A Party Adrift

It’s time for Democrats to face unpleasant facts: Can anyone remember a period when the national party was as impotent, rudderless, and devoid of ideas as today? You’d have to go back to the 1920s when Calvin Coolidge’s legendary quip, “The business of America is business,” was the prevailing wisdom until the Great Depression led to the ascension of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

There have been interruptions of Democratic dominance, most notably Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the 1980s, but even he was stifled by a hostile Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were also saddled with powerful congressional opposition and, despite common perceptions by casual observers, both presidents governed, at times, like centrist Democrats.

No one would describe George W. Bush in that manner, aside from the wanton spending on domestic programs that have left blemishes on the most dynamic, activist presidency since FDR. It’s not that the opportunities aren’t there for Democrats to thrust themselves back into the Beltway debate. For example, one of Bush’s two key themes in this year’s State of the Union address was his plan to modernize Social Security by introducing a partial privatization of payroll taxes. Yes, Democratic leaders hissed and booed during Bush’s (somewhat confusing) explanation of his blueprint to overhaul an entitlement program that’s now 70 years old, but to date no leading Democrat has come up with a meaningful counterproposal.

Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who gave the Democrats’ rebuttal to Bush along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), is typical of the bind the party of FDR and Harry Truman is in today. After some gibberish about creating a “Marshall Plan for America to build the infrastructure our economy needs to go—and to grow,” the charisma-challenged Nevadan attempted to ridicule Bush’s Social Security discussion. “There’s a lot we can do to improve Americans’ retirement security, but it’s wrong to replace the guaranteed benefit that Americans have earned with a guaranteed benefit cut of up to 40 percent… . [M]ost of all, the Bush plan isn’t really Social Security reform; it’s more like Social Security roulette.”

I don’t believe Bush’s idea is bold enough, but allowing for political necessities it’s at the very least recognition of a serious economic problem that will start years after the 2008 election. And while the president said he’s willing (and allegedly eager) to consider Democratic alternatives, save a tax increase, there hasn’t been a united opposing plan from the minority party. All of which gives Bush the leeway to bypass Congress and the mainstream media and campaign for his agenda across the country, speaking before what elite editorialists like to call “ordinary” Americans.

Even The Washington Post acknowledged the Democrats’ inexplicably passive approach to the major issues of the day. In a Feb. 4 editorial, the Post wrote: “At least, though, the president did spell out some possible changes and acknowledge that they won’t be easy. The Democrats’ general response so far is a combination of exaggerated rhetoric and silence about alternatives… . [T]here are responsible ways, consistent with Democratic principles, to ‘fix’ Social Security, but elected Democrats have tended to run from them as if they were leaking vials of anthrax.”

Bush was fortunate that the Iraqi elections on Jan. 30 were successful, with a minimum of violence and higher voter participation than thought possible. And yet the Democrats, while grudgingly admitting that milestone, still prattle on about the lack of homeland security—never mind, knock on wood, there hasn’t been another attack domestically since Sept. 11—and isolated incidents of military torture techniques in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

The immediate prospects for Democrats, which could certainly change if Bush’s ambitious foreign doctrine goes awry, are not good. The party is splintered. On the one hand, half the elected officials are preaching the virtues of morality and the Bible, and even Hillary Clinton is fudging on abortion rights. On the other hand, Howard Dean is the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, rallying the virulently anti-Bush crowd. That’s one ball of confusion.

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