Sunday, October 29, 2006
PERHAPS, AS President Bush says, it's too early for Democrats to be "measuring their drapes" in congressional leadership offices. But with it looking increasingly as if Democrats, after 12 years in the minority, will take over the House at least, it's worth looking at their stated agenda -- "A New Direction for America" -- for a glimpse at what a Democratic majority might entail.
On national security, the House Democrats' plan offers more goals than details. Who could disagree with promises to "eliminate Osama Bin Laden, destroy terrorist networks like al-Qaeda, finish the job in Afghanistan and end the threat posed by the Taliban" or "redouble efforts to stop nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea?" But the hard part -- on which Democrats offer no details -- is how that is to be done.
On Iraq in particular, the agenda calls for "the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces," with "Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country." Again, what's missing are the details of what "responsible redeployment" might look like. "Insist that Iraqis make the political compromises necessary to unite their country and defeat the insurgency," the Democrats say. Okay, what if that insistence doesn't yield the desired result?
As to another piece of the security agenda, energy independence, the Democrats assert that they will "achieve energy independence for America by 2020 by eliminating reliance on oil from the Middle East and other unstable regions of the world" -- a super-sized version of Mr. Bush's pledge to "replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025." The Democratic plan for doing this -- tax credits and research funds -- sounds remarkably like the Bush approach, down to increased use of switch-grass ethanol. Unlike the president, the Democrats rightly frame energy independence as an environmental as well as national security issue; like the president, they're unwilling -- for the obvious reason that they don't want to be branded as tax-raisers -- to recommend a carbon tax.
The agenda is heavy on ideas -- raising the minimum wage, letting the government negotiate Medicare drug prices -- that may have more popular appeal than real-world impact, though we agree it's past time for the minimum wage to go up. Other proposals sound good but are bad policy. Screening 100 percent of cargo containers at the point of origin would be expensive, time-consuming and impractical. The vow to "prevent outsourcing of critical components of our national security infrastructure -- such as ports, airports and mass transit -- to foreign interests that put America at risk" is more Dubai ports demagoguery.
Making the first $3,000 of college tuition tax deductible would be a wasteful way -- albeit one that resonates with voters -- of ensuring affordability if Democrats don't impose an income cutoff; none is mentioned in the proposal. The laudable pledge to lift the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research passed the Republican-controlled House and would almost certainly again face a presidential veto.
The Democrats promise a return to "pay as you go" budget discipline, something that is sorely overdue. But the agenda does not then explain how to pay for a raft of new spending and tax credits, from cutting college loan interest rates in half to doubling funding for basic research to giving a $1,000 match to middle- and working-class families that contribute at least that much to a retirement account.
The agenda is best on outlining a specific new ethics package (though it's questionable whether even a Democratic-controlled Senate would be willing to go along) and promising a legislative process that is more open and fair to the minority. It's weakest in what it doesn't say about how to tackle the looming surge in entitlement spending. Predictably, Democrats renew their vow not to "privatize Social Security in whole or in part"; equally predictably, they are silent about what, precisely, they would do to put Social Security and, even more important, Medicare on a sustainable and affordable course. Also unmentioned are trade and immigration, issues on which the party, as well as voters, are divided.
Campaign documents are, almost by definition, gauzy things -- long on poll-tested rhetoric and short on specifics. Elections aren't the best time for politicians to be playing up sacrifice and hard choices. House Democrats say their document isn't meant to be a comprehensive menu, just an indication of priorities. But Democrats will need to do better than what they've proposed in 2006 if they are given the chance to govern in 2007.