The Republican Party, seemingly intent on squandering its 2004 election gains, is handing the Democrats a golden opportunity to restore their credentials as a governing party. To seize the moment, the Democrats must do what the Republicans have been avoiding -- which is to get serious about the nation's economic problems.
The Republicans lately have exhibited many of the unpleasant traits that got the Democrats in trouble over the past generation. With their attempts to impose political solutions to private moral issues, they come across as meddlesome busybodies who want to run other people's lives. Americans didn't like self-righteous scolding when it came from liberals, and they don't like it now from conservatives.
Life as the governing party has been as corrosive for the GOP as it was for the Democrats during their era of dominance. That's the real import of the Tom DeLay case; it's not that the House majority leader is uniquely unethical but that his lapses are so reminiscent of what the Democratic grandees did back when they ruled Capitol Hill. Reading the recent headlines about lobbyists run amok, you can't help but remember the bad old days of Lyndon Johnson, Bobby Baker, Wilbur Mills and Jim Wright. Even those Democratic oligarchs would have quailed at DeLay's attempt to pack the House ethics committee with pliant cronies.
The DeLay follies mask the deeper disarray of the Republicans. As conservative commentators have noted, there's a growing gap between the party's libertarians, who abhor government social engineering, and a more authoritarian strain that favors it so long as conservatives are the engineers. There are also growing tensions over foreign policy between the GOP's neo-Wilsonians, who embrace President Bush's rhetoric of global democratic transformation, and the more cautious realists and isolationists who form the party's traditional base.
So how can the Democrats steal a march on their disorganized rivals? They must show the country that they are ready to tackle the nation's toughest economic problems. They must present themselves as the party of responsible government. To adopt the shorthand used by columnist Michael Kinsley, they must cast aside a generation of Mommyism and become the "Daddy Party."
A sensible Democratic leadership would gather this very weekend to begin formulating a plan to address America's looming economic crises. These party leaders would develop specific proposals to reduce the trade and budget deficits that are spooking the financial markets. They would gather experts who have been warning that we're heading for a financial crackup -- people such as former Treasury secretary Bob Rubin, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and investor Warren Buffett. Bolstered by their good advice, the Democrats would work cooperatively with the administration and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to reassure markets if the dam begins to crack.
My imaginary Democrats would get serious about energy, too. They would admit that with soaring Asian demand pushing against tight supplies, the world is facing a long-term squeeze. Rather than pretending that the solution is somehow to mandate lower prices, they would do something about increasing supply (yes, even from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and reducing demand (yes, we are all going to be driving versions of the Toyota Prius someday).
Even as they framed plans to deal with the immediate economic dangers, my imaginary Democrats would offer proposals to solve the longer-term threats to the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. Above all, they would face up to the reality the Republicans generally have avoided: that there is no way out of the fiscal mess without a mix of higher taxes and benefit cuts for those who can afford to take the hit.
Rather than trying to take political advantage of the president's stumbles on Social Security, these New Democrats would do the right thing. They would reject Bush's half-baked plan for private accounts, but at the same time they would give the president political cover to do what's necessary to begin matching future benefits to future revenue. For Democrats in the wilderness of opposition, it's a chance to become the party of stand-up guys. Not the usual role for Democrats, but one that the duck-and-cover Republicans are handing them.
The Democrats don't deserve this makeover opportunity. On economic issues, they've mostly behaved as irresponsibly as the Republicans since 2000 -- looking for cheap shots and short-term gains. And sadly, they're often as slavishly supportive of their special-interest friends as is the GOP. Do the Democrats have the leadership and political guts to seize the moment? Probably not, but they're fools to let it slip by.