ELEVATOR TALK….After smashing an egg on his face in yet another bizarre public act of contrition, James Carville said this about the Democratic party on Meet the Press yesterday:

And by and large, our message has been we can manage problems, while the Republicans, although they will say we can solve problems, they produce a narrative. We produce a litany. They say, “I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.” We say, “We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.” And so there’s a Republican narrative, a story, and there’s a Democratic litany.

I think Carville is right about this. In the high tech world, we like to say that if you can’t explain what your company does in the space of an elevator ride, something is wrong. And while I can rattle off the “elevator” version of what Republicans stand for without even thinking about it (“lower taxes, family values, smaller government, and a kick-ass military”), I sure can’t do the same for Democrats.

But I’m going to venture an even more fundamental explanation for the problem Carville addresses: in broad terms, Democrats have already accomplished their goals. What’s left is mostly improving things at the margins, not fundamental changes.

To see what I mean, think about the “elevator” version of modern American liberalism. I don’t have a bumper sticker version on tap, but if you’ll excuse some awkward wording I think it goes roughly like this: “Equal rights, economic security, personal liberties, and protection from huge corporations.” There’s unquestionably work left to be done on all these things, but take a look at the big ticket items we already have:

  • Equal rights? We’ve got the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, gender discrimination laws, and the ADA.

  • Economic security? We’ve got Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, subsidized public education, welfare, and the minimum wage.

  • Personal liberties? Abortion is legal, forced prayer is gone from public schools, criminal defendents are guaranteed a lawyer, and there are times when it almost seems as if high school students and the mentally deranged have more rights than normal adults.

  • Corporate predation? We’ve got OSHA, workers comp, loads of environmental regulations, consumer protection laws by the bushel, and capital markets that are more transparent than ever in history.

Make no mistake: there’s plenty of progress yet to be made on all these scores. Black poverty remains a national scandal, the current minimum wage would be shameful in a country half as wealthy as ours, and we still have a long battle for gay rights ahead of us.

But I suspect that most people, maybe even most liberals, would say we’ve accomplished 80% of what we set out to do back in the 30s and 60s. Maybe even 90%. In terms of genuinely big programs, the only one left is national healthcare ? and that’s just not enough to hang our hats on.

To a large extent, Republicans have woven a compelling narrative out of their desire to tear down a big part of this liberal legacy. If they succeed, public opinion is almost certain to turn against them, but in the meantime Democrats are stuck. Merely objecting to the Republican agenda isn’t enough, especially since Republicans are mostly nibbling around the edges, not taking a chainsaw to liberal programs.

But if we’ve accomplished most of what we set out to do all those decades ago, what’s next? Finishing off the final 10%? Fighting a war of attrition against relentless Republican dagger thrusts? It’s true that those things need to be done ? and I’m not trying to denigrate their importance ? but they just aren’t compelling enough to win elections for us. We need new goals. We need a new elevator talk.

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