Thursday, November 07, 2002
Peter Beinart is, as usual, very smart - in this case, analyzing the Democratic Party defeat and predicting how it will recover. He is not optimistic. He suggests at one point that the GOP may enjoy a 60% majority in American politics for a generation. At another, he compares Bush's achievement to Reagan's.
The question Beinart doesn't answer is: how did things get so screwed up for the Dems only 2 years after Clinton left office? Clinton and his "New Democrats," after all, are what Beinart is referring to when he talks about the "ideological transformation that saved the party." How did they lose it all so quickly? And how serious was the transformation if it could fall apart once the party lost the White House?
I would argue: not serious at all. What TNR and Beinart in particular refuse to recognize is that the great, centrist, Scoop Jackson-ish Democratic Party that they believe is out there, fighting for dominance, does not exist. It never did. For proof, look no further than the debate over welfare reform in the 1990s.
Welfare reform, as Mickey Kaus knows above all, is the signature New Democrat issue. Supporting welfare reform meant championing work over dependency; meant taking on the race-hustlers and their limousine-liberal apologists; and yet also meant spending real money on improving the lot of the poor. That's what the New Democrat vision was all about: killing off liberal shibboleths (about crime, welfare and foreign policy most prominently) while retaining liberal values (about responsibility for the needy, about social equality, and about promoting democracy, freedom and human rights).
Funny thing, though: the pioneers in implementing welfare reform were not New Democrats but New Republicans, most notably Tommy Thompson, who did more at the state level than any governor, and Newt Gingrinch, who was the champion of reform at the national level. Clinton campaigned in 1992 on reforming welfare. In office, though, he ignored it in favor of nationalizing health-care. After 1994, when the GOP actually produced a bill, the Congressional Democrats tried to kill it. When they failed, Clinton signalled that he would like to veto it but that he had to sign it to preserve his viability within the system (where have I heard that phrase before?). Sign it he did, and welfare rolls dropped dramatically nationwide - as did black unemployment, urban crime, and so forth. Nonetheless, Clinton and the Democrats spent the next four years trying to undermine this historic reform - and continue to do so.
For me, the history of welfare reform says it all. When push comes to shove, there are no "New Democrats." The Democratic Party has indeed changed fundamentally. Specifically, the Democrats have made their peace with big business; they are now a corporatist party, committed to "managing" the economy in a way that Wall Street and the Fortune 500 can live with but that gives Washington decisive leverage. The Fortune 500 may prefer Republicans, but they can live with Democrats (unlike small businesses, who cannot cope as well with Democrat-favored regulation). The Dems may talk class warfare, but they don't believe it, and the voters know it. But otherwise, the party is fundamentally unchanged from the 1970s or 1980s. It is dominated by interest groups and liberal elites. It has no new ideas of any kind. It cannot speak in a language that unites Americans. It is only the stupidity of Republicans that keeps the Democrats from becoming the minority party for a generation or more.
In his heart, Beinart knows this. That knowledge is what prompts such a bitter recriminations column.