The Democrats’ Opportunity: Are They Ready?

The Democrats’ Opportunity: Are They Ready?

After World War I, a French general was asked how one fights the Germans. “Retreat and retreat,” was the reply, “and wait for the German mistake.”

So it has pretty much been with the Democratic Party generals after the watershed election of 1980, when Republicans took over as the party of the ideas that defined America’s political future. Since then, Democratic leaders, in and out of power, have steadily ceded ideological territory in the hopes that the right will overreach. That Democrats “don’t stand for anything” is today a political cliché.

The party of Franklin Roosevelt has assumed the role that the Republicans played from 1932 to 1980, when the New Deal drove the country’s domestic development with a vision of public regulation of capitalist markets to make them more efficient and more fair. Republicans elected within that era could reduce our speed toward a social democratic future, but they could not alter the direction. Many policies that fit the framework of the New Deal—for example, federal aid to housing and education, welfare expansion, and protection of the environment—were substantially if reluctantly pursued by Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Gary Wills once called Nixon “the last liberal.”

Similarly, Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms played out in Ronald Reagan’s shadow. Clinton’s major accomplishments—the North American Free Trade Agreement, welfare reform, federal spending restraint, financial market deregulation, and the privatization of government services—reinforced Reagan’s agenda of freeing corporate capital from the social contract imposed by the New Deal. Clinton delivered some liberal programs, such as the expansion of the earned income tax credit and the right to unpaid medical leave, but they did not counterbalance his other Reagan-lite policies. The one Clinton proposal that might have altered the rising insecurity of the American working class was national health insurance, which he abandoned when confronted with the opposition of big business.

Waiting for the Republican mistake has been occasionally successful. Clinton won the 1992 election because Ross Perot split the Republican constituency and George H.W. Bush angered voters with his patrician indifference to a rising unemployment rate. He was re-elected four years later after Newt Gingrich forced a budget crisis that closed national parks and left government workers without a paycheck. In 2005, Democrats—refusing media demands that they present an alternative—ambushed George W. Bush’s overconfident assault on Social Security.

Passive resistance could even help the Democrats win November’s election. With the once fearsome Republican blitzkrieg bogged down in catastrophe in Iraq, incompetence in New Orleans, and corruption scandals in Washington, the Democrats may simply be the default option for voters disgusted with Bush, Tom DeLay, and Bill Frist. We will, of course,...