July 28, 2005


Un***ing the Donkey: Advice for weary, wandering Democrats (Rick Perlstein, July 28th, 2005, Village Voice)

[I]t may come as a surprise to you that I've never been impressed by the argument that we need a new idea infrastructure. We've got more ideas than we need.

Sure, the right talks about "ideas" all the time. But they define it exactly opposite from us. For us it is a synonym for clever, complicated new policy options. For them, it's Plato's definition of Ideas: as unchanging essences. The stuff that builds foundations.

As usual, Ronald Reagan boiled it down to essentials. He liked to say—maybe he said it to some of you—"There are no easy answers. But there are simple answers." I'm here to say he's right. "Building a progressive idea structure" ain't the problem. It's recovering the progressive foundation. Do that, and we are un****withable.

It's simple. Barack Obama put it exquisitely in his victory speech: "Government can help provide us with the basic tools we need to live out the American dream."

Here's a dirty little secret. The Republicans know this. Nothing scares them more than us returning to our simple answers.

Mr. Obama, of course, borrowed the "basic tools" line from George W. Bush, who, were he a Democrat would be Mr. Perlstein's hero. What he imagines to be a dirty secret is the platform that Mr. Bush has twice won election on and transformed Democrats into a permanent minority in the process. The President gives those simple answers -- about government providing everyone the tools but not doing the hard work for them -- every chance he gets:
Every American must believe in the promise of America. And to reach this noble, necessary goal, there is a role for government. America doesn't need more big government, and we've learned that more money is not always the answer. If a program is failing to serve people, it makes little difference if we spend twice as much or half as much. The measure of true compassion is results.

Yet we cannot have an indifferent government either. We are a generous and caring people. We don't believe in a sink-or-swim society. The policies of our government must heed the universal call of all faiths to love a neighbor as we would want to be loved ourselves. We need a different approach than either big government or indifferent government. We need a government that is focused, effective and close to the people; a government that does a few things, and does them well.

Government cannot solve every problem, but it can encourage people and communities to help themselves and to help one another. Often the truest kind of compassion is to help citizens build lives of their own. I call my philosophy and approach "compassionate conservatism." It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and on results. And with this hopeful approach, we can make a real difference in people's lives.

Compassionate conservatism places great hope and confidence in public education. Our economy depends on higher and higher skills, requiring every American to have the basic tools of learning. Every public school should be the path of upward mobility.

Yet, sadly enough, many are the dead-end of dreams. Public schools are some of the most important institutions of democracy. They take children of every background, from every part of the world, and prepare them for the obligations and opportunities of a free society. Public schools are Americans' great hope, and making them work for every child is America's great duty.

The new education reforms we have passed in Washington give the federal government a new role in public education. Schools must meet new and high standards of performance in reading and math that will be proven on tests and posted on the Internet for parents and everyone to see. And we're giving local schools and teachers unprecedented freedom and resources and training to meet these goals.

It is conservative to let local communities chart their own path to excellence. It is compassionate to insist that every child learns, so that no child is left behind. By insisting on results, and challenging failure where we find it, we'll make an incredible difference in the lives of every child in America.

Compassionate conservatism offers a new vision for fighting poverty in America. For decades, our nation has devoted enormous resources to helping the poor, with some great successes to show for it: basic medical care for those in need, a better life for elderly Americans. However, for millions of younger Americans, welfare became a static and destructive way of life.

In 1996, we began transforming welfare with time limits and job training and work requirements. And the nation's welfare rolls have been cut by more than half. But even more importantly, many lives have been dramatically improved.

One former welfare recipient here in California, happened to be a mother of a chronically-ill child and the victim of domestic violence, describes her experience upon leaving welfare. She said, "I feel like an adult again. I have my dignity back."

We need to continue to fully transform welfare in America. As Congress takes up welfare reform again in the coming weeks, we must strengthen the work requirements that prevent dependency and despair. Millions of Americans once on welfare are finding that a job is more than a source of income. It is a source of dignity. And by helping people find work, by helping them prepare for work, we practice compassion.

Welfare reform must also, wherever possible, encourage the commitments of family. Not every child has two devoted parents at home - I understand that. And not every marriage can, or should be saved. But the evidence shows that strong marriages are good for children.

When a couple on welfare wants to break bad patterns and start or strengthen a marriage, we should help local groups give them counseling that teaches commitment and respect. By encouraging family, we practice compassion.

