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