Fighting Smart

A group of well-funded conservative think tanks and media pundits feed the Republican attack machine. Democrats lag far behind.

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Roughly 25 years ago, as lifelong democrats were defecting in droves to various mutations of neoconservatism, Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a warning to his party: “I said, ‘Pay attention,'” Moynihan recalled a few Saturdays ago in his Senate office, “‘the Republicans have become the party of ideas.'”

Moynihan was right, all those years ago. The Republican dominance of our national politics during the 1980s and early 1990s was built on a foundation of ideas–dumb ideas, as it turned out, but ideas that transformed the shape of American politics.

Early in the 1970s, conservative intellectuals surveyed the political landscape and discerned two critical facts. First, the “liberal imagination” that had dominated America’s intellectual tradition was just about spent, buried by a combination of its failure to confront entrenched power in domestic affairs and its hubris in foreign policy. Second, the right could be in a position to define the great questions of the day for the first time since the 1930s.

The so-called Reagan Revolution rested on three ideas: the illegitimacy of the progressive taxation system; the infallibility of market “solutions”; and the sanctity of the traditional patriarchal family. As the building blocks for society in the era preceding the New Deal, all three had been found wanting. Nonetheless, they reasserted themselves when liberals lost faith in their own ideas.

The problem with liberalism was not so much that it was tried and found wanting. On the crucial issues from civil rights to workers’ rights to the anti-war movement, liberals lacked the conviction and commitment necessary to put their ideas into practice. Once it became clear that the halfhearted solutions thrown up during the Great Society were not going to “overcome” poverty, racism, and inner-city violence, liberals decided that the purpose of the massively expanded government till was simply to divide up the kitty more systematically.

What had been perceived as a coalition to remake government degenerated into what the political scientist Theodore Lowi termed “interest-group liberalism”–the process whereby well-heeled representatives of various oppressed and not-so oppressed minorities fought one another for larger pieces of the economic pie. When combined with higher tax rates and declining disposable incomes for much of the middle class, the inevitable result was a backlash against welfare, affirmative action, elite-directed social progress, and, ultimately, government itself.

Republicans retain most of the advantages. They remain better funded and more committed to the power and sustenance of an “idea base.”

The cleverness of the conservative intellectual offensive lay in the fact that they proceeded on several fronts simultaneously. Funded by eccentric billionaires, conservative foundations, and politically motivated multinational corporations, right-wing policy entrepreneurs founded think tanks, university centers, and political journals, and developed the social and political networks necessary to tie this nascent empire together. The end product was a tidal wave of money, ideas, and self-promotion that carried the Reaganites to power.

Three concentric circles of Republican ideological production arose during this period. In the main tier were the multimillion-dollar think tanks: the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic and International Study, and the like. These were reinforced by a second circle of strategic consulting firms that arose around the outer-Beltway, suckled on the breast of Pentagon and CIA largesse. These helped define the terms of such crucial 1980s debates as those over Star Wars, the MX missile, and the stealth bomber, with success leading to more grants and the same cycle of taxpayer-funded patronage repeating itself. The third circle germinated out of the Republican grass-roots, watered by the party and the populist, anti-cosmopolitan (and vaguely racist) elements of the new right, particularly the Christian new right. Its bastard child, right-wing talk radio, strengthened the Reaganite cause throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, giving the right a lasting structural advantage in our political debate.

Liberals, meanwhile, having grown intellectually fat and lazy, found themselves ideologically helpless before the conservative deluge. Under the leadership of Tony Coelho, the congressional Democrats opted to sell themselves to those outside interests willing to buy. They found loyal customers in the real estate and banking industries, thereby paving the way for the S&L scandal. Current dependencies on the insurance and medical industries have similarly wiped the idea of a single-payer health care system off of Congress’ agenda–and with it an opportunity for the Democrats to rebuild their grassroots constituency.

While it may now hold the presidency, the Democratic Party has by no means discovered a solution to its quandary. Bill Clinton won the 1992 election running, in part, on traditionally Republican issues. To be perceived as “credible” in a debate whose parameters were determined during the reactionary resurgence, Clinton first had to prove that he would be willing to kick the party’s traditional constituencies–minorities, poor people, and organized labor–in the teeth. Second, he needed to co-opt a series of traditionally Republican-defined political virtues. This explains the historical oddity of a Democratic presidential nominee pandering to pro-death penalty, “tough on crime” hysteria, along with his wholly incredible but extremely popular pledge to “end welfare as we know it.”

These tactics worked in the short term for Clinton in large measure because the intellectual capital of the Reagan years had exhausted itself in a 12-year collision with reality. The death of communism, the exploding deficit, George Bush’s cluelessness, and Patrick Buchanan’s intolerance lifted the curtain in front of a drama of rapacious greed, untamed sleaze, and almost comic incompetence. But Clinton’s victory, in ideological terms, was a shallow one. As James Carville explained shortly after the election, “We didn’t break the Republican lock [on the presidency]. We just picked it.”

If he hopes to govern beyond a single term, however, Clinton will need an intellectual foundation upon which to stake his claim. This is particularly true of a president who calls (as Reagan clearly did not) for the deferral of short-term gratification on behalf of long-term investments. Without a vision that ties his disparate goals together, and lacking an ideologically inspired base willing to go to the mat on his behalf, Clinton will remain at the mercy of a discourse whose floating center remains lodged deep inside enemy territory. Whitewater will end, but the next Whitewater will rise up in its place and Clinton will again be forced to fight it alone.

