Friday, July 30, 2010

A "New Democratic" Restoration?

Obama has managed to convince a critical mass of Republican and Independent voters that he’s a raving socialist, and a large (although probably less-than-critical) segment of the Democratic base that he’s an ideological sellout. He obviously needs a new political strategy that delivers him from this bad political place, but I haven’t got any bright ideas. Commenting on the Pew study about popular perceptions of party ideology that I discussed here, William Galston prescribes a healthy dose of Clintonian triangulation:
“Three politically relevant conclusions follow from these data. First, Democrats’ greater diversity means that party leaders are bound to have more trouble managing their coalition than the Republicans will theirs. Second, the Independents who helped Democrats score a notable success in the 2006 midterm elections may well do the same for Republicans in 2010.

“The third conclusion to be drawn from the poll is that, whether Democrats lose control of the Congress or remain in power with much narrower majorities, Obama’s challenge will resemble the one Bill Clinton faced after 1994—namely, reestablishing his standing among those voters outside of the Democratic base whose support spells the difference between retaining and losing a national majority. I’m not necessarily suggesting that Obama should do that the way Clinton did, by championing small-bore issues—such as school uniforms—designed to send reassuring messages to the electorate. But I am suggesting that he should bring comparable focus and clarity to the task of broadening his appeal beyond his core supporters… and organize his White House to maximize the chances that he can accomplish that task.”
I don’t think Galston would object to my placing him in the "New Democratic" faction of the today’s Democratic Party, or in my interpreting his comments as a reassertion of tried-and-true New Democratic ideology. The New Democratic political mission has always been to push the whole party to center. By the later Clinton administration it looked like its mission was largely accomplished because New Democrats succeeded in persuading Democrats that they’d do politically well by doing public policy good. New Democrats argued that liberals should abandon their self-defeating statist policy agenda in favor of a more effective egalitarian program that exploits the efficiencies of markets and other decentralized decision-making mechanisms. That’s not only good public policy, they insisted, but a way of redirecting the political bullets that Democrats had been shooting at their own feet since the late sixties.

Galston’s reprising only half of the old New Democratic pitch. He’s telling Obama that moving to the center is the key to his political survival, but he isn’t saying, and I suspect doesn’t believe, this is a case where political expedience and good public policy go together. That’s not something that Obama needs to hear in any case because he’s already learned the public policy lessons New Democrats taught in the 1990s.

Take ObamaCare. Yes, a lot of voters seem to think that it’s a giant stride down the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s essentially the approach to healthcare reform that market-worshiping Republicans were proposing in the early 1990s as an alternative to HillaryCare. You could say something similar about Cap-and-Trade being an application of policy techniques Republicans were championing in the early 1990s with respect to sulfur dioxide emissions. The present unpopularity of both policies is another indication of how far the whole ideological spectrum has moved to the right in the last twenty years.

The idea that Obama should administer a mega-dose of Clintonian triangulation to himself and the Democratic Party may be a sound political prescription. But as far as liberal public policy goes, it’s a counsel of despair.

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