As labor marks the 100th anniversary of modern American unionism, it finds little cause for celebration. Its political clout is at a nadir, a condition shared by the rest of the liberal establishment. A conservative and charismatic president is in control. He got the budget he wanted and the best alternative that his opposition could offer in Congress to the tax cut he proposed was essentially a resounding "me, too" approach that was hardly distinguishable from the real thing. The voice of labor was hardly heard in the fracas.
Assuming that recent conservative successes cannot be sustained, the issue is: can liberals come up with an alternative agenda that will capture the minds and hearts of the majority? The operational word here is "majority."
It's not enough for liberals to point with pride to past successes and to claim credit for past accomplishments, although liberals should not be apologetic for feeding the poor, expanding educational opportunities for the lower and middle classes and providing a degree of security for older citizens. They should also not hestitate to claim credit for government tax and loan policies that have helped millions of middle-class families purchase their homes or that the fear of illness and accident has been assuaged in large part because of government health programs and subsidies.
Having touted the successes of liberal efforts, however, their excesses must also be acknowledged. For example, liberals have long suffered from a guilt by association for having joined questionable causes whose advocates evidence a kind of "snail darter mentality." This case involved sacrificing the construction of a much- needed dam because it might have risked the extinction of a tiny fish (later proven incorrect). Such capricious and frivolous efforts gave conservatives an opportunity to ridicule other, more important environmentalist demands.
A second problem is the proliferation of programs beyond the means of society. For example, when liberals demand costly day-care facilities for the poor that are unattainable and unavailable to the middle class, there is widespread anger, and rightly so.
Finally, liberals have committed a grave error in their insensitivity to the deeply felt patriotism of most Americans. Given a choice between a military buildup that promised revival of national prestige and American primacy in world affairs and a perceived weakening of our international position, voters have chosen the former. Liberals alienated their blue-collar allies when they ignored the sentiments of those who cherish their country's military strength.
But to win elections, liberals need to fashion an agenda that represents not only the needs of the poor but also the best interests of the middle-class voters with annual incomes of $15,000 to $40,000 who make up the vast bulk of the electorate to which Democrats tried to appeal in their recent unsuccessful tax programs. Without dissociating themselves from the commitment to shared economic progress and equal justice for all, the appeal to the middle class should not be based solely on the merits of "good works," but on the practical reasons that justify their support for liberal social programs. Income transfers are needed by all sectors of the population--who doesn't expect to be old some day?
Item No. 1 on the liberal agenda, therefore, must be to convince middle-class voters that the great unpredictable invisible hand of free enterprise a la Reagan can decimate as well as uplift. This requires impressing upon them just how insecure their situation is concerning employment, growth in real income, education of their children, and to appreciate that the consequences of unfettered laissez faire would have been realistic today were it not for liberal programs. Reaganomics is great as long as one remains on the winning side. But God help the losers--and many of these losers will be among the middle class.
Liberals should also attempt to convince these voters that they are concerned about America's sagging productivity and rising inflation. But unstructured tax cuts that can be used to finance any sort of speculative investment or luxury consumption good is not the way to boost output per worker. Blind budget cutting of social programs is not going to have significant impact on inflation, and raising military budgets by throwing money at the Pentagon is not necessarily going to strengthen our defenses unless the outlays are based on carefully conceived strategies.
But liberals cannot live on rhetoric alone, nor can they rest on past laurels that the electorate has rejected. If they are to regain power, they must reappraise their past agenda, reassess their goals and reorder their priorities. For example, the agenda must include reining in Social Security outlays, taxing benefits as is currently done with unemployment insurance benefits. Similarly, liberals should champion programs that would ensure that work pays more than welfare programs, which is not always the case today. Tax cuts of the affluent are not immoral if the savings are channeled to generate jobs and boost productivity. These and other steps may be painful to those who have fought to expand the coverage of the welfare state, but they are nonetheless in line with current political and economic realities.
What is required is a serious examination of the forces that led to the defeat of the current liberal coalition. Liberals cannot afford to espouse causes that easily become the objects of vilification. A prayer or two in school is not about to endanger cherished liberties. It would be a waste of time to expend efforts on grand designs and high- minded resolutions--such as the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978--that express admirable goals but have no substance. To be compassionate and to strive for greater justice is commendable, but to achieve these ends liberals need a majority of the electorate. The immediate challenge is to present a program designed to arrest inflation and improve the productivity of the economy. Initiatives not leading to the achievement of these goals must, for a time, take a back seat.
This is by no means a call to retire permanently from the field of battle. Neither is it an intimation that liberals should surrender those aspects of their platform that are fundamental to the liberal credo. A retreat is necessary only insofar as it allows time to reassemble the forces and solidify their position. Once this is accomplished, liberals can look forward to recapturing the loyalties of the majority.