In overcoming poverty and dependence, we must also promote the work of charities and community groups and faith-based institutions. These organizations, such as shelters for battered women or mentoring programs for fatherless children or drug treatment centers, inspire hope in a way that government never can. Often, they inspire life-changing faith in a way that government never should.

Our government should view the good Americans that work in faith-based charities as partners, not rivals. We must provide new incentives for charitable giving and, when it comes to providing federal resources to effective programs, we should not discriminate against private and religious groups.

I urge the Senate to pass the faith-based initiative for the good of America. It is compassionate to aggressively fight poverty in America. It is conservative to encourage work and community spirit and responsibility and the values that often come from faith. And with this approach, we can change lives one soul at a time, and make a real difference in the lives of our citizens.

One interesting sidenote is how juvenile Mr. Perlstein sounds when he uses profanity to try and make his points. If Republicans are the Daddy Party and Demnocrats the Mommy Party, perhaps it's best to think of progressives as the couple's teenagers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 28, 2005 9:48 PM

In order to 'recover the progressive foundation', don't the Democrats have to honor the individual above the State?

I don't think they are capable of doing it.

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 28, 2005 10:29 PM

But you see Bush is not well-intentioned. Results don't matter.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 28, 2005 10:51 PM


No, the progressive foundation has always been antithetical to individuals.

Posted by: oj at July 28, 2005 11:01 PM

Does that title indicate that Perlstein now favors abstinence education?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 28, 2005 11:08 PM

oj -

Do you think the Left is actually opposed to self-reliance, or simply misguided in their approach to it? (The question seems relevant to such diverse topics as child-rearing, "social justice", and post-invasion Iraq.)

Posted by: ghostcat at July 28, 2005 11:09 PM


Left and Right divide over freedom vs. security. Freedom includes the possibility of failure which is intolerable to the Left which demands that the state impose equality of results. So, no, the Left doesn't believe in self-reliance.

Posted by: oj at July 28, 2005 11:16 PM

Makes sense, all the "progressives" want is sex, drugs, money and no responsibility when it all goes kaplooey.

Posted by: Sandy P at July 28, 2005 11:20 PM

the left demands that people depend (in the profoundest sense of the word) on the state. attempts at self-reliance are seen as subversive and are quashed brutally. why do you think every single communist country intentionally starves its citizens ?

an example from the u.s. : a group of welfare recipients got together and started pooling their money to make improvements in their housing. the local government socialists threatened to stop their benefit payments if the recipients didn't stop working together.

Posted by: cjm at July 28, 2005 11:51 PM

OJ: He is your friend, you make the garlic bread.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 29, 2005 12:14 AM

Look at how the left comes across sounding like used car salesmen: "Never write another check for health costs again." Let's put national health insurance on a ballot with another possibility. "You can keep your take home pay and put another 12.4% away in a IRA." People can have one or the other, but not both. Which one would win?

The point is that this is not your father's middle-class.

Posted by: David Cohen at July 29, 2005 12:14 AM

"Never write another check for health costs again, mutherf'er"

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 12:20 AM

I'm headed to oj's house for that free lunch.

Posted by: ghostcat at July 29, 2005 12:26 AM

This was all just a summer fling then, I take it. Or are you still flirting?

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 29, 2005 1:40 AM

Cut poor old Rick Perlstein some slack.

The Village Voice just won't run an article without profanity. It's their editorial policy.

Best to put it in the title and get that obligation out of the way first.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at July 29, 2005 2:09 AM

"[Saving] the Donkey" is intensely juvenile:

Quoting a Congressperson - "The newly amended bankruptcy law is a criminal act perpetrated, bought and paid for by commercial pirates masquerading as legitimate businesses."

Because the credit recipients were victims of white slavery ?

Or did they...
Give the credit card issuers personal information, such as SS and bank account numbers, and ask for credit to be extended ?

Let's talk about Social Security.

The most glorious thing about congressional Democrats is that they have drawn the line and said: No further. Don't. Touch. Social. Security. It is a heroic stand. What's more, it's been enormously politically effective.

Now think about this: They are drawing on the capital of an entitlement passed 70 years ago.

But one that won't last another 70 years, or even 35.

SS goes cash-flow negative in 14 years or so, which means that it GOES BROKE in 14 years, since it doesn't hold any real assets.

"Don't. Touch. Social. Security." = "Raise taxes and cut benefits".
But hey, that's 14 years down the road...

Might as well win a few elections in the meantime.
Future retirees can like it or lump it.

