Getting Democrats From No to Yes

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, May 20, 2005

How do liberals and Democrats move from the Politics of No to the Politics of Yes? Is that even the right question?

One of the great political parlor games pits two arguments against each other. On one side is the view that because Republicans control both Congress and the White House, Democrats have no possibility of passing legislation that would be to their liking. Therefore, any Democrat who seriously negotiates with the Republicans, especially on Social Security, is voluntarily placing his or her head in a guillotine. Nothing good can come of that. Nor, by the way, can anything good come from giving up the right to filibuster right-wing judges.

Moreover, as Robert Borosage of the liberal Campaign for America's Future notes, getting a diverse party to agree on the idea of No is far easier than brokering an agreement on what the party might say Yes to. No is clear. Yes raises the question: yes to what, exactly? What would the messy details look like?

On the other side is the assertion that Democrats will never regain power unless they offer -- the phrase just rolls out of the word processor -- a compelling alternative vision. Where are the new ideas? What do Democrats really stand for? Do they stand for anything? Are they gutless?

The problem is that this argument confuses short-term tactical imperatives with long-term strategy. Borosage is right that Democrats have no interest in bailing out the president on his Social Security privatization ideas -- because they have no interest in furthering those ideas in the first place.

Indeed, the Social Security debate so far has been a rare triumph for liberals: For the first time in a long while, core liberal principles are actually winning in a public debate. The idea that Social Security is an insurance program and not an investment plan is gaining traction. So is the view, advanced powerfully by Yale University political scientist Jacob Hacker, that more and more financial risk is being thrown onto individual Americans and that collective safety nets (notably for pensions and for health care) are being shredded. Secure, guaranteed private pensions are increasingly a thing of the past. Employer-provided health insurance is in trouble. This is encouraging many Americans to give liberalism another look.

One clear indicator of the transformation of the national discussion was the cover line on the May 16 issue of BusinessWeek, "Safety Net Nation." The article it referred to, by Lee Walczak and Richard S. Dunham, ran under the phrase: "Why so many Americans aren't buying into Bush's Ownership Society." The writers noted that even Republicans who love Bush and revere capitalism are seeking a certain degree of security and safety. When a leading business magazine highlights the importance of government safety nets to a successful capitalist economy, the times are definitely changing.

And that is why it is inescapable that for the long term, those who think of themselves as progressive do need to offer that compelling alternative vision. What's required are not some small-bore tweaks to Bushism, but a set of proposals that change the very nature of what is being debated nationally. What question should frame the national debate?

Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, suggests that if the U.S. economy remains broadly open and trade broadly free, the result will be "more inequality because there are more winners and more losers."

The challenge, he argues, is to indemnify those who may find themselves on the losing end of the transaction. This points to a number of big policy ideas: wage insurance, to ease the transition from one job to another; broader earned-income tax credits, to push up the wages of the lower paid; pension portability and incentives to help lower- and middle-income Americans put away money. Above all, it means guaranteed health insurance in some form, an idea increasingly appealing to companies in a competitive world market that want to take health care costs out of the prices of their goods.

And in this climate, higher minimum wages and broader unionization are looking more attractive than ever.

The large debate the nation needs, in other words, is how to create enough security so that Americans can embrace a dynamic economy without fear. Paradoxically, throwing more risk onto individuals leads to risk-avoidance. Risk-taking requires a certain amount of risk-sharing.

To everything there is a season. There is a time for the Politics of No. When the time for Yes comes around, it ought to be about affirming bigger ideas and larger purposes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company