The centrist Democratic Leadership Council meets this week in Columbus, Ohio, with Senator Hillary Clinton the newly named chair of their newly launched yearlong “American Dream Initiative.” Her mission: to come up with a new idea agenda for the Democrats. Recently our former national correspondent Rick Perlstein gave a speech to a group of powerful Democrats suggesting an agenda of his own based on his new book The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America’s Dominant Political Party. Here, with some identifying details changed, is what he told them.
The name of this panel is “Building a New Idea Infrastructure for Progressives.”
I was given the privilege of coming before you today, I suppose, because of my expertise on the history of the conservative idea infrastructure.
So it may come as a surprise to you that I’ve never been impressed by the argument that we need a new idea infrastructure. We’ve got more ideas than we need.
Sure, the right talks about “ideas” all the time. But they define it exactly opposite from us. For us it is a synonym for clever, complicated new policy options. For them, it’s Plato’s definition of Ideas: as unchanging essences. The stuff that builds foundations.
As usual, Ronald Reagan boiled it down to essentials. He liked to say—maybe he said it to some of you—”There are no easy answers. But there are simple answers.” I’m here to say he’s right. “Building a progressive idea structure” ain’t the problem. It’s recovering the progressive foundation. Do that, and we are unfuckwithable.
It’s simple. Barack Obama put it exquisitely in his victory speech: “Government can help provide us with the basic tools we need to live out the American dream.”
Here’s a dirty little secret. The Republicans know this. Nothing scares them more than us returning to our simple answers.
Here’s Bill Kristol, in a famous 1993 memo I’m sure you’re all familiar with: “Health care is not, in fact, just another Democratic initiative . . . the plan should not be amended; it should be erased. . . . It will revive the reputation of the . . . Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests.”
I’d say this memo is the skeleton key to understanding modern American politics, if it didn’t make me yawn. There’s nothing here that’s unfamiliar to historians who’ve read Republican secrets going back 25, 35, even 70 years. You can sum them up in 10 words: “If the Democrats succeed in redistributing economic power, we’re screwed.”
They have reason to fear.
There is a website that thousands of committed Republicans spend hours on, giving and receiving marching orders. When people stray from the party line, it’s not unusual for them to be banned. Free Republic, I’d argue, is far more crucial to the Republican infrastructure than the Heritage Foundation.
Please refer to your handout. The first column records some typical things “Freepers” say. The second records what the same Freeper said after the Senate voted cloture on the president’s bankruptcy bill. Column A: “We are going to see a day, in our lifetimes, when schools force children to engage in homosexual acts as ‘projects’ or ‘homework’ for sex-ed.” Same guy, column B: “The newly amended bankruptcy law is a criminal act perpetrated, bought and paid for by commercial pirates masquerading as legitimate businesses.”
I won’t belabor the point that I believe that the Democrats pay a huge long-term price for those Democrats who let that bankruptcy bill go through. The Republicans understand us better than we understand ourselves. When we are not credible defenders of the economic interests of ordinary Americans, we amount to little. When we are, we’re a nuclear bomb to the heart of their coalition.
The Christian right is a political machine. Very little is asked of its cogs: just that they consult the call board on election day, and vote the way it says. It takes enormous effort to get them to do just that, as any of their leaders will freely tell you. Any of Richard J. Daley’s precinct captains would have told you the same thing.
It doesn’t take much to demobilize a machine voter: Just instill some doubt that people who claim to be their champions are not really their champions. If the Democrats had been united against the bankruptcy bill, we could even have demobilized some of these Freepers.
That’s the way they did it with us. The stuff about the Democrats being “cultural elitists” spread a nagging doubt. People stopped looking to the call board. Even some of the activists.
The time is ripe to do it to them. A Pentecostal friend of mine just returned from a mission to El Salvador with his childhood church from rural Louisiana. He used to regale me with tales of annual July 4 Pentecostal retreats that were like Nuremberg rallies in praise of the Great Leader. That’s over now. The straw that broke the camel’s back, he tells me, was people not being able to afford to go to the dentist. They also have vanishingly low faith in Bush’s foreign policy, and in the Iraq war.
They’re getting demobilized.
That’s great. But here’s the catch. They have to have somewhere to go. That’s where the simple stuff comes in.
Let’s talk about Social Security.
The most glorious thing about congressional Democrats is that they have drawn the line and said: No further. Don’t. Touch. Social. Security. It is a heroic stand. What’s more, it’s been enormously politically effective.
Now think about this: They are drawing on the capital of an entitlement passed 70 years ago.
They’ll be drawing on the capital from Medicare 35 years from now. Congressional Democrats won’t let them kill it. Because they understand: These programs make life in America fundamentally better. And because these gooses, Social Security, Medicare, lay golden eggs. They manufacture Democrats.
It is the duty of every generation of Democrats to produce new geese to lay 70 years of golden eggs. It is the only way our party has grown—as Bill Kristol puts it, by reviving the reputation of the Democrats as the generous protector of middle-class interests. They know they’re screwed if we’re credible in our pledge to deliver new kinds of power to ordinary people in their every day lives.
Democratic congressmen can do that, for example, by making a credible collective pledge that if you vote Democrat enough you will never pay another medical bill as long as you live. You really think people wouldn’t stop voting Republican then?
It makes a virtuous circle. The most important exit poll finding from last year’s election was not about moral values. It was all the people who said they disagreed with Bush on the issues, but they were voting for him anyway because they knew what he stood for.
What I call “superjumbos”—grand policy commitments that span generations—add value by the very credibility of the commitment.
It isn’t any accident that not raising taxes is a pledge every Republican makes, on pain of political death. It has not hurt them even though, according to Stanley Greenberg’s polls, only 30 percent of Americans call high taxes a very serious problem.
To complete the circle—in the same poll 77 percent called “the state of health care in America” a serious problem.
Remember when Dick Morris used to tell President Clinton that he couldn’t afford not to be on the side of any issue supported by 60 percent of Americans? Paul Krugman reported a poll that 72 percent of Americans favor “government-guaranteed health insurance for all.”
Guaranteed. Health Insurance. For All. Not, as I found it formulated on the website of even one of the most liberal senators, “access to affordable health insurance.”
So Democrats, let’s get to work.