Paul Krugman reported a poll that 72 percent of Americans favor "government-guaranteed health insurance for all."

Then why, when push came to shove, did Americans REJECT that very measure ?
What we have is a polling artifact.

Plus, the Canadian and British experience with universal health care has been mixed, at best.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at July 29, 2005 5:10 AM

The left has never had a crisis of confidence in the belief in their own ideas. They've just lost faith in those ideas, presented straightfowardly, being able to win votes in an election.

Posted by: John at July 29, 2005 7:01 AM


Several points.

1. The bankruptcy reform bill is intensely ugly. Credit card companies go out and get college kids signed up with credit cards even if they have no income. Then, they charge exorbitant interest rates 10 or more points above prime. Interest rates are a function of risk, the higher the risk, the higher the rate. When the credit card companies got their debts exempted from discharge, they have gotten the best of both worlds, high real interest rates and low risk. And the dumbass kids who get bamboozled and stampeded into having credit problems are behind the 8-ball forever. Normally, I don't get upset when the stupid get taken advantage of, but even for me this is over the top.

2. The fundamental reality of Social Security is mathematical inevitability. In 1938, when the Wagner Act was passed, there were 16 payers for every recipient, now there are about 3. In the relatively near future, there will be about 2. The system as such as a mathematical construct cannot stand. There are laws of mathematics that even a Clinton cannot evade successfully.

Posted by: bart at July 29, 2005 7:03 AM

Sorry, one more point.

Americans want government guaranteed health care, but they don't want any of the restrictions which necessarily accompany it. Krugman's polling question, much like Krugman himself, is completely useless.

The problem of health care is quite simple to define and quite difficult to solve. Americans want access to medical care, they want to select their own physicians, they want to be able to sue someone when things go wrong, and they want to be able to get the best of medical care on their timetable and not on that of the medical system, and they want it all at no or little cost. Obviously such a state of affairs is impossible, but given the mob's susceptibility to demagogues, they will never be disabused of their reveries.

Posted by: bart at July 29, 2005 7:08 AM


When "progressive" meant raging against corporate America, big business, the "Man", and the machine, there was probably a smidgen of concern for the individual. But not when compared to the left's thralldom to government.

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 29, 2005 7:16 AM

Michael, a "congressperson" didn't say this-- "The newly amended bankruptcy law is a criminal act perpetrated, bought and paid for by commercial pirates masquerading as legitimate businesses."--a conservative said it, on FreeRepublic.com.

As for obscenity, take it up with Jean Schmidt's campaign manager...

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at July 29, 2005 8:54 AM

Rick reads Free Republic and thinks it's the conservative mainstream just because he thinks Democratic Underground is the Democratic mainstream.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 9:02 AM

I'd be interested in responses to the core of my argument--beyond distractions about the bad language (it's hard to get powerful people's attention!) and piouis bromides. The heart is this: William Kristol's 1993 argument that "Health care is not, in fact, just another Democratic initiative . . . the plan should not be amended; it should be erased. . . . It will revive the reputation of the . . . Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests."

He was making a political, not a moral point. And, as I argued, "I'd say this memo is the skeleton key to understanding modern American politics, if it didn't make me yawn. There's nothing here that's unfamiliar to historians who've read Republican secrets going back 25, 35, even 70 years. You can sum them up in 10 words: 'If the Democrats succeed in redistributing economic power, we're screwed.'"

Again, ladies, excuse the language. But here's another point: it's pretty easy to separate, as it were, the men from the boys among Republican strategists, the rec room hacks from the real players. Having had the privilege, of a historian, of reading the memos of the power players, I know that the real players KNOW that Democratic economic populism is the scariest prospect Republicans can face, which is why they make the public feint, "go ahead, make my day, become economic populists, the people will hate you for it." They are terrified of it.

Those who are not terrified of the political power of Democratic economic populism--those who actually BELIEVE that liberal economic ideas are unpopular--are dismissable as penny-ante amateurs.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at July 29, 2005 9:06 AM


The raging was done by labor bosses.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 9:09 AM

Sorry about the repeat. I'm experimenting with a new browser.

Free Republic: actually Orrin is in many ways further right than the typical FReeper, for example in his conviction that World War II wasn't worth fighting and that Shi'ism is the answer to the Middle East's woes.

