The Democratic Party: How It Can Save Itself

With the GOP in disarray and the president an increasingly lame duck, Democrats need to take the next three years to refind their focus.

Jason Reed/Reuters

Between 1968, when Lyndon Johnson left the White House, and the end of the century, the nation elected only two Democratic presidents. Both were Southern populists who had been careful to differentiate themselves from Great Society and their liberal predecessors. That all changed in 2008, when Barack Obama defeated the party-establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, and then Republican John McCain with a campaign that pledged to end political and ideological polarization with pragmatic problem-solving—from a liberal point of departure.

Before 2008, Obama looked like a liberal of moderate temperament. He had the bad luck to take office at a time of financial and economic crises overshadowing everything else. He has said since that he underestimated at the time the depth of the crises. That no doubt led him, before growth and stability had been restored, to undertake in 2009 a remake of the entire health sector. Both his stimulus package and healthcare proposal were mainly designed by House Democratic leaders and the interest groups that supported his 2008 campaign. There was no serious attempt, in formulating either program, to draw Republicans into participation, as LBJ had done in 1965. Provisions allowing the sale of health-insurance products across state lines, and providing for meaningful tort reform, could have done that without forfeiting Democratic support. Trial lawyers would have objected but not jeopardized the bill's passage.

As a result, Obama and Democratic House leaders needed the vote of every Democratic House member to pass the health bill. He got his bill, but 63 House Democrats lost their seats in the midterm elections, including many moderates. They were mainly replaced by Republican Tea Partiers, guaranteeing the angry congressional polarization since.

Obama’s 2012 reelection is little comfort for Democrats. His total vote was smaller than in 2008, and it did not constitute a mandate for any particular agenda. It instead depended on two things: first, an unprecedentedly skillful identification and mobilization of key Obama voter groups that had grown in importance over the previous four years; and second, highly effective scare campaigns designed to convince those groups that Mitt Romney and Republicans were heartless plutocrats, servants of wealth, and enemies of women, Latinos, African Americans, and the middle class.

That approach is unlikely to work for another Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. Republicans, for one thing, are unlikely to nominate someone as short on political gut instincts as Romney. And some voter groups are unlikely, four years from now, to be so easily motivated. Immigration reform, for instance, might remove a crucial barrier to socially conservative Latino voters moving to a Republican Party whose family, religious, and social values are like their own. Most of all, voters will still be searching for the reductions in political toxicity that Obama pledged in 2008 to produce.

Democrats need to return to the mindset of their most skillful prior leaders. Those leaders, from the New Deal onward, always began by asking: What are our country's most pressing needs? Then, what are our proposals to meet those needs? Finally, how can we mobilize majorities in the country and Congress to enact those proposals?

Comprehensive healthcare reform was a worthy priority for the administration. It was undertaken, however, at a time when the country remained financially and economically unstable—and when people of all outlooks were wary about an ambitious remake of a huge part of the economy. Unlike Medicare, Medicaid, or the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, it was formulated and narrowly passed on a one-party basis without public opinion supporting it. If he were to do it over, Obama would no doubt take the Lyndon Johnson/Ted Kennedy approach to healthcare reform and enlist a few Republican leaders and ideas, such as tort reform or selling insurance across state lines.

That mindset does not focus on one-upping Republicans in the next news cycle or gaining an edge for the next election. It focuses on serious governance.

Environmental, cultural, social, and other issues have moved forward on the national agenda since FDR and LBJ laid down New Deal and Great Society policy frameworks for the country. But the Big Two issues—the economy and national security—remain the Big Two, and remain to be addressed.

The first imperative is to provide long-term financial and economic stability to the country. Residual federal debt of $17 to $31 trillion, depending on whether you count off-budget obligations, must be reduced. This is necessary not only to fend off inflation and protect the dollar but also to facilitate ongoing governance. From a liberal or Democratic viewpoint, there can be few public initiatives if an ever-growing share of public resources is gobbled up by debt service.

This will require a bipartisan fix to taxes, spending, and entitlements along the lines proposed by Obama's Simpson-Bowles commission. Most analysts were surprised, when the commission was constituted, that Obama required a weighted rather than simple majority vote by the commission to send the package to Congress for an up-or-down vote; several Democratic commission members proposed lobbying their fellow Democratic members so that a sufficient majority would trigger a congressional vote.

