Monday, August 01, 2005

America's party, again

[Note: This was originally written for submission to another site, where it hasn't appeared yet. I'm publishing it here before it gets stale - TLK]

Over on the blog, I confessed to a nasty case of writer's block; thanks to Joe of Buckaroo for coming to the rescue. Granted, this is a subject I've wanted to tackle for awhile, but his remarks gave me a hook to hang the hat on.

It goes like this. As Joe points out, "The Democrats need to connect with the independents and those not satisfied with the Republicans if they are to regain any power." He offers the example of Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" -- a powerful set of proposals that, though never fully implemented, brought the GOP back into control of Congress after 40 years.

Joe suggests offering "10 points" that are libertarian or pro-freedom that Democrats should concentrate on if they want to win in 2006 and 2008. I'm not quite as ambitious as Joe. I'm going to offer five.

Let me start with a premise, which I'll take from L. Neil Smith: "Great men don't move to the center, they move the center." The same thing applies to political parties. You win by offering people something they want and don't have, not by promising to preserve what they have already that doesn't work. "The center" is the place where your previous messes, and the messes of your opposition, are still wreaking havoc on the body politic. A winning party's mission is to offer a path out of that swamp -- a path that looks like it can be walked, and that looks like it leads to higher ground.

In other words, Hillary and Co. are barking up the wrong tree (New York Times articles may require registration -- feel free to use the login "rationalreview/rationalreview" if you'd rather not register). The Democratic "centrists" are trying to get their grabby little hands on an imaginary mass of voters who like things the way they are enough to want few changes ... but who are dissatisfied enough with the way things are to stop voting Republican. Ain't no such group.

The main Democratic approach so far does fasten on a couple of the GOP's real weak points, and I'm going to make them the first two of my five:

1) Competence in national defense; and

2) Budgetary responsibility

The first one is gaining ground with voters every day as Iraq descends into civil war between Islamists in the government and Islamists in the resistance. A majority of Americans now believe that the US will not "win" in Iraq. And even among those who bought into the war in the first place, it's becoming more and more clear that the guy they trusted to lead the military as Commander in Chief just doesn't measure up to the task.

The budgetary responsibility question is more nuanced. It's here that the GOP is the Democrats' best friend. Yes, Democrats have been fiscally irresponsible in the past, although historically not quite as much so as Republicans. Fortunately, voter memory is short and the question weighs even more heavily in Democrats' favor because Republicans have had total control of federal spending for the last five years -- and they've made drunken sailors look like coupon clippers.

It wouldn't hurt the Democrats to get behind a balanced budget amendment. And it would help if, without filibusters in the Senate or parliamentary tricks in the House, Democrats simply voted no on every GOP spending proposal, with the tag line "we'll start voting for appropriations when you start balancing budgets." Let the Republicans have their way as the majority -- but decline to support it and constantly point out what they're doing.

The third point may seem counter-intuitive. The GOP has learned, over and over again, that tax issues don't play well for them, but they keep trying. The Democrats have always believed that tax issues don't play well for them ... but worked correctly, they could.

3) Tax cuts

In this area, I propose a surrender on one front and a strong advance on another.

First of all, the Democrats should give up their fixation on bringing back inheritance taxes. Just throw up their hands, say "we were wrong," and let it go. Americans, rich and poor, oppose having politicians take away whatever they've managed to save and acquire during their lives instead of letting them pass it on to their children. Period.

Secondly, the Democrats should propose moderate-to-large income tax cuts ... from the bottom up. Instead of tinkering with top rates, they should simply propose raising the amount of base income which is exempt from the tax.

There's no particular reason the tax issue should have belonged to the Republicans, and it's time to take the ball away from them. A low-end tax cut fits the "supply side" criterion better than a top rate cut -- because the money it leaves in the economy becomes the economic demand to which the supply side responds. It provides more, and more accurate, economic information, than a top rate cut. That reduces entrepeneurial risk and increases entrepeneurial profits.

By proposing increased exemptions, the Democrats would put themselves on sound economic ground without having to put down the occasionally advantageous "class warfare" bludgeon. They'd take away tax cuts as a GOP issue, and make it twice as effective in their own hands as it ever was in Republican hands.

4) Market environmentalism

Yes, Virginia, there are still environmentalists ... and some of them are beginning to get smart about markets. As a matter of fact, the "Wise Use" movement's corporate cronyism and anti-market bias is beginning to show. As columnist John Tierney explains, environmental groups in the west have begun taking land out of grazing and back into a state of nature the old-fashioned way: by buying grazing permits from the farmers who hold them at market prices. And this development, of course, is driving the "pro-market" corporate welfarists, and their shills in the Bureau of Land Management, friggin' insane.

It's time for Democrats to begin pointing out that the issue is not environment versus market, but environment and market against corporate welfare, against laws which exempt polluters from responsibility for the damage they cause while transferring the costs to everyone else, and against bureaucratic regimes (which happen to be controlled by, um, Republicans at this time) who "manage" the environment on behalf of the biggest campaign donors.

5) Federalism

The rekindled Democratic friendliness to "states' rights" hasn't gone unnoticed ... but I believe its potential impact is much larger than anyone dared dream.

For half a century, the Democrats dominated Congress with a coalition of "conservative" rural politicians and "liberal" urban politicians.It was only as the urban "liberals" overstepped their bounds and started stomping on rural concerns like gun rights and abortion that the Democratic majority began to fall apart. The increased penetration of media into voters' homes and the intense concentration of that media on the "liberal" agenda started eating into the ability of the rural Democrats to win elections.

A genuine federalist party line can turn things around in a big way. What we need to see is Hillary Clinton coming out and acknowledging that the problems faced by New York and Montana aren't the same, and that Washington isn't the place for either set of problems to be solved. Urban "liberal" Democrats may not want to give up their agendas, but a federalist focus will allow those rural "conservative" Democrats to gain back lost ground by establishing that they, and not the urban Democrats, represent their districts in Congress and the state legislatures.

Not long ago, Howard Dean referred to a new Democratic "western strategy." I don't know what all the elements of that strategy are ... but I think any and all of the five points above would go a long way toward implementing it. They'd help the Democrats in next year's mid-term elections -- and in tandem with the nomination of a western governor for President in 2008, they could be key to retaking Washington lock, stock and barrel.

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