That "3 payers for every recipient" is the most statistically illiterate lie in the Republican playbook. It's been roughly that way for decades, and has nothing to do with the "baby boomers." The chart is a hockey stick--the 16-to-1 ratio being, obviously, an artifact of the early years of the system when IT WASN'T PAYING OUT RETIREMENT BENEFITS AT ALL.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at July 29, 2005 9:13 AM


There should be health insurance for all--HSAs The Right is ahead of the "progressives" here too.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 9:17 AM


Aren't you supposed to be a historian? It was designed not to pay benefits, with retirement age set at life expectancy.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 9:37 AM


Kristol isn't religious so he doesn't grasp conservatism. W is serious about covering everyone. The poinjt is that the only way it makes sense is to utilize market forces, thus universal HSAs.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 9:41 AM

Whatever. Call it a ham sandwich. It was taking in money and not paying any out. When the first retirees became eligible to get ham sandwich, the ratio was 16 to one. BECAUSE IT WAS A NEW PROGRAM. The idea that the 3 to 1 ratio is converging on a 1 to 1 ratio, or a 1 to 3 ratio, is what you might call a "lie." Or, if you prefer, since strong language makes you blush, call it it a ham sandwich.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at July 29, 2005 9:47 AM

"Those who are not terrified of the political power of Democratic economic populism--those who actually BELIEVE that liberal economic ideas are unpopular--are dismissable as penny-ante amateurs."

Looks like your argument for the awesome, puissant grandeur of Democratic political ideas boils down to a willingness to bribe voters with [insert whatever version of 'free lunch' involved, here]. Stand proud!!


Anyway, I'm not necessarily opposed to some sort of national health care program (so long as it's flexible & isn't locked into a single-payer dead end). I just don't trust the Donks to run it. It would plummet into institutionalized mediocrity straight away.

But Rick's got a point -- if I were a Pug strategist, I would be busy stealing this issue from the D's.

Posted by: Twn at July 29, 2005 9:56 AM


It won't converge here because as the last religious nation in the West and the only one that's immigrant friendly we're avoiding demographic the collapse of Europe and Japan, where the ratio is headed under 1 to 1.

The ratio is why the program fails utterly, not why it's wrong. It's wrong for myriad moral and economic reasons.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 9:58 AM

I know that the real players KNOW that Democratic economic populism is the scariest prospect Republicans can face

It's not only that, it is the scariest prospect we all can face. We should all be very afraid of the kind of future that an unbridled appetite for government largesse can lead us to. The 20th Century has shown what can happen when a government harnesses the resentments of the poor. Remember the Kulaks.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at July 29, 2005 9:59 AM

"I know that the real players KNOW that Democratic economic populism is the scariest prospect Republicans can face"

"A 2000 Time/CNN poll found that 39 percent of Americans believe they are in the wealthiest one percent or soon will be."

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at July 29, 2005 10:22 AM

"a conservative said it, onFreeRepublic.com."

Well, then, it's gotta be true.

The dredger for quotes is the inbred cousin of the troll.

The only reason a person, especially a professional journalist, who visits FreeRepublic.com or DailyKos.com, or any other such site, and can't find a juicy quote that fits all their prejudices about the other side, is because that person is too lazy to find it.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 29, 2005 10:29 AM

Rick, is that the same hockey stick chart that you used to prove global warming or do you have to conjure up a new one to prove each of your points?

Posted by: erp at July 29, 2005 11:18 AM


Bingo! Which is why we never use them here.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 12:14 PM

Why yes, that economic populism (I want what I want when I want and you pay for it w/no responsiblities to me, hello boomers!) works so well in socialistic countries.

Which are falling off the cliff.

Posted by: Sandy P at July 29, 2005 1:06 PM

TWN, the bribery of churches with faith-based funds is far more explicit in Republican strategizing--and it detracts from the general welfare, whereas as programs like universal healthcare do the opposite.

Orrin, HSAs are a joke. No one except for hacks takes them seriously in policy circles.

I just met a conservative who's moving to Canada for the healthcare.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at July 29, 2005 1:46 PM

Rick: My HSA is paying for my kid's braces entirely with TAX FREE dollars (not subject to the ridiculous AGI calculation). So, I guess the joke's on me?

I know a liberal who's moving to France for the Socialism. That each of us can find an idiot to "prove" (anecdoatally) our point is sort of almost conspiratorial, eh?

Posted by: John Resnick at July 29, 2005 2:07 PM

TWN, the bribery of churches with faith-based funds is far more explicit in Republican strategizing--and it detracts from the general welfare, whereas as programs like universal healthcare do the opposite.

