Big Ideas Still Matter

by Robert Herold
Democratic presidential candidates are off and running toward Election 2004. They would do well to learn from the failures of 2000. They need reflect on the incredible fact that Al Gore's campaign will go down in history as the only one ever to turn peace and prosperity into a campaign liability.

Why didn't Gore go on the offensive? A good example of a missed opportunity: Bush says something about the need for good character in the White House. Gore just stands there and mumbles about how his campaign will be run on issues. He should have said (as a friend of mine pointed out): "Governor, I have no interest in discussing character with a man who won't take responsibility for, nor discuss, anything he ever did in life before the age of 40." The campaign would have instantly swung in Gore's direction.

True to his word, Gore did focus on those issues during the 2000 election. And wasn't that exciting? He bored us with minutiae. How many times during the debates did he challenge Bush to support "Dingell-Norwood?" The American public let out a collective yawn.

Meanwhile, the Republicans -- as they have for more than 20 years now -- focused on a strategy based on broad ideas and concepts. It is true that at times (such as when Newt Gingrich was riding high) that what passed for ideas was nothing more than vitriol packaged as demagoguery, with a dash of knee-jerk ideology.

But often the GOP candidates have managed to frame strategy based either on the predictive powers of social science, or, even more powerfully, on a broad perception of the social condition that leads them to see the prospect of the future political landscape. With this as a starting point, they frame tactics. For example, the Reaganites understood that the laboring man might not view himself as "Labor," but rather as just one more overtaxed member of the middle class who was offended by the social excesses of the '70s. And today, Karl Rove argues that the Democrats have, without even knowing it, abandoned their populist base and instead become an elitist party. Rove advances his theories with reference to the late historian, Robert Wiebe, who first advanced this thesis in his book A Search for Order. Now, I have read Wiebe and would suggest that Rove misreads or at the very least misapplies his arguments; but no matter. The point is that for Rove, political tactics and public policy need to be driven by ideas, by history and even philosophy.

Alas, when the Democratic candidates say, as did Gore, that they will campaign "on the issues," you can take that to mean they have no ideas, apart, that is, from a continuing belief that, in the words of Tip O'Neill, "all politics is local." Or, put another way, "and where are you on Dingell-Norwood?"

Ideas versus Dingell-Norwood? No contest.Such ideas help to establish a philosophical orientation that outlines a coherent world view, taking into account the realities of our age -- emergent nationalism, scarce resources, terrorism as a weapon of choice, Third World birth rates, an aging U.S. population, an interconnected and global economic universe, the prospect for new energy sources, the continuing potential of the information age.

Most certainly, the Bush notion that "we can go it alone" is sitting there, just waiting to be taken apart (most recently, Bush decided against signing an international treaty against smoking, unless the U.S. could back out at any time). And Democratic candidates need to rethink, once again, America's entire slate of international interests. The Wolfowitz strategy that restates a half-century of Cold War doctrines actually fails to get much deeper into things then a reassertion of military power followed by a kind of naive faith in the power of democracy.

So the message for Democratic presidential candidates? Speak to values and differentiate. Go on the offensive early and often (as Clinton did in 1992). Talk about big ideas and concepts, but don't be a policy wonk. Seek to nationalize the campaign, and then hope to make contact with the American voter.

This won't be easy for any of the announced candidates. The sad truth is that, except for Bill Clinton, who rode his concept of neo-liberalism to two terms, Democrats haven't had an original thought since the '60s. Surely, however, they don't want to be left wondering, once again, why the whole doesn't add up to the sum of the parts; not when Bush has provided them a forest of targets: the stagnant economy, the need for health care reform, the fiscal plight of the states, the widening gap between rich and poor, the environment, "corporate cronyism' (e.g. Halliburton and Bechtel), the exploding deficit, the threat of inflation, the burden of trying once again to be the world's policeman, the attempt to stack the court with right-wing ideologues, the terrible consequence of pandering to the Sharon government for almost two years, the decline and fall of the EPA, the illusory war on terrorism. These are all issues that, if articulated with reference to principles, could carry a Democrat back into the White House;

But can they pull it off? Or will this election become Dingell-Norwood II?

Publication date: 05/22/03

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