Who Needs New Ideas, Anyway

By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, April 2, 2006

O n Wednesday, Democratic leaders unveiled their new security strategy at an event in Union Station, surrounded by American flags, "REAL SECURITY" banners and other campaign-style props. The Republican National Committee quickly dismissed the new platform as "No New Ideas." The New York Times agreed: "Most of the proposals are not new."

Indeed, the Democrats rehashed their usual litany of security cliches, declaring their opposition to terrorism, proclaiming their support for the troops. And instead of offering voters a positive new agenda, they mostly complained about the Bush administration -- its approach to Iraq, its response to Hurricane Katrina, its "rank incompetence." It could be argued they offered little but obstructionist boilerplate and tired old ideas.

But is that really such an awful strategy?

It has become a truism of American politics that elections are about bold new ideas, that criticism and complaints are never enough to win, that Democrats will never regain power until they articulate a fresh and forward-looking vision that will inspire voters, like the Republicans did with their Contract With America in 1994. The Democrats, according to this conventional wisdom, must move past the petty obstructionism that President Bush has derided as "the philosophy of the stop sign, the agenda of the roadblock."

Set aside the point that as obstructionists, the Democrats have been about as effective as the New Orleans levees. The real question is why an opposition party should be expected to devise a bold new philosophy in order to return to power. With Bush's approval ratings sagging into the 30s, why shouldn't Democrats be content to run against "Bush Republicans"? Polls suggest that as Iraq has disintegrated, the national debt has soared, New Orleans has withered, Republicans have been embroiled in lobbying scandals, Bush's Social Security plan has collapsed and Bush's prescription drug plan has foundered, Americans are increasingly sympathetic to the philosophy of the stop sign.

Perhaps some Democratic genius will figure out how to solve all these problems. But after six years of Republican control of Washington, it shouldn't take a genius to make the case that they're Republican problems. So the obvious Democratic strategy would rely on musty old standbys: Don't start wars without a postwar plan. Don't spend money the government doesn't have. Don't be incompetent or corrupt. And that was the basic message Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered on Wednesday.

That's folly, the wise men say: If Bush-bashing was enough, we'd be debating the Kerry administration's approach to Iraq. And much of the REAL SECURITY platform does echo the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who stood silently in the back of Wednesday's event like one of those Easter Island statues.

But the downfall of the Kerry campaign was its candidate, not its ideas; Democrats with similar ideas ran far ahead of Kerry down ballot in GOP-leaning states like Colorado and Kentucky. Bush's approval ratings were below 50 percent in 2004, but he successfully created a "choice election" that was as much about his opponent's flip-flops as his own record. As a presidential candidate, Kerry could not avoid the spotlight, and his tendency to straddle issues was on full display. The Republicans will surely try to make 2006 another "choice election," but it's hard to see why Reid and Pelosi would want to jump into that briar patch by unveiling any truly new ideas. Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin says that historically, the best predictor of congressional elections has been presidential approval ratings.

"That's as true today as it was in 1994," Garin says.

A h, 1994. That was the annunciation moment for the Church of New Ideas, alleged proof that a bold agenda can turn the partisan tide. In recent months, as Reid and Pelosi repeatedly delayed the rollout of their new strategy, pundits repeatedly contrasted their bumbling with the GOP's mobilization behind the Contract With America. But Republican leaders did not formally unveil the contract until late September 1994, and even then it was only a House of Representatives strategy; the GOP took back the Senate without it.

After the voting that November, exit polls suggested that with President Clinton's popularity at its lowest ebb and congressional Democrats seen as calcified and corrupt, the Republican sweep was mainly motivated by an idea as old as democracy itself: Throw the bums out. Indeed, the linchpin of the contract was a timeless pledge to "end the cycle of scandal and disgrace."

"New" is always overrated in politics. The New Deal had its roots in the Progressive Era; the New Frontier had its roots in the New Deal. The ideas in the Contract With America seemed new only after four decades of Democratic control of the House: term limits, balanced budgets, open government and "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money."

Of course, Republican rule has not brought about term limits. The budget is less balanced than ever; the government is bigger and less open than ever; Congress is mired in a new cycle of scandal and disgrace. So it is not too surprising that the majority party would like the next congressional elections to be about the minority's lack of new ideas.

History will judge President Bush's bold (if not exactly new) ideas about promoting democracy, expanding executive power and cutting taxes. But in 2006, voters will have a chance to decide whether they want a more effective roadblock to those ideas in Congress. That would be a "choice election" for the Bush era, even if it's not the kind of choice that Republican leaders or Beltway chatterers have in mind.

There may not be anything new in the philosophy of the stop sign, or even anything particularly bold. But it's a philosophy. And if Bush fatigue continues to spread, Democrats might be able to ride that roadblock to victory.


Michael Grunwald is a Washington Post staff writer.

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