But Obama opted instead to flay Republicans for their supposed hostility to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He clearly did not recognize that, unless dealt with comprehensively and in bipartisan fashion, this issue would remain unresolved. A relatively painless combination of measures, recognized for decades as a solution, would include cost-of-living adjustments; small increases in the ages for Social Security and Medicare eligibility; and lifting the cap on earnings subject to tax withholding. The only thing missing has been the political will to apply the solution now rather than in a later presidential term. The next president will have to do it all over again.

Another part of this challenge—comprehensive tax reform—must also be addressed on a bipartisan basis. Both parties give lip service to the scrubbing of loopholes and preferences from the tax code. Economists from both liberal and conservative schools attest that these tax breaks distort economic decision-making—favoring one sector or activity over another—and impede economic growth and job creation. They also cut a huge hole in the federal revenue base. Much present debate about raising or cutting taxes would recede if genuine tax reform brought fresh trillions into the Treasury.

On the national-security side, Democrats need to reconsider the Wilsonianism that has pervaded their thinking since World War I. Both parties, but Democrats more than Republicans, have wanted "to make the world safe for democracy" with interventions in many places where American vital interests were not at stake. Even after the tragedy of Vietnam, which Kennedy and Johnson misread as part of the Cold War, we have been drawn into interventions in many countries on bases other than a cold assessment of their importance to our own security. The 2011 Libyan intervention and recent threat to intervene in Syria were not justifiable on that basis. The allure of "nation building," in which Des Moines might be replicated in Baghdad or Kabul, must be resisted. We would do well to perfect democracy and nation-build in our own country before decreeing it elsewhere. A public backlash is building against such interventions, which could hamstring future presidents if and when our vital interests truly are at stake.

Democrats also must reconsider the habit of seeing Americans as senior citizens, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Jews, single mothers, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Y members, secular or religious, higher-educated or not, debtors or savers, union or non-union, wealthy or members of the middle class. These are useful categories for pollsters and campaign consultants as they try to figure out what certain people think and the best way to influence them. But they are a trap for policymakers.

The most successful Democratic programs historically have been universal and "horizontal"—that is, applying to all citizens equally—rather than "vertical," applying only to discrete and targeted groups. Eligibility may vary for universal, horizontal programs, but most citizens understand and accept that. Medicare and Social Security remain broadly popular, if in need of long-term financial fixes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is also still essentially unchallenged, because it banned discrimination for or against any citizen on the basis of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or other irrelevant factors. The present day gay-rights and gay-marriage movements are gaining broad and rapid acceptance because they so obviously fall within the Civil Rights Act's context.

But vertical, targeted programs and policies inevitably have caused disruptions and divisions in society. Problems especially began for Democrats when some of their former core supporters perceived that certain defined groups were being singled out for benefits others did not receive. Affirmative action (a Nixon Administration invention) was perceived to have supplanted the previous everyone-free-and-equal concepts that were the cornerstone of the CRA. The tax code rewards some industries and economic activity handsomely whereas ordinary wage-earning families struggle and feel shafted by faithless policymakers. Both major parties currently see immigration reform as helping or hurting them electorally. It should be seen, instead, as a means of keeping faith with our Statue of Liberty ideals while at the same time providing the ordered immigration and border control that any nation must maintain.

Wedge politics and tailored political messaging can bring a campaign or even a presidency short-term success. But, for the longer run, most Americans feel they are in it together and badly want bipartisan action to keep the economy stable and growing, to keep the country safe here and abroad, and to keep American society open and fair. Americans want from Democrats what Obama promised in his 2008 campaign. Financial and economic crises diverted him, he opted for partisanship with his first-term initiatives, and the resulting gridlock leaves Democrats with three years to consider their future path.

By 2016, this veteran hopes, party leaders will conclude that the big things should be tackled first and that, because of their difficulty, they must be addressed on a bipartisan basis. May they also conclude that there is more to gain by uniting all Americans than by treating them separately as political subgroups.

Republicans? Democrats should simply forget them for now. The GOP is fractious, confused, and leaderless after two consecutive presidential-election defeats. Democrats have been there themselves in the past—what they need now is introspection.