Election themes missing?
...Running against what the other party wants to do has been the theme of most elections in my lifetime. Democrats have been successful when they make Republicans look scary as they did in 1964, when there should be no argument that Goldwater had a theme of conservatism. Eight years later Republicans made Democrats look scary when they nominated a man who wanted to lose the war in Vietnam.
Today's parties lack such narratives. The Democratic Party is all about, well, listen to its rhetoric. It's all about opposing George W. Bush and all his works. But where to go from there?
Domestically, Democrats seem to be reviving the FDR narrative: Expand government to help the little guy. Some thoughtful Democratic strategists argue that although this view was discredited by the stagflation and gas lines of the 1970s, voters are once again ready for more government, and they can cite some poll results in support of that proposition. And it's true that the median-age voter in 2008 will have no vivid memories of the 1970s.
But it's interesting that in resuscitating the FDR narrative, these Democrats -- even Hillary Clinton -- are setting aside the lessons of their party's only successful president of the past 40 years. Bill Clinton was careful to agree that the FDR narrative was obsolete, by backing welfare reform and a balanced budget, and making only incremental progressive changes, like expanding the earned income tax credit. We don't hear such talk today.
On foreign policy, among today's Democrats only Joe Lieberman -- not quite a full Democrat these days -- stays true to the FDR narrative. Instead, the suggestion is that they will get us out of Iraq (although their leading presidential candidates concede that U.S. troops may still be there in 2013) and that with Bush banished to Texas the world will be friends with us again. That ignores the threats that Bill Clinton and Bush grappled with, not always successfully, but at least with an awareness that all was not benign out there.
The Republicans are no better. Many say the party must go back to Ronald Reagan, and the Reagan narrative is at least of recent vintage. Reagan taught that government had grown overlarge and must be cut back and that America must be the assertive champion of freedom and democracy. The problem is that none of the Republican presidential candidates occupy Reagan's place on the political spectrum, and the problems we face are not those that confronted Reagan in 1980.
We no longer have 70 percent tax rates and oil price controls; we no longer face the symmetric threat of Soviet communism. The problem of overlarge government -- the threat that entitlements will gobble up the government and the private economy -- is real but remote. Our foreign adversaries are asymmetric, with a small but worrying potential of inflicting vast damage, and they are not entirely vulnerable to conventional military or diplomatic pressures.
Neither party is presenting a narrative, as the Roosevelts and Reagan did, that takes due note of America's great strengths and achievements. Each seems to take the course, easier in a time of polarized politics, of lambasting the opposition. The Democrats suggest that all our troubles can be laid at the door of George W. Bush. The Republicans, noting Bush's low job ratings, complain about the disasters that will ensue if Hillary Clinton is elected. All these may be defensible as campaign tactics. But it is not a pudding that can successfully govern.
Since 2000 Democrats have been trying to make George Bush looks scary or incompetent. However, the results of Bush's policies are demonstrating that the Democrats were wrong on both counts. Whether the accepted narrative will catch up with that reality may decide the out come on the 2008 race.