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Code Blue

We know what the Bush second-term domestic agenda looks like: privatizing, and cutting the benefits of, Social Security; making tax cuts permanent for the wealthy; coddling insurance companies and medical providers through “tort reform”; expanding standardized testing in public schools; and banning gay marriage across the country. The president wants to eliminate or consolidate more than 150 programs. Spending priorities would shift ever more toward the military, with a 5 percent increase in Pentagon spending — not counting “supplemental” increases for the conflagration in Iraq. Money for half of the other two dozen government departments would be cut, with significant whacks at education, the environment and agriculture. Not that this has anything in common with authentic Goldwater conservatism. The federal budget has ballooned under Bush — a mind-boggling 30 percent since Bill Clinton left office. So has the federal deficit exploded — from an $86 billion surplus in 2000 to nearly a half-trillion (and still growing). In short, the Bush agenda is about an accelerated transfer of wealth upward while charging off all current operating expenses to the next two or three generations. But at least the Republicans have a plan: Don’t tax — but spend anyway. What’s the Democrats’ domestic alternative? Maybe you can articulate it, because they sure can’t. The Democrats can’t quite bring themselves to run a true deficit hawk even though such a posture would have enormous public appeal. Instead, the Dems seem to settle for mere ankle biting — quibbling on an ad hoc basis with this or that Republican initiative. And I do mean initiative, as the GOP seems to have achieved rather permanent ball control. Even the old Rooseveltian idea of a far-reaching federal government seems to have been appropriated by the Republicans — albeit in a bastardized version. The Democrats’ response? So far, it’s been to elect Howard Dean as DNC chairman. Doctor Dean’s unpredictable straightforwardness can be refreshing. And liberals, who make up about one-third of the Democrats and less than 15 percent of the electorate, can savor a moment of vindication (keeping in mind, I trust, that something like three-quarters of Democrats rejected Dean during last year’s primary voting). It’s certainly some fun to watch the Democratic establishment unsuccessfully resist Dean’s push. No question he was hardly the first choice of many. But beyond the feel-good vibe the Doctor ushers in, I have to admit that I don’t see what difference at all Dean’s ascension will make. The Democrats, more than a new chairman, need a compelling vision and an attractive program that can not only galvanize the base and win over the undecideds, but also inspire and motivate millions of new voters. Dean has promised that his first priority is to take the Democratic cause back into the South and other Republican red regions that his party has as much as abandoned. That’s a good first step, as Democrats have once and for all to face the uncomfortable fact that their decline stems from desertion by the white working class. But, we have to ask, just what is that Democratic cause that Dean hopes to export southward? John Kerry materialized on the same podium and answered that question by saying: “This great party of ours doesn’t need a makeover. This great party of ours doesn’t need some massive shift,” Kerry told assembled delegates of the DNC. “This party of ours came within inches of winning the presidency thanks to your efforts.” This all depends on just how many inches you need to stack up the nearly 4-million-vote margin of Bush’s popular victory. I suppose we should expect such self-serving drivel from a political cadaver like Kerry, but I would hope no one will follow his counsel. Democrats need to take the opposite of Kerry’s advice and rethink everything. Rethinking doesn’t necessarily mean sliding rightward. But someone has to put some meat on Dean’s bare-bone promise that he’ll “pretty much be living in red states in the South and West for quite a while.” Fairly or unfairly, justly or otherwise, the Democratic Party has acquired the reputation of being a bicoastal enterprise dominated by New Englanders. Dean starts out in a hole imagewise, and he, and the Democrats, are going to have to come up with something very powerful to dig themselves out. The forward push of the Republicans is going to be relentless in the months to come. Simply opposing them is not enough. Democrats, if they wish to survive nationally, must generate their own push. Liberals have complained that’s not been possible until now, because the party machinery was in the hands of a compromised corporate elite. Now, to paraphrase Confucius, they have gotten what they wished for, i.e., a national chairman who boasts he’s from the Democrat wing of the Democratic Party. Great. Now let’s hear his ideas and those of the party he vows to rebuild. Until or unless such renovation takes place, I fear that it’s comedian Lewis Black who has come up with the most accurate assessment of our political topography: The Republicans, says Black, are the party of bad ideas. The Democrats, by contrast, are the party of no ideas.


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