from a few simple ideas: The individual is entitled to run his own life, for better or worse. Life is sacred. Justice begets order. And liberty, not the quick satisfaction of need, is the antidote to the twin plagues of tyranny and terror. What are the guiding principles for modern liberalism? Until most liberals have a set of statements like that from which to reason, the losing will continue.

If any liberal intellectuals choose to pick up this gauntlet, I have a suggestion on where to begin: idealism, consistent and clear. The party of religious tolerance shows a lot more interest in nuns who chain themselves to missile silos than farmers who go to the local Baptist church every time the door is open and try to live by what they hear there.

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The party of human rights can't lecture about the lessons of Rwanda and Serbia one day and call the liberation of Iraq folly the next, or continue to make excuses for that murderer Castro.

And the anti-war party is going to have to decide whether the insurgents in Iraq are saviors who just happen to integrate church with state and oppress women, or if they are unacceptable, anti-democratic thugs.

This problem for Democrats affects us all. A nation as influential and diverse as ours requires a vital and informed debate between opposing points of view. Democrats of the last two decades have withered into a fractious pile of special and competing interests guided by no fundamental forces greater than their own individual goals. The results are threefold: a liberal agenda gone MIA; a Republican Party gone fat and lazy on defining ideas such as deficit reduction and big government; and political discourse that rewards name-calling more than thinking.

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JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


02/04/05: Nancy Pelosi, Partisan Hack
01/21/05: Busybody
01/14/05: Washington Will Never Understand Religious Faith
01/05/05: Top cultural events and trends predictions for 2005   —   based on more than wishful thinking
12/30/04: Iraq: Where We Stand
08/05/03: The California Virus
07/24/03: A Few Thoughts on the News
07/10/03: How To Win By Losing: It's much smarter to let this one go
06/20/03: Dems turn a sensible question into pure politics
03/19/03: Another thing for Bill Clinton to Zip Up: his time, it's his mouth
02/25/03: The Cradle of Civilization, Again
01/31/03: Silencing opponents because you can
01/28/03: You can't always eat what you want ... But you still can, for a while 01/10/03: What They Believe For The Moment
12/06/02: Federal Spending: Look At It This Way And weep
11/15/02: On the radio: What really happens behind the scenes at talk shows
11/08/02: Coming Soon: 1972
10/31/02: The Election Goes Republican: Election 2002 finds Democrats alienating nearly everyone
10/22/02: What if we never catch the terrorist-sniper?
10/04/02: A Few Thoughts On The News
09/27/02: Goodbye To All That: The terrible, wide war that must be fought
09/20/02: The Florida Lesson: We need better voters, not better machines
09/13/02: A few thoughts on the news
09/06/02: Give Them What They Want
08/13/02: The Dangerous Lull on Iraq ... And how today's delay proves why 9/11 had to happen
07/26/02: Where's Honest Debate on Judge Owen?: NOW members should demand better of President Kim Gandy
07/19/02: A Secret No One Can Keep: Why Osama bin Laden is still alive
07/09/02: Don't forget why Bush was elected
06/28/02: The bravest pop culture icon in the war on terror
06/14/02: Five Thoughts On Father's Day: Personal Stuff
06/06/02: Stay Awake, Grads, I'm Almost Done Talking: Life, and How to Live It
05/31/02: See This Movie: "The Sum of All Fears" is a wake-up call
05/24/02: Richard Simmons for President? What really motivates the fat-taxers
05/13/02: The Carnival at the FAIR: "Unbiased" acquires a new definition
04/22/02: Bottled And Sold: Economic Confidence Under a Screw-top
04/12/02: McGovern's Respectful Dissent
04/02/02: The Right to Do Wrong: The Creator, A Clockwork Orange, and war
03/26/02: The Big Story No One Talks About: Why isn't Washington serious about airport security?
03/18/02: Worlds Away: A snapshot of anti-Semitism in the Moslem world
03/08/02: The safest place in the world --- for now
03/05/02: Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others
02/22/02: And Then What?: Fear and Loathing Around the Corner
02/15/02: Al Gore and the real root cause of terrorism
02/08/02: A few thoughts on the news
02/01/02: Ready, Aim, Cloud The Issue: An irresponsible report on "terrorism" from the Brady Center
01/28/02: Discretion and Art, Part 2
01/16/02: Discretion and Art
01/08/02: Desperate Dems
12/18/01: Politics and Holidays
12/07/01: A war bigger than we know: Changing the future, slowly and surely
11/28/01: A Mid-Winter Night's Dream: A play in one fun act
11/20/01: A Lot of War Left To Fight
11/13/01: Guess who Clinton's apologizing for now: I'll bet you guessed right
11/02/01: Rules for Wartime: Rule Number One: Remember what's true
10/26/01: The Moral Case For Torture: Dirty hands don't always mean dirty souls
10/19/01: Questions for the Anti-War Crowd, Part II: What if someone took them seriously?
10/16/01: Questions for the anti-war crowd: If they question you, ask these back
10/12/01: The Jason Problem: Sometimes they only look dead
10/08/01: A little hindsight: A letter for readers in the future
09/28/01: Calling Bono: A plea to the pop culture elite to speak out
09/20/01: Encouragement from the Heartland, by mail
09/13/01: Bleeding time
09/07/01: The trailer-park taste of the public radio catalog
09/04/01: BRAVE NEW FREUD: Internet-based psychiatry may mean relief for those who have shunned treatment
08/17/01: First Amendment: Chickens home to roost
07/27/01: Dispatch From The Front: The Gun Control War
07/20/01: Summer song
07/03/01: It's a Wonderful Recount

© 2004, Michael Long