Ideas for Democrats?

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart; drawing by David Levine

It is not easy to be a professional Democrat in 2006. Out of power for six years and widely damned as out of intellectual steam, the party is regarded in nearly every political precinct and publication as a chronic invalid, doomed to obsolescence even though nearly all the stars are in alignment for a national rejection of all things Bush. When others aren’t kicking the Democrats, they are more than happy to kick themselves. The former Clinton hands Rahm Emanuel, now a hard-charging Democratic congressman from Illinois, and Bruce Reed, the president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, set the defensive tone of their election-year policy manifesto by quoting the Beckett-inflected soliloquy of Ross Perot’s ticket mate, Admiral James Stockdale, from the vice-presidential debate of 1992: “Who am I? Why am I here?” These days the Democrats would seem to have fewer answers to such existential questions than the sadly disoriented Stockdale did.

Since John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, pundits, Democratic politicians, consultants, bloggers from the “Netroots,” and outright quacks have been eager to fill that vacuum, offering often self-contradictory remedies for the party’s ailments. First came the religious cure: in desperate overreaction to a loaded exit poll suggesting that the Democrats’ 2004 showing might in part be due to a “moral values” deficit, party leaders sought out the liberal evangelical author Jim Wallis to learn how they might better make a public fetish of their faith.

Soon to follow was the marketing craze: George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, advised some of those same leaders on how to “frame” issues so that they, like the Republicans, might popularize hard-to-sell initiatives with their own versions of insidious circumlocutions such as “death tax” and “compassionate conservatism.” Other nostrums have included calls for banning pollsters and consultants that package candidates in focus-group-tested platitudes1 (a capital idea but so far a nonstarter) and a return to talking about class issues2 (so far taking the tone-deaf form of Wal-Mart bashing, the rare cause embraced by both Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont).

If all else fails, there’s the default position of Clintonism, with or without Hillary Clinton, the putative 2008 presidential front-runner. A widespread fantasy has it that the freshman Illinois Senator Barack Obama, everyone’s favorite un-Hillary, might yet be persuaded to throw off caution and run for president while he’s still hot rather than waiting until he’s “ready.” Or perhaps he could serve his apprenticeship on a ticket headed by the new, Hollywood-burnished, and, to many, improved Al Gore.

But whatever the merits of any of these miracle elixirs, the party, no more than Senator Clinton and other potential presidential candidates, still cannot escape the most troubling of the questions that confront it, the question that gets to the heart of “Who am I? Why am I here?” That question, posed by Gary Hart in his own…


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