Before Democrats wander off in search of a Great Awakening, they ought to give some consideration to the true faith of our fathers: making money.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) might not cast the issue in such crass terms, but having spent more of his life pursuing wealth than pursuing votes, he lacks the national party's enthusiasm for slicing and dicing the body politic according to tax brackets. Moreover, he thinks that governors -- a pragmatic, balanced-budget bunch who favor results over ideology -- ought to be exerting more influence on the direction of the national Democratic Party.
That's not an altogether original idea, but it will be worth watching how it goes. Warner's business background and his improbable success earlier this year in shepherding a budget-repair package (including new taxes) through a red state's Republican-dominated legislature certainly have people interested.
Warner puts a lot of stock in better public management and hammers on efficiency to the point of tedium. But it's not his bean-counting instincts that distinguish him. He speaks the language of money and can claim, within the company of entrepreneurs, to be one of them.
By contrast, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, though he was rolling in dough, never conveyed any sense that he knew where it came from -- or, if lost, how to replace it. Kerry also promised not to deny tax cuts to anyone making less than $200,000. That says, "We're with ya, now, kid, but don't let your earnings get out of hand, or we'll have a piece of them."
"Too often the Democratic Party seems to be saying that it favors the 'American Dream,' but not too much of the American Dream," Warner says. "That's the opposite of what made this party great."
Warner effectively decries a brand of politics that assumes that all things economic are static. Poor. Middle class. Rich. End of story.
American economic reality is anything but static. The American generational experience tends to involve serious pecuniary swells, and, with growing numbers of self-employed or contract workers, the wave frequency has been shortened to years, sometimes months.
It's that clinking, clanking sound that makes the world go round, a point made in "It's About the Money," the book that Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) penned with his father, Jesse L. Jackson Sr.
The book is about building wealth; access to capital is the necessary next stage of the civil rights movement, it declares.
The younger Jackson emphasizes that the book was written less as a political statement than as a plea for people to understand that in a capitalist system it's better to be a shareholder than a sharecropper. "In the final analysis, it does boil down to individuals who must crunch numbers," he says. Indeed, but money has a way of making Democrats squeamish. It all seems so, well, materialistic.
The same discomfort with money echoes through the ages, back to the founding pooh-bahs, many of whom were born into wealth and were aghast at their countrymen's obsession with money. Yet average Americans made the difference.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," historian Gordon S. Wood wrote, "America suddenly emerged a prosperous, scrambling, enterprising society not because the Constitution was created or because a few leaders formed a national bank, but because ordinary people, hundreds of thousands of them, began working harder to make money and get ahead."
But, to get crass again, what does the "make money" mentality do for you politically?
It gets you thinking about the financial costs imposed by an impossibly mangled American transportation system, a subject ignored during the long presidential race.
It gets you closer to operators of small businesses and contract workers, who struggle with rising health care expenditures.
It opens up, in the name of pragmatic effectiveness, discussions about which level of government should do what and with whose money.
It's not a matter of sidelining questions of equity, because if Republicans have their way and lean more on market remedies for pensions and health care, millions more Americans will be exposed to the joys of caveat emptor. Democrats must enter the picture to ensure balance.
After all, Warner says, "You have to have a sense of fairness. You do not retreat from people who need help. But people aspire to great things, and part of that means being involved in the community, and part of it means seeking financial success."
The core truth, says the historian Wood, is that Americans govern themselves because it is in their interest to do so. Understanding and acting upon those interests seems like a sensible thing for Democrats to do.