Over the next several weeks, there will be much navel-gazing and finger-pointing among Democrats as they try to figure out how things went so wrong in this week's elections. There will be a lot of scapegoating and false blame -- for example, some will focus on the overzealous rally after Sen. Paul Wellstone's death, as if that could explain a major trend across the country. The real answer is more profound: Where Democrats lost is in the war of ideas.
Whether on foreign policy or domestic issues, Democrats have increasingly abdicated their leadership role, preferring to take a back seat and nitpick from the sidelines rather than daring to offer clear or compelling proposals of their own. Ever since 9/11, Democrats have seemed like deer caught in the headlights when it comes to foreign policy, unable to articulate a coherent message or set of priorities. Even less excusable, Democrats also have ceded the high ground on domestic policy.
Take the president's tax cuts. Many Democrats will blame their party leaders for failing to rally around the goal of repealing the Bush cut, which is as skewed toward the well-to-do as it is fiscally irresponsible. But even this would only have put them in the role of naysayers rather than in the position of leading the way forward. To be leaders, Democrats needed to come up with their own alternative, geared to respond to the weakness of the economy and the increasing vulnerability of working Americans. The best answer would have been -- and still is -- to push for a temporary cut in the payroll tax, financed by redirecting the president's tax cut.
Trading an income tax cut for a payroll tax cut is a good idea not because it could lead to partisan advantage but because it is genuinely what the country needs at this stage. It's increasingly apparent that we need a fiscal stimulus package, especially now that Fed rate cuts are proving insufficient. To be effective, a stimulus package must be precisely targeted at boosting both consumer spending and business investment. It should also be temporary, yet almost instantaneous in its effect. The Bush tax cut fails all of these tests. An across-the-board cut in payroll taxes, by contrast, would meet all of them, putting new money in the hands of every working American and helping spur new business investment, almost overnight.
There are many more big ideas of this type that Democrats could rally around, if only they had the courage to think anew, break away from their past, and dare, on occasion, to challenge one or another of their core constituencies. Two of the best examples may be Social Security reform and education reform. In both areas, voters appear to want more choices, and they seem not nearly as afraid of Republican plans to partially privatize Social Security or promote school choice as Democratic pollsters would like to believe. Instead of merely blocking Republican proposals of this type and defending the unsatisfactory status quo, Democrats should come up with better alternatives of their own.
In the case of Social Security reform, this might mean enabling all Americans to divert part of their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts, with matching sums provided by the government on a progressive basis to top off the accounts of low-income workers. And in the case of school reform, it might mean embracing school choice on the condition that it is paired with national equalization of school funding on a per-pupil basis. These types of policies would empower all Americans with more choices but would do so in a way that boosts fairness and egalitarian values at the same time.
Another big goal for Democrats to embrace is universal health insurance. Cynics, of course, will point out that this idea has failed every time it has been tried, most recently by the Clintons. But if Republicans have anything to teach Democrats, it is that perseverance eventually pays off, especially when paired with big ideas. The way to break through on universal health insurance may be to focus on the idea of mandatory self-insurance for all Americans -- just as we now have mandatory car insurance -- with the understanding that the government will subsidize those who cannot afford to shoulder the full burden of their own insurance. In this fashion, we could reach the goal of universal coverage at a fraction of what a single-payer system would cost the government.
This is the type of new thinking that could enable Democrats to regain the high ground in the war of ideas. More important, it is the type of thinking our country really needs. In the recent election, both parties deliberately avoided big ideas in favor of smaller and safer ones, seeking to preserve their bases and peel off just enough of the undecided vote to eke out victories. Such intentional timidity probably cost Democrats the election, because it gave the public little reason to vote for them. It also deprived all Americans of a much-needed opportunity for genuine national dialogue.
Copyright 2002, The Washington Post