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Commentary

It's Not Enough to Redefine the Party

September 05, 2000|JONATHAN RAUCH | Jonathan Rauch is the author of "Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working" (PublicAffairs, 2000)

To see how remarkably far the Democratic Party has come under Bill Clinton, read the platform. Not the Democrats'; the Green Party's.

What a stroll down memory lane it is: Guaranteed jobs for all Americans, a single-payer national health system, workplace democracy, a "steeply progressive" wealth tax, "comparable worth" laws for working women, abolition of capital punishment, drug treatment on demand, bilingual education, federal money to equalize school funding. Anyone over 25 can remember when those ideas buzzed excitedly through Democratic convention halls and platform committees.

Now the Democrats have banished all that. Clinton's victory over the party's ideologues is total. So disenchanted is the left wing that much of it has decamped altogether. Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate, carries the banner for the true believers.

What Clinton's Democrats have done, brilliantly, is to redefine the party, shedding cumbersome ideological baggage and effectively booting out the far left. That is important, because it has made Democrats competitive again in presidential races.

But there is something at least as important that they could have done but have not: redefined liberalism itself. That would mean breaking with cherished precepts in order to embrace what I have come to think of as the New Center.

Old liberalism has always been a marriage of two distinct philosophical tenets. One held that government has a vital role to play as a guarantor of security and at least minimal fairness in an uncertain and often cruel world: providing a basic pension and medical care for the elderly, making sure no one goes hungry, sustaining farmers through blight and so on.

The other tenet held that government should solve these problems with centralized, national programs in which Washington made the choices. Social Security, Medicare, farm programs and all the rest offered a standard package of benefits, managed out of the capital.

From the New Deal onward, those two ideas--security and centralized bureaucracy--were fused, even though the marriage was one of convenience, not principle. Among liberals, ideologues distrusted corporations and markets, and good-government types expected centralization in and of itself to produce efficiency. This was fine with politicians in Washington, who liked having their fingers in every pie. Liberalism's watchword became, in effect: security through bureaucracy.

From New Deal to Great Society, liberals never needed to understand that their two core premises, in fact, were not necessarily interdependent.

Conservatism, in its vehement reaction against liberalism, made the same mistake--in reverse. Conservatives abhorred centralized government decision-making as clumsy and dehumanizing. But they also rejected the broader notion that government can legitimately provide a desirable measure of security.

As is so often the case, the public is well ahead of the ideologues. It has decoupled the two pieces of the old liberal package. People want security. But they reject bureaucracy.

Thus the emergence of the New Center. Yes, government should help guarantee pensions, medical care and education. But it should do so through markets, letting individuals choose investments, health plans and schools. Yes, government should help the poor, but by subsidizing wages and helping low-income people find jobs, not by making them jump through bureaucratic hoops to collect welfare checks. Yes, government should help provide low-income housing, but with rent vouchers, not housing projects. Even pollution control can be better accomplished by letting each business decide how to meet government goals instead of having Washington dictate which scrubbers to use.

The first people to see that liberalism can mean choice instead of bureaucracy were the "New Democrats" of the Democratic Leadership Council. But Clinton was too busy reorienting the party--isolating its far-left wing politically--to do more than nod in the New Democrats' direction. He went for an Old Liberal health plan and for a long time resisted welfare reform; he denounced education vouchers; he opposed major changes in the one-size-fits-all Social Security and Medicare programs.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, rather surprisingly, were not asleep. They read the failure of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution correctly: The public was anti-bureaucracy, not anti-government. The Republicans also saw that the New Center was wide open politically.

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