New ideas at last

By E. J. Dionne Jr. Published:

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- So Democratic Party leaders met over the weekend in New Orleans, gleefully criticized President Bushs stewardship and issued a vision statement that most pundits and reporters saw as less than visionary and not terribly specific.

Perfectly true, which underscores a central fact of American politics: New ideas, bold visions, detailed solutions and courageous policies almost never originate with politicians, especially politicians in the middle of election campaigns. Political consultants, with a few honorable exceptions, dont do vision either.

Politicians typically pick up their ideas from intellectual entrepreneurs, professional visionaries and impatient ideologues who wonder why the parties they support seem to stand for little.

Ronald Reagan could not have become, well, Ronald Reagan, if William F. Buckley Jr. and his allies at National Review magazine had not spent years developing modern conservatisms core ideas -- and if neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz had not tweaked the philosophy in directions that brought in new converts.

What has become clear in recent months is that the impatience on the center-left with the hopeless endeavor of waiting for workaday politicians to come up with ideas -- Godot would deliver faster -- has spilled over the barriers of conventional politics. The brooding, musing and, yes, thinking since President Bushs victory in 2004 is starting to show results.

The biggest change is that moderates and liberals have begun to accept that they cannot simply adjust to conservative dominance of the political debate and alter their ideas to fit the current consensus. As Michael Tomasky writes in the current issue of The American Prospect, Democrats and their allies must destroy the current political paradigm based on radical individualism and replace it with a politics of the common good. Only a larger argument rooted in a different conception of government and society, Tomasky argues, will allow the party to do a lot more than squeak by in this falls (or any) elections based on the usual unsatisfying admixture of compromises.

In describing his common-good approach, Tomasky notes it has significant implications in challenging Democrats to stand for more than diversity and rights, however valuable these commitments might be. Both diversity and rights, he argues, would be better defended in a common-good framework.

There are arguments to be had with Tomasky -- I think he needs to talk not only about citizen sacrifice, but tell us more about self-interest, rightly understood. Progressive ideas do best when a majority of citizens believe their own self-interest is implicated in a common project, something Tomasky recognizes but doesnt stress enough.

And there are competing organizing ideas for a resurgent center-left. John Schwarz, an emeritus professor at the University of Arizona, recently argued at the Center for American Progress that the vital task for liberals is to steal back the idea of freedom from the right and broaden its implications.

Whats important about Tomasky and Schwarz is that they are representative of an awareness on their side of politics that laundry lists of policy proposals are insufficient to the task of moving a nation.

Which is not to say that there is a shortage of highly specific policy proposals emerging from liberal and moderate research institutions. To mention just one, the Center for American Progress recently put forward 15 new ideas on subjects ranging from taxes and education to pensions and energy.

And a new generation of policy entrepreneurs is doing what Kristol and his friends did 40 years ago: reinvigorating old magazines and starting new ones to create controversy and forward movement. Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, founded by thirty-something moderate Democrats Ken Baer and Andrei Cherny, appears in June. The Web is brimming with impatient calls for alternatives to President Bushs philosophy and his policies.

None of this means a new liberalism will soon reign triumphant. It does mean that after a long period of reacting to conservative initiatives, progressives sense that conservative failures have created a vacuum that needs to be filled. The marketplace of ideas is not always efficient, but it eventually responds to felt needs.

That is whats happening, even if some of the ideas are still less than completely baked, as the political philosopher Dustin Hoffman might put it -- and even if it will take a long time for any of the ideas to penetrate Democratic National Committee meetings. It has always been thus.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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