Unfortunately, the landscape from which a post-Cold War Democratic ideology might arise is awfully arid. Traditional Democratic think tanks, the most obvious being the Brookings Institution, have lost their sense of mission. As conservative analyst Kevin Phillips points out, “These guys are not equipped to carve out any progressive positions, because they spent the 1980s trying to sell themselves to the corporations. As they didn’t wholly succeed in this, they don’t really know who or what they are trying to represent anymore.”

The White House sees Brookings as useful for the role it plays as a “status-quo honest broker.” But, adds a White House economic official, “You don’t go to them for a fountain of ideas.”

Foreign policy strategic thinking in the Clinton camp, such as it occurs at all, is undertaken in the guise of speechwriting. What intellectual debate can be said to be occurring manifests itself almost exclusively in the economic arena. Here too, however, the main players find themselves so overwhelmed by the day-to-day demands of the insider game that they rarely have the opportunity to consider others’ ideas, much less come up with their own. Battling for administration hearts and minds, therefore, are the main policy institutes of various Democratic factions: the Progressive Policy Institute (policy arm of the Democratic Leadership Council); the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; and the labor-funded Economic Policy Institute.

Viewed as a straightforward competition, the more conservative Progressive Policy Institute is clearly in the lead. Its primary raison d’etre is, like Clinton’s, to bring the Democrats “back to the center.” The Progressive Policy Institute is, tactically speaking, the right place to find those ideas which tip the margins of middle-class “Reagan Democrats” into Clinton’s column.

Bob Greenstein’s poverty research institution, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has taken over the role that the Brookings Institution occupied during the 1960s and 1970s. It provides the administration with more effective means to achieve the ideologically neutral goals the president has articulated. The expanded version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the focus of poor relief in the Clinton economic plan, was originally championed here.

The third locus of ideas in this administration’s thinking–and the only one which seeks to challenge the fundamental precepts of the 1980s conservative consensus–is Jeff Faux’s Economic Policy Institute, which Robert Reich co-founded. EPI beats the drum of the president’s “growth through investment” strategy, which while it formed the basis of his election campaign, has of late been overtaken by the religion of deficit reduction.

The White House is hardly alone in failing to cast the debate over the country’s future in terms of ideas. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell sounds a bit defensive when he responds, “The Reagan administration’s principles were pretty simple and pretty popular. They were against taxes and for more spending for the military.” Similarly, after disparaging the Reaganites, White House Senior Policy Adviser George Stephanopoulos insists, “We have an extremely coherent strategy. We are not talking about it, we’re doing it. We have an economic strategy to increase investment in human capital, by reducing the deficit and increasing government investment and education, training, and technology.”

But as Jeff Faux points out, Democrats ignore the big think game at their own peril. Americans have always been suspicious of government-driven social or economic policies. To overcome this prejudice, even temporarily, would require the president to make a major commitment to the bully pulpit. But “when these guys have the opportunities to make the case for government, they don’t–or they make it on the most conservative terms,” complains Faux. “Therefore, the people don’t learn the case. Then, when [these guys] try to do something that calls for government, they come back and say people don’t like it.”

Indeed, when quizzed why the administration would not propose a single-payer health care plan, one top Clinton adviser responded, “Because the Republicans would call it a tax-hike and the press would go along.” The idea of transforming such a debate, as the Reaganites did so successfully, is defined as “unserious,” something that adults know better than to bring up.

As the game is currently being played, the Republicans retain most of the advantages. They remain better funded and more committed to the power and sustenance of an “idea base.”

Even in power the Democrats have failed to follow the Republican example of spreading quasi-government funds to allies who might be a source of important ideas in the future. Worse, many of the nominating boards for the funding arms of places like the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for Democracy, which provided massive amounts of neocon pork during the 1980s, continue to be peopled by Republican holdovers.

Moreover, while supply-side economics, Star Wars, and other pillars of the Reagan presidency have been thankfully retired to the ash-heap of history, the ideological foundations of right-wing Republicanism remain intact.

Unfettered free trade for multinational corporations with no thought to ecology or local communities has become the ideological equivalent of 1950s anti-communism, and brooks no opposition in the mainstream of both parties. The Republicans want to accompany this with a domestic policy that encourages private wealth to wall itself in before the frightening phenomena–guns, ethnic violence, crime, drugs, homelessness, AIDS–that characterize a society whose social compact is under siege.

The Democrats, as always, are divided. The “New Democrats” buy a version of the Republican position on freedom for capital, but would like to find solutions for our collapsing cities and declining infrastructure.

The party’s traditional wing embraces protectionism in trade, but is growing angrier and angrier about the financial demands required to address inner-city pathology. They are ripe for a Perot/Buchanan-type populist rebellion that ties together their anger at immigrants, welfare recipients, Wall Street, and Washington-insiderdom.

The quandary Democrats face is that their constituency will continue to erode so long as the economic climate breeds fear rather than hope. Hope comes only when somebody speaks for a compelling vision of the future and provides a road map for how to reach it.

Therein lies the task. Failure could breed a reaction that makes Reagan look like Roosevelt. Unfortunately, denial remains the only ideological precept upon which all Democrats can currently agree.


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