What’s the big idea?

Liberalism pretty much ran out of big new ideas during the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Mercifully. This produced a crisis among liberals who consider themselves big thinkers. Attracted to what had seemed to be the party of intellectuals (or faux intellectuals like Adlai Stevenson), they found that the other party, led by Ronald Reagan whom they considered a dunce, had all the big ideas. How galling the Clinton presidency must have been — eight years of a really smart Democratic president yielded two big domestic policy initiatives. The first, government run health care, never got off the ground. The second, welfare reform, was a conservative idea that succeeded.

The inferiority complex of the Democratic intellectual is displayed on something like a weekly basis in the op-ed page of the Washington Post. Hence the insistence of E.J. Dionne and Harold Meyerson that the electoral jeopardy Republicans face is the result of what Meyerson today calls “the GOP’s bankruptcy of ideas,” not a military action perceived to be going poorly, high gas prices, and the fatigue that voters often feel in the sixth year of a two term presidency.

Meyerson argues that the Republicans have nothing to run on except the public’s fear of Democratic rule. The Democrats, by contrast, are brimming with exciting new ideas, including their own equivalent of a Contract with America. Let’s look at both of Meyerson’s claims.

First, a campaign based on fear of the Dems is not a sure-fire loser. It worked well enough in 2004. But Meyerson is wrong in contending that the Republicans have nothing else to run on. Economic growth and great employment numbers aren’t nothing. Neither is the failure of terrorists successfully to attack this country. On September 12, 2001 most Americans would have taken an unemployment rate of less than 5 percent and zero attacks on the homeland five years on. Republican incumbents can argue that the tax cuts and the Patriot Act helped produce these outcomes. Democrats can dispute this, but not having an air tight case is not the same thing as having nothing to run on. Tax cuts and Patriot Act are not new ideas. But incumbents don’t win mostly because of new ideas; they win mostly by defending the ideas they’ve implemented.

Meyerson concedes, moreover, that the Republicans have a good new issue to run on — immigration. He dismisses this by saying that “it’s too dicey an issue to nationalize.” But the Republicans don’t need to nationalize the election. If immigration plays well enough in key districts, it could enable the Republicans to maintain control of the House.

What about the Democrats? According to Meyerson, they have developed an exciting package consisting of (1) raising the minimum wage, (2) repealing one section of the Medicare drug plan relating to negotiating prices with drug companies, (3) fully implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, and (4) requiring that all new programs be paid for by a specific new spending sources or the cutting of another program.

The first plank, which should play well among teenagers who work at McDonalds, was an exciting idea in 1960. The second plank may have some potential, but it won’t be easy to “throw the rascals out” on a platform of fine-tuning a benefit those same rascals enacted. If this is a bullet, most Republicans should be able to dodge it. The third issue has superficial appeal, but unless there’s another attack on the homeland before the election, I don’t see the Dems winning based on allegations of negligence on the homeland security front. The last issue sounds too much like raising taxes. In any case, compared to the 1994 Contract with American, this is a “small ball” package.

The Democrats may have a very good year in 2006. History suggests that they will. But if they regain power, they are far more likely to be remembered for wasting two years harassing President Bush than for any exciting legislative accomplishments.

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