April 11, 2002


The Democrats Punt (David S. Broder, April 7, 2002,
Washington Post)
When the House was debating its budget resolution a few weeks ago, the Democrats proposed no alternative of their own. The ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, confessed that he had found that "we would have to use the gimmicks and the devices the other [Republican] side used," if the goal was to make the numbers politically palatable. Rather than fake it, the House Democrats punted.

But the budget resolution, though lacking the force of law, is designed to be the clearest statement of a party's policy priorities. As long as they are silent, the Democrats cannot be part of serious political debate.

They have been muzzled because they are caught in a three-way bind. They don't want to challenge President Bush on military spending or homeland security, knowing he has broad public support for the war on terrorism. Most of them don't want to revisit the 10-year, across-the-board tax cut passed last year, in part because Bush has said he would veto any rollback and in part because they fear being labeled tax-raisers. And with the budget veering into deficit, they feel constrained about urging additional spending, even for their traditional favorite domestic programs.

The result is that the public views the Democrats, according to poll after poll, as being incoherent on economic policy. Their vagueness is leaving this vital policy field to Bush and the Republicans.

Before I'm accused of shedding crocodile tears, let me be clear that I welcome the pending return of the Democrats to permanent minority party status. I believe that the long reign of liberalism (1928 to 1994) did a great deal of damage to the country, much of it irreparable. As they slink back into the political wilderness it would be helpful if they could take the big government, sexual/moral revolution, and tribalism that are their legacy with them. Instead, we're stuck picking up the pieces.

But I take no great satisfaction from seeing the Democratic Party reduced to the incoherent wreck it has become. A healthy democracy requires that there be two distinct parties forcefully advocating their very different views of the role of government in human affairs. The republic is never healthier than when the differences between the two are at their greatest and are most clearly enunciated. Both 1964 and 1994 were great years for democracy because they offered such clear choices for people. Sure, they chose badly in 1964, but the nation was ultimately well served by the way
in which 1964 restored the central ideas of conservatism to prominence in the Republican Party, even if it took thirty years for them to finally triumph.

Unfortunately, today's Democrats resemble the pusillanimous Republicans of the thirties through the seventies, who (with rare exceptions like Goldwater in '64) refused to confront the Social Welfare State and the attrition of the culture under Democrats, for fear of bucking popular opinion, and thereby made themselves utterly useless to the nation. So now the Democrats refuse to enunciate a case for big government or for further loosening of social mores or for any of the things they truly believe in, merely because the public has turned against them. But this gives us a palsied and pitiful Democratic Party, one that must depend on the cult of personality, as when it turned to the personally appealing Bill Clinton, despite his not caring about any of their issues. And once that personality leaves the stage, having already sacrificed their principles on the altar of electibility, what is left of the Democrats? It looks like the answer for now is : nothing.

Even, or especially, those of us who disagree with everything the Democrats stand for have to hope that the Party undergoes its own reformation, as the Republicans had to, and returns to its first principles : bigger government and whatever else it was the Democrats used to stand for. Provide the American people with a choice; we all know that Republicans are the party of Draconian budget cuts, over-generous tax cuts, Puritanical morality, etc. Now tell us what you're for and let the American people decide which they prefer.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2002 4:19 PM
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