Back in 1994, legend has it, a Republican Revolution captured Washington. Revolution was surely the right word, featuring as it did a leader who would have ordered his portrait painted onto the faade of public buildings, except for the fact that he wanted public buildings torn down. Like any good revolution, it came with a manifesto, a pseudo-intellectual vanguard, a taste for theatrics, absurd promises, and a quick slide into decadence and corruption.

Now, 12 years later, the Democratic Party has recaptured the legislative branch in the same way. We talk about the collapse of the Republican Revolution. But one phrase we never hear is Democratic Revolution.
Revolutions are overrated, but the difference between the perception that the Republicans won something 12 years ago, whereas the Democrats are merely lucky beneficiaries of the Republican collapse, is telling. It is as if the Republicans are still at the center of politics, in defeat as in victory.

In some ways, thats an unfair perception. Much of what the Democrats did closely resembles the Republican accomplishments of the Gingrich years most notably, putting up potentially competitive candidates in almost every district. Winning the seats from which tainted Republicans Mark Foley, Bob Ney, and Tom DeLay resigned might seem like pure dumb luck, but in previous cycles, those seats and many others captured this year went virtually uncontested by Democrats. The most striking thing about this years wave of new congressional Democrats is not their number, but their quality, which is comparable to the legendary Class of 1974, whose skilled, attentive members kept winning, even in conservative districts, for decades. Slowly, steadily, Democrats are evolving into a true national party with an appealing presence everywhere.

The absence of a sense of affirmative victory is frustrating, but it is also an opportunity. The party can begin to shape its national vision from a position of strength rather than paralyzing weakness.

A national vision, though, is not a list of things the congressional majority will do over the next two years. The Democrats have not won the power to do anything, and their first priority should be to disabuse the press and public of the notion that if the health-care crisis is not solved by 2008, they have failed. What they have won is a share of power, with an executive branch that has no intention of sharing power. At best, theyve won the opportunity to set the terms of debate over the next two years and well into the future. Its not the power to win every fight, but to decide what we are going to fight about.

The tone of Democratic leadership here will be almost as important as the substance. The Democrats should learn from the Republicans, yes, but from their mistakes as much as their successes. The hubris, the top-down party discipline, the determination to bring every aspect of government under their control seemed for a time to be unstoppable political tactics, and some Democrats naturally seek to attain at least the discipline and ideological coherence of the DeLay Republicans. But those very things were also responsible for the Republican Revolutions collapse. The tone of Democratic politics must be one of problem-solving, collaboration, and openness to different points of view, exemplified by Speaker Pelosis pre-election commitment to bipartisan government. (Whether Republicans can actually participate responsibly in such government remains to be seen.)

But without a clear set of substantive principles from which to operatethe sort of mission that Gingrichs Republicans brought with themDemocrats will have trouble taking advantage of that opportunity to set the agenda. The six for 06 plan issued in August is fine as far as it goesand approximately 10 times better than the 63-point plan House Democrats produced in 2004. But its achievable, incremental steps arent quite ready for the monumental choices of the near future. Leaving Iraq aside, there are three.

First, Democrats dont really have an answer to the economic anxieties of the middle class. They dont quite know how to deal with the complicated mix of optimism and anxiety that characterizes even the upper-middle class in todays economy. They know that the old language of economic security from risk doesnt stand up against the slogans of opportunity and ownership that the right offers, even though those youre-on-youre-own policies make matters worse. There is a healthy debate going on in liberal intellectual circles about this. The best answer so far can be found in Jacob Hackers new book, The Great Risk Shift, in which he proposes that we think of security as the basis for economic opportunity. However, this idea doesnt yet seem to have entered the consciousness of the political class.

Second, health carewhich is at the center of these anxietiesstill makes Democrats too skittish to take advantage of the opportunity. In one sense, this is a moment comparable to 1991, when the election of Harris Wofford to the Senate on a platform of universal health care put the issue back on the agenda. But there are too many different things going on right now. Some liberals see the success of state bills to force Wal-Mart to provide coverage as a chance to revive employer mandates; others return to the orthodoxy and efficiency of a single-payer system; and yet others acknowledge that the employer-based system is dead while single-payer is politically unsalable, and instead advocate a complex system that preserves a role for competition among private insurers, with heavy public subsidies. Unlike Iraq, on health care there must be some internal consensus. The sooner that Democrats can coalesce around the rough outlines of a health-care plan that they can all live withas opposed to their idealthe more likely it is that they will make progress on an issue that will ultimately require support from business and at least a few Republicans.

Finally, Democrats need to set the agenda on taxes and the budget. Taxes are going to go up; everyone knows that. Republicans can no longer frame the debate as simply tax-cutters v. tax-raisers. The tax revolt that began in the 1970s is over. Pre-election polls showed that Democrats had a significant advantage on the issue of taxes.

But unless the Democrats step forward and take responsibility for the urgency of the long-term budget crisisthe fact that at current revenue levels, government will soon have no money at all for anything other than Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and interest on the debtthey will be reduced to painful, piecemeal revenue enhancements in tiny, awkward steps year after year. The promise of a government that can provide the kind of economic security that helps individuals embrace the dynamic economy will slip further and further away, as each year we struggle just to pay for the Republican debts and avoid economic collapse. Over the next two years, Democrats must set the stage for a total overhaul of our tax system in 2009. Unlike the tax reform of 1986, it cannot be revenue-neutral; indeed, the guiding principle must be to raise enough money to finance the things that we have already agreed we want government to provide, and those we might want in the future. Everything will have to be on the tableincome taxes, payroll taxes, new taxes on consumption and energy usein order to make the system fairer to the middle class and better for economic growth even as it collects more revenue.

It would be better for the country if we could undertake this overhaul tomorrow, but it will have to wait for a different president. That gives Democrats two years to set the stage for what will be, if it happens, a true revolution, in the best sense of the word.

Mark Schmitt

Mark Schmitt, a frequent contributor to these pages, is director of the program on political reform at New America and a columnist for the New Republic.