TCS Daily

'The Duty of the Opposition Is...'

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - February 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Some Democrats think that Howard Dean's ascension to the chairmanship of the party is a sign of bad tidings. Jonathan Chait is depressed over Dean's loose lips and poor organization skills. As James Pinkerton reports, the Clinton Democrats are displeased with the prospect of four years of "Chairman Dean -- as are other Democrats who launched a "Stop Dean" movement and failed.

Anti-Dean democrats should comfort themselves with the knowledge that the former Vermont governor will not remain the face of the party for long, and will be replaced as the Democrats' most public figure the closer we come to the 2008 Presidential elections. While Chait's concerns about Dean's poor organizational and management skills may remain operative, the Democrats could conceivably make up for Dean's shortcomings in these areas by hiring talented operatives who can work with the new chairman and assume some of the responsibilities that he may be unable or unwilling to perform.

But the biggest problem the Democrats have is not their choice of chairman. Rather, it is their choice of direction as an opposition party. It should come as little surprise that Republicans now have a powerful megaphone. George W. Bush has been re-inaugurated and Republicans have increased their majorities in both houses of Congress. But that doesn't necessarily explain the reasons Democrats must be reduced to silence or irrelevance. Even given their minority status, Democrats could refashion themselves into a powerful opposition party. So why haven't they done so?

The answer may have something to do with how our conception of the role of the opposition has changed. It may once have been the case that "the duty of the opposition is to oppose," but times have changed since that statement was first uttered. Nowadays -- and this should be hailed as a sign of maturity in the American political process -- we not only expect opposing politicians to oppose, we also expect them to come up with a worthy alternative to the ideas the party in power seeks to implement regarding the issues of the day. Unfortunately for the Democrats, they persist in opposing and refuse to do the harder work of coming up with worthy policy alternatives. The end result is that not only do the Democrats' ideas lack style, they lack substance as well.

Consider the issue of reforming Social Security. In response to this article -- which alleges that Democrats are being prevented from working with Republicans on reforming Social Security by a party leadership that has threatened to "break [the] back" of any Democrat who dares offer such cooperation -- liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas says "We're finally starting to act united. Not as 'centrists', or 'liberals', but as 'Democrats'. Good."

But is it really "good" to have such reflexive opposition without the presentation of an alternative to Republican reform plans? Moulitsas and other Democrats may contend that there is nothing wrong with Social Security and it does not need any fixing whatsoever, but at least politically speaking, this position is becoming untenable. Despite the supposed willingness of the Democratic congressional leadership to "break [the] back" of Democrats who offer to work on a bipartisan reform package -- and the approval of the largest liberal blog for this uncompromising political stand -- some Democrats are willing to reach out to their Republican colleagues in working on Social Security reform. And the numbers of like-minded Democrats willing to defy their party's orthodoxy on Social Security may very well grow in the future. If all of this is not enough, consider that important segments of the media -- see this editorial for an example -- are giving aspects of the Bush Administration's Social Security reform plans a favorable hearing. On this and other issues, Democrats are in danger of being perceived as being intractable partisans with no new or bold ideas to offer the American people. That may be unfair, but politics often is. And the Democrats appear entirely incapable of dealing with the position they are in.

A number of Democrats cite the tactics of the Gingrich Republicans in the run-up to the 1994 midterm elections as their inspiration for the scorched earth legislative strategy they appear to be following. "Gingrich threw everything he could get his hands on at the Clinton Administration, and won a majority in Congress," these Democrats say. "We can do that too and enjoy similar success."

The problem is that the Gingrich revolution did not depend exclusively on trashing the ideas of the Clinton Administration and congressional Democrats. It also depended on having Republicans put forth their own agenda -- which they did in the "Contract With America." As the Economist notes, the modern Democratic Party is nowhere near the point where it can compete with the Gingrich Republicans of old on the level of ideas:

        "In fact, the biggest problem for the Democrats is not that they will learn 
        too much from Mr Gingrich but that they won't learn enough. In particular, 
        they will embrace his passion for pugilism without embracing his passion 
        for ideas. For Mr Gingrich has always been a fountain of schemes -- some 
        bold (reinventing health care or environmental policy), some small (paying 
        students to take unpopular subjects such as mathematics and science), 
        some nutty (employing the handicapped on space stations or giving 
        laptops to the homeless), but all of them interesting.

        "The biggest problem with the current Democratic leadership is not that 
        it has lost the will to fight but that it has lost the power to think. When was 
        the last intellectually innovative idea you heard from Nancy Pelosi, the current 
        minority leader, or, for that matter, from Dick Gephardt, her predecessor? 
        Heaven knows, Mr Gingrich's musings have caused his party problems. 
        But the Democrats are in danger of turning into that most pathetic 
        of all political organizations -- a minority party that devotes all its energies 
        to the blind defence of the status quo."

Given all of these intellectual failings, concentrating on the identity of the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee actually serves to avoid the important challenges facing the Democratic Party. It is well and good for a political party to take the time to carefully select those who will serve as its public face, but no politician, no matter how charismatic or popular, is going to be able to succeed without an idea-generating political structure. Some Democrats may think that the biggest problem with their party is that it now has a chairman who is best known for yelling and screaming in public. But the Democrats' collective weakness is a deafening silence when it comes to the battle of ideas and the challenge of putting forth an affirmative agenda.


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