Heh. If you're going to hand out bribes, why not hand 'em out all round? I am no staunch proponent of the faith-based orgs, but I won't grant you that they'll detract from the general welfare (or, for that matter, that programs like universal healthcare would actually do anything other than curdle in their own good will).

Orrin, HSAs are a joke. No one except for hacks takes them seriously in policy circles.

I don't know anything about HSA's, but I've gotta say that "policy circles" are not a source of authority I care to grant any special credence. For every bad policy implemented, there's a circle of busybody policy hacks to blame. And there are tons of bad policies on the books.

I just met a conservative who's moving to Canada for the healthcare.

I guess he hasn't heard about how the Canadian Supreme Court recently ruled that the government must allow private healthcare, because the public single-payer system is so bad it's violating the Canadian Charter Of Rights (Charter of Smiles, Puppydogs, Hugs -- whatever it's called).

Posted by: Twn at July 29, 2005 2:45 PM


Ah, subjectivism, the last refuge of the wrong.

Posted by: oj at July 29, 2005 3:15 PM

that should read "i just met an ignorant faux-conservative who is moving to canada for the illusion of health care"

Posted by: cjm at July 29, 2005 4:06 PM


I agree that there should be more consumer education about credit, but it's not as if there's none now. The people most in need of it are the least likely to listen to it.

I also agree that When the credit card companies got their debts exempted from discharge, they have gotten the best of both worlds, high real interest rates and low risk.

However, it's also clearly true that consumers as a whole were increasingly taking knowing advantage of more available credit, running up debts that they had no intention of paying.
Further, the credit card companies only got partial protection, so it's NOT true that kids who get bamboozled [...] are behind the 8-ball forever.

Anyone whose income is below the median for their state of residence can still discharge their debts, and even those above that level can take advantage of debt restructuring plans.

The truly poor are not affected by the new regulations, and bankruptcy courts aren't going to force middle class families with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, for instance, to pay more than they can reasonably afford monthly.

The argument that those over the median income level will have to labor in the salt mines forever, to pay for catastrophic debts incurred due to hard luck or bad spouses, assumes that bankruptcy courts will be inhumanly draconian.
Surely there will be cases in which that is true, but those will not be the norm, nor numerous.

Rick Perlstein:

My apologies for misreading the article.
Whomever the source of the quote, it was a stupid thing to say, for the reasons that I give above.

Set aside the "3 payers per retiree" figure for the moment.
SS is projected to go cash-flow negative in around 14 years, although it is currently generating a surplus.
Therefore, the ratio of contributing workers to retirees MUST BE shrinking.

Regardless of whatever the history of that ratio is, in the future, it will clearly not be sufficient, at the current levels of taxation and benefits.

Calling such a well-accepted analysis a "lie" is...
At best, ignorant.

As for universal health care, bart and Twn nail it.

Many European nations, as well as Canada, have such systems, and they are clearly, without question, no panacea.

HSAs are the salvation of the U.S. health care system, because they re-introduce consumer pressure for lower prices, and comparison shopping, while still keeping the tax-free nature of traditional health insurance plans.
The dreaded (by some) "competition".

They also benefit health care providers and insurance companies, by eliminating the nickel & dime claims that can build into a mountain of costs, since HSA holders have only catastrophic insurance.

It's the same as raising one's auto insurance deductible to $ 1,000, or more.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at July 29, 2005 7:46 PM

Just a wandering thought: It's interesting that Perlstein says he used profanity because he needed to get the attention of powerful people in his party. It's telling that he has to use it or risk inattention. That doesn't say much for the party's intellectual or political maturity.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 29, 2005 10:47 PM

And, of course, if they don't take themselves seriously why should we?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 29, 2005 10:48 PM

"I just met a conservative who is moving to Canada for the health care".

Is he already terminal?

The problem with Perstein's obsession with GOP malevolence is that the middle class now recognizes (at least subconsciously) that it is not 'protected' by the government tendrils reaching into its pocket. Too many "middle-class" Americans have experienced the Leviathan first hand, and too many Americans are familiar with the surprising fact that the Democrats are now the party of the rich for the rich.

And his comment about policy circles is quite telling: of course the 'wonkish' redistributionist policy circles don't like HSAs. These people are socialists! They don't like tax cuts, either, and Perlstein is never going to cite Arthur Laffer as a policy circle, anyway.

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 30, 2005 12:10 AM