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Vision Check for the Democrats

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Democrats are obsessed with visions, messages, programs and narratives. The party's leaders, thinkers and consultants have held a slew of meetings and are said to be close to a statement of hopes and principles. They are determined to apply the tactical lessons Newt Gingrich taught when he offered a Contract With America in 1994. There is a collective rush to the nearest thesaurus as Democrats consider a Compact With America and a Covenant With America. A Bargain or even a Concordat can't be far behind. Personally, I'm still fond of the word Deal (as in "Square," "New" and "Fair"), but I guess that word is just too 20th century.

Journalists, of course, are the last people who have any right to poke fun at this Democratic endeavor. Indulging the desire to appear nonpartisan, most news stories regularly balance reports about actual Republican disasters and cratering poll numbers with assertions that voters have no idea what Democrats stand for. In going Big Picture, the Democrats are simply responding to critics and the relentless pressure of the Conventional Wisdom.

The Conventional Wisdom that Republicans are clear about what they believe deserves to be challenged. Yes, Republicans are consistent in their slogans -- low taxes, small government, personal freedom, traditional values. Yet except for their obsession with tax cuts, Republicans are certainly not consistent in their opposition to big government (witness government spending levels during the Bush years) and their commitment to personal freedom is expressed far more in an opposition to the regulation of corporate than of personal behavior.

But the Democrats will never fully expose the Republicans' contradictions without a clear -- forgive me -- vision of their own, and that's why this business about compacts and covenants could yet be constructive.

Consider this vision statement: "The issue of government has always been whether individual men and women will have to serve some system of government of economics -- or whether a system of government and economics exists to serve individual men and women."

The words are Franklin D. Roosevelt's from his 1932 speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, FDR's boldest statement of purpose before he was elected. Roosevelt's point was that while powerful groups often claim to oppose a strong government role in the nation's economic life, they almost always seek government's protection for their own interests. Government's task, Roosevelt argued, was to intervene "not to hamper individualism but to protect it" by helping the less powerful confront economic difficulties and abuses of the system by the powerful.

Whatever message Democrats come up with, they will continue to lose ground and be untrue to what's best in their tradition if they fail to stand up for this affirmative government role in enhancing both individual liberty and self-sufficiency. The Democratic theme-meisters might usefully consult the just-published issue of the Washington Monthly, in which editor Paul Glastris and his colleagues show how active government can advance the causes of "choice and individual control" in a technological economy.

As the magazine argues, it takes a government to fight identity theft, to give parents more power over the television programming that comes into their homes, to protect individuals from hidden credit card charges, to offer employees more control over the balance between their work and family lives. The list is not exhaustive, but it is instructive. It shows that government rules and regulations, properly conceived, can tilt the scales within a competitive economy toward individual rights. Citizens should have rights within the political sphere, but consumers and employees should also have rights in the economic sphere.

The Democratic vision debate cannot be only about rights. The other great challenge to the conservative status quo must focus on the obligations of citizens to their communities and their country, and the unfair ways in which the burdens of service and citizenship are now being borne. It should be disturbing to liberals and Democrats that they have not only been losing arguments over who will stand up for liberty but also over which side will nurture the values of community and patriotism.

It would be a shame if the Democrats' quest for something to say produced only focus-group-driven sloganeering and mush. There is at least a chance that it could become a way for the party to connect its past with its present. And Democrats might figure out how to speak to the public's dawning sense that the ideas of those now in charge are so shot through with inconsistencies that our current leaders can neither govern effectively nor keep their promises.

postchat@aol.com


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