Voters may already be ahead of the political world in recognizing the need for a blend of public and private responses. In 1995, pollsters Robert Teeter and Peter Hart asked a national survey whether they placed primary responsibility with the government, businesses, community leaders or individuals to solve a lengthy list of social problems, from providing income assistance to the needy to improving education and moral values and controlling crime and pollution. A substantial number of those polled looked to government for solutions, but in only two instances did an absolute majority look to government. In most cases, a majority divided responsibility between government and the other elements of society--individuals, community groups and businesses.
That instinctively moderate response points toward the road not taken--toward a political debate that neither demonizes nor lionizes government but recognizes it as a means for Americans to work collectively against problems too large for them to master alone. Conservatives are right that, in the future, Americans will be less likely to look to Washington for answers. But liberals are surely correct that Americans will not want their federal government to simply throw up its hands and abandon the task of building a good society to the whims of the market. Both parties have acted with misplaced certitude--as if a single key could unlock these doors. But more than either side will admit, each is perplexed by the economic and cultural changes transforming American life and is groping for new directions. "We don't have an overall, overarching, compelling thesis for the future of the country," admits Jeffrey Eisenach, president of the Gingrich-inspired think tank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation.
The truth is that neither party can say it knows how to reverse the rising rate of illegitimacy, or to integrate the isolated urban poor into the economic and social mainstream, or to restore economic security for working families. The limits of their knowledge should encourage humility, compromise and a willingness to experiment with many alternatives. And yet all indications suggest that neither party is eager to find common ground. This approach exposes both parties to more risk than they appear to realize. The reflexive resistance of many Democrats to any reforms in the federal government risks entombing their party in the past. The mechanical tendency of many Republicans to blame all problems on the federal government threatens to widen the disconnect between Americans and their leaders to an extent that disables both parties.
Many of the underlying changes in political habits and attitudes point toward the Republicans as a new majority party. But these changes still lack the glue that bound together earlier majority coalitions: public faith that political change will produce a brighter, more prosperous future. Discontent is a powerful solvent. But the only proven adhesive in American politics is a vision of national progress that enlarges the circle of opportunity and reconnects Americans to their leaders. If the Republican party acquires no broader mission than retrenching government for its own sake, it has little chance of resolving the full range of economic and cultural concerns that brought it to power--and thus little chance of maintaining sustained allegiance from the swing voters who decide national elections.
Ideas matter in American politics, but results matter more. Clinton won the White House in 1992 because Americans concluded that the Bush Republicans had failed. Republicans captured Congress two years later because voters decided that the Democrats had failed. If the public concludes, either in 1996 or beyond, that the Gingrich Republicans have indulged ideological extremes while failing to renew American life, the years ahead may see an environment in which an increasingly frustrated public turns from one party to another to choices we cannot yet imagine. Since the rise of Franklin Roosevelt, Republicans have struggled without success to regain the dominant position in American politics. They are closer now than at any point in the last 60 years. But the very forces of discontent that have carried them to this high ground may yet sweep the prize from their reach.