AS WITH MOST political documents, the blueprint for the 1980s issued last week by the House Democratic Caucus is less a collection of new ideas than a measure of where political wisdom has come to. For most of the last two decades, Democratic politics has centered on issues of redistribution -- how can access to the society's goods and services be made more equal. The concern for equalizing opportunity is not gone, but the focus has shifted. Now all the discussion is about economic growth -- ways that government can use its influence and resources to expand the nation's public and private wealth.
In one sense, the new agenda marks a return to traditional Democratic interest in bread-and-butter issues. Most of the programs outlined in the document, moreover, were features of the "reindustrialization" plans hatched in the last year of the Carter administration. But it is a measure of how fast political thinking has changed that ideas looked upon by most Democratic congressional leaders three years ago as diversions from such core Democratic issues as national health insurance, Social Security and welfare have now become the cornerstones of Democratic thinking.
What is truly striking about the document, in fact, is how far the pendulum has apparently swung. Most of the social issues that used to consume Democratic interest have actually been gathered up and put into a box labeled "women's issues." To judge from the document, health care, welfare, nutrition, private pensions and fair access to employment -- items that used to be thought of as investments by the nation in all its human capital--apparently need only some fixing up to make sure that women get their fair share of the benefits. If the men have problems, they will apparently be taken care of under the charters for propping up small business and cracking down on crime.There is, in this sense, something positively old-fashioned about this agenda -- the men out there rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and developing game plans to meet foreign competition, while the women are back tending the nation's social conscience.
Is there nothing left of interest to Democrats in the Social Security system except that it should pay higher benefits to both working and nonworking women? How about some thoughts on how current benefits are to be financed for the long haul? Are not the nation's children of interest to more than their mothers? As the report notes, poverty has increasingly become a problem of women and children. Perhaps this is because society doesn't pay enough attention to the obligations and whereabouts of the fathers. Surely there is more to be said about the future of the nation's children than that more federal money for day care and vaccinations is needed.