Thinking Outside The Blog
Judging from the amount of publicity they gleaned, the liberal bloggers who gathered in Las Vegas recently for the first annual YearlyKos convention represent the cutting edge of thinking in the Democratic Party.
But the blogs I have scanned are heavier on vituperation of President Bush and other targets than on creative thought. The candidates who have been adopted as heroes by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the convention's leader, and his fellow bloggers have mainly imploded in the heat of battle -- as was the case with Howard Dean in 2004 -- or come up short, as happened to the Democratic challengers in special House elections in Ohio and California.
Fortunately, there are others than these "net roots" activists working on the challenge of defining the Democratic message. I do not include the Democratic congressional leadership in the hopeful camp. The new legislative "agenda" that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Co. trotted out last week was as meager as it was unimaginative.
But a covey of relatively new Democratic think tanks in Washington are sponsoring conferences and lectures where more substantial policy ideas are being aired and debated. And this past week two new publications appeared -- one online and the other in print -- that promise to push the thinking of the opposition party even further.
Promising as they are, the two publications also show just how hard it is to break free from conventional wisdom without leaving the universe of realistic policy.
The Democratic Strategist, the new online publication, comes with highly reputable sponsorship. Its editors are William Galston, a former Clinton White House policy adviser now at the Brookings Institution; Stanley Greenberg, the pollster for both Bill Clinton and Al Gore; and Ruy Teixeira, an author now affiliated with two think tanks, the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation.
They declare that "The Democratic Strategist will be firmly and insistently based on facts and data. It will seek strategies rooted in empirical research from the fields of public opinion research, political demography and other social sciences and will avoid empty rhetoric and abstract theorizing."
Would that it were so. That kind of intellectual discipline is sorely needed in Democratic debates. But the first issue is filled with pieces in which familiar Democratic names take up familiar positions, with few of them bothering to adduce any evidence to support their views.
Thus, we have blogger Jerome Armstrong, a Kos partner, arguing for mounting campaigns everywhere, no matter the odds; Robert Borosage of the leftist Campaign for America's Future inciting Democrats to take on Big Oil and all of corporate America; civil rights activist Donna Brazile plumping for cleaning up elections; and the Kennedy School of Government's Elaine Kamarck arguing that Dukakis-style "competence" should be the Democrats' battle cry.
To be fair, some contributors, such as columnist Harold Meyerson and union president John Wilhelm, do root their arguments in solid economic or demographic trends. But as Galston conceded in an interview, the editors and the readers will have to be more insistent that future authors live up to the promise of the reality-based publication.
The other new entry, called Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, is edited by 33-year-old Kenneth Baer and 30-year-old Andrei Cherny, both former speechwriters for Gore. Their first issue is really impressive.
The lead article, by Jedediah Purdy of Duke Law School, explores the demographic trends around the world. It discusses the implications of population decline in Europe and Japan and how the abortion-influenced gender imbalances in China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan result in a "surplus" of millions of single men in those fragile democracies or authoritarian states.
Purdy ends by suggesting a long-term bargain between Europe and Asia, or maybe between the United States and India, in which the advanced nations pump development money in now, in return for future help in financing their retirees' pensions.
As Baer and Cherny told me, "this is the kind of idea no politician could put forward now," but it points to a real problem -- and challenges people to think creatively.
Another provocative piece, by Jason Furman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, focuses on the perverse distributional effects of tax deductions for employer-based health insurance. At present they subsidize the well-to-do and shortchange those struggling to afford health insurance. This article spotlights an important and often-neglected avenue for change whenever Congress decides to get serious about tackling health care in this country.