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The economic and social rights won through blood and sacrifice over the last two centuries have made America a “hugely” better place, says Hart. “But we have lost the other side of the coin,” he adds. “Participation, responsibility and ownership.”
On that basis, he sketches out a political program that is no less than a hybrid of socially progressive ideas and small-c conservatism: national health care, children’s and citizens’ savings accounts, tighter regulation of markets and corporations, a national energy strategy, environmentalism, and radical campaign-finance reform. In turn, Americans might be asked to pay a consumption tax, he says, participate in community service and learn to scale down their lifestyles to something more compatible with finite resources.
This singular call to common tasks and sacrifice is what most distinguishes Hart from the rest of our current crop of politicians. And it makes you wonder if the American people would be open to such a two-way message. Hart agrees that Americans have been “spoiled” by the “last quarter-century of me, mine, go get yours” that has defined the American ethos. But he rushes to add that, more than any reflection of cultural rot on the part of average Americans, it’s much more a product of failed political leadership.
“Let’s face it,” he says. “My own Democratic Party doesn’t get it. It’s still the rights party, saying to you, ‘This is what government is going to do for you.’
“The Republicans, for their part, have betrayed their own name,” he adds. “It’s a party that really doesn’t believe in government at all any longer — it’s been hijacked by libertarians who want to do away with Social Security and public education. If they believed in half of what they said about local government, they’d jump all over my ideas.”
Last month, those ideas seemed to captivate a large audience when Hart led a public discussion on “economic security” at UCLA’s Anderson School. He ä received warm applause and a bevy of questions from an audience peppered with many of his longtime friends and admirers — many of them, like Adelphia Communications talk-show host Bill Rosendahl, dating back to the days when Hart managed George McGovern’s presidential run. Warren Beatty and producer Mike Medavoy were also on hand to applaud Hart as they did during his ’84 and ’88 campaigns. Also present were a couple of key sympathetic rainmakers whose money-raising talents will be sorely needed if Hart makes a serious go of it.
The question is, can Hart resonate significantly beyond the current circle of admirers and dedicated political wonks and junkies? The obstacles seem formidable — though not necessarily insurmountable.
First, there’s the question of his politics. Is he out of sync with a conservative era in which the idea of community service has been expunged from the political lexicon? Hart begins with an unflinching view of the Bush administration: “It’s Reaganism taken to a new scale, massive supply-side economics,” he says. “But in its foreign policy it’s also messianic. The Wolfowitz-Perle axis wants to remake the world, and as a Jeffersonian and an American it scares me to death.”
But, Hart says, the American people are desirous of a sea change, if only someone would lead them. He points to a time exactly 20 years ago. In 1980, the Reagan landslide buried a pack of important Democratic senators, “but I survived it.” Three years later, with Reagan riding at his highest, Hart went out across the country to take the national pulse on issues and ideas. “I saw my ideas were being listened to, that I could run, that I would get support,” he says. And he was right. Right enough to nearly deny Mondale the nomination. And right enough to propel him into the position of Democratic front-runner four years later. “We are in a similar moment right now,” he says. “What I am doing now is trying to replicate the experience of 1983 that led directly to the campaign.”
Some former Hart staffers — while exuding unblemished admiration for their boss (“He spoiled me forever — no politician ever again lived up to him,” says one) — nevertheless argue that he may be naive in making the run again. The 2004 primary cycle is the most front-loaded in history, openly favoring those candidates with the most money and the most name recognition. Hart has at least as much of the latter as any other contender. But he has practically no campaign cash, not yet anyway. (This while the semi-anonymous John Edwards leads the field in fund-raising, having garnered more than $7 million in the last reporting cycle.)
But one former Hart campaign worker, a former Clinton administration appointee now itching to work again for Hart, pushes these considerations aside. “I can see the scenario of Gary running and winning,” he says. “There’s a lot of free-floating idealists out there looking to hang their hat on someone like Gary. And this president we’ve got now is making it a lot easier to see his own demise. Virtually no one can be pleased by him except maybe those in the extraction industries and those on the Christian Right. This can be the big moment for Gary.”