Much has been said, and will continue to be said, about the future of the Democratic Party. This ongoing dialogue is a good one, if for no other reason, because it promotes the kind of thoughtful debate and discussion which is needed to address the many failings of the Democratic party over the past 12 years. Since John Kerry's 2004 election loss, many "single bullet" theories have been proposed, claiming to explain away the Democratic woes with one fell swoop. Thankfully, the shortcomings of these theories have been exposed. There is no single fix-all for the Democratic party, but there are many good starting points (most of which serve as the foundation for those fix-alls).
Yes, Democrats do need to better articulate an alternative national security strategy to that of the current administration. As Senator Evan Bayh
has rightly pointed out, "Educating our children, providing quality health care and securing retirement are all critical challenges -- but the American people will not trust us on any of those issues if they don't first trust us with their lives." However, the desire to look "tough" has too often left Democrats supporting or backing down to the current administration's foolhardy foreign policy misadventures.
Yes, Democrats do need to frame issues better and to avoid using Republican frames that force us to play on "their turf." As George Lakoff says in the introduction to Don't Think of an Elephant
, "our job is to frame our own values, vision, and mission, and avoid attacking theirs, because if we do, it only keeps their ideas in the forefront." However, Lakoff's theories and lessons are a dangerous elixir for Democrats, telling them, "just learn how to talk different and you'll be fine." Certainly, framing matters, but what are we framing, what are the values, what is the vision?
Understanding that the way forward for the Democratic party is not necessarily a clear one, with many competing interests vying for prominence within the party, it is vital for the leaders of the Democratic party and the rank & file, to adopt a message and vision that appeals to the widest possible swath of the voting public. Perhaps the only message that can bring together the disparate interests within the Democratic party and help them move forward together under a common banner is a simple message: Reform and Progress.
Why Reform? First, every progressive, liberal, moderate, centrist, and blue dog Democrat can agree that the past 12 years of Republican control of Congress and especially the last 6 years of Republican control of EVERYTHING has left our government in shambles at all levels. If you are a Democrat whose chief concern is the environment, look at what the Republicans have done to the EPA, Interior, Energy, and our environmental regulations. If health care is your thing, well, do I even need to get into it. And if you consider yourself a "national security" Democrat, wouldn't you like to fix the Armed Forces that the current majority party has stretched thin, failed to modernize, and forced to rely on more out of date weapons systems? Why Reform? Because we all agree its necessary, because it can apply to everything, and because no matter what the final product of reform is, its got to be better than the current state of things.
Why Progress? For good or for ill, part of the great American story has been a sense of continuing progress in our nation's history. While the "progress paradigm" ignores many of the gritty details of our nation's history, it is deeply embedded in who we are as a people and as such, must be tapped for electoral success and in developing public support for policy. Having spent the past 2 years as an aide on Capitol Hill, I know full well the bunker mentality that House Democrats have been forced to take. When everything you believe in, or have worked to build, is under attack, the first and proper reaction is do everything in your power to hold the line. However, such a defensive posture, although necessary, places Democrats on the wrong side of the progress paradigm. Karl Rove even went so far as to declare that Conservatism had won a victory in the Social Security reform
(small "r" when the reform is useless, regressive, and doesn't fix the fiscal underpinnings) because Democrats appeared to "be obstructionist, oppositional, and wedded to the past instead of the future - and thats not a good place to be in American politics." Clearly, Democrats were right to block the President's Social Security proposal, and in this case, it looks like Rove was wrong, but his thoughts shed light on an important political reality.
If it's clear "Why Reform?" and "Why Progress?" and we can debate "what Reform is" that leaves one major question, "What is Progress?" This is where the FUTURE of the Democratic party will be determined. In the next 7 months, the Democratic leaders and candidates need to articulate what their first principles and values are, and how those principles and values build a foundation for their vision of American progress in the 21st century. I would argue that the most important driving forces behind any proposals put forth by the Democratic party must be creativity and innovation in government. Gov. Tom Vilsack has started to hit on this point
, and in so doing, he has inoculated himself from some of the predictable criticisms of Rove & Co. Emphasizing creativity and innovation helps Democrats break free of the past and become the party of progress, idealism, and a better future; a "more perfect Union" as Lincoln said, and Clinton repeated, time after time. Speaking of creativity and innovation forces Democrats to their money where there mouth is, as Senator Barack Obama and Representative Jay Inslee have done with their "Health Care for Hybrids Act."
Rhetoric, such as that used by Gov. Vilsack, and ideas, such as those put forth by Sen. Obama and Rep. Inslee, are just the start. If the Democratic party is to gain control of Congress and the White House, it must dedicate itself to both a consistent defense of its principles, which I think we all believe are the foundational principles of the American experience, and a consistent campaign for progress, reform, creativity, or innovation. If the party leans to much towards the offense it will fall prey to attacks, and if leans too much towards the defense, it will become the party of the past. Balance is key in all things, but it is a necessity if the Democratic party is to become the governing majority in this country in the coming years.