The Challenge — and Opportunity — for Democrats

Let me begin by thanking Kevin for having me back. I?m looking forward to another great week.

I want to start by linking the subject of my last guest appearance (with my coauthor and friend Paul Pierson) to this one. In Off Center, Paul and I explained how the Republicans had managed to push through a number of highly conservative policies, despite the fact that their agenda was not particularly popular with?and sometimes outright opposed by?middle-of-the-road voters. The book was about Republican governance (after all, that?s the big story of recent years). But a consistent complaint was that we didn?t pay enough attention to the Democrats? failure to articulate a compelling alternative.

Well, you may be surprised to hear me say that the complaint was right?or at least half right.

(And yes, Paul agrees with this.) For understanding why the GOP has been able to do what it?s done, we provide a strong account. Yet for understanding the longer-term weaknesses of the Democrats, it?s essential to grasp how the Democratic Party has ceded the high ground on the field it once completely dominated: standing up for ordinary Americans on economic policy. Over the same period in which a whole host of new and newly intensified economic risks have shifted onto American workers and their families, Democrats have mostly clung the old formulas and scripts, failing to develop a compelling argument about how to ensure broad-based prosperity and economic security in an increasingly uncertain world of work and family. In 2004, for example, Bush creamed Kerry among white middle-class voters, and public concerns about foreign threats and moral values weren?t the only reason?the Democratic economic program, such as it was, also rang hollow to many middle-class Americans.

Such a vision is all the more essential today, because, as Kevin has been arguing, Democrats now appear poised to take one or both houses of Congress. Winning an election doesn?t always require a positive agenda, and Republicans seem to be doing everything in their power to lose this election on their own. But governing does require vision and goals. And whatever else might be said about Republicans, they?ve had a clear economic agenda?what I call ?The Personal Responsibility Crusade.? While doling out special favors to privileged interests, they?ve held up personal responsibility as a magic tonic for all economic ills, and called for an endless stream of tax cuts and tax-free accounts as a means of realizing this ideal.

But what do Democrats stand for? Today, many Americans still say the Democratic label doesn?t stand for much, and on economic policy, they?re right. Democrats are defenders of Social Security and Medicare, to be sure. They are sometimes champions of fiscal rectitude; sometimes skeptics about Wal-Mart; sometimes advocates of the minimum wage; sometimes defenders of organized labor. But what is their overall economic agenda? In an age of dramatic change in the relationship among workers, families, employers, and government, what should be the next social contract that unites Americans and carries them together into the next American century?

I wrote The Great Risk Shift to begin to answer that question. The book shows that the challenges facing our leaders are great?and I will write about these challenges in my next post. But the opportunities are great, too. The United States is the richest, most dynamic nation in the world. It has the potential to construct new institutions and new policies that would provide security and expand opportunity in ways that aid our flexible, competitive economy, rather than hinder it. There is a huge void in American politics just waiting to be filled by the party and leaders that can speak to this potential, and speak to middle-class Americans anxious about their economic security. In the next week, I hope to show why this great opportunity must be seized, and how it can be.

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