Democratic choices

DEMOCRATIC CHOICES…. We talked earlier about the central division among Democratic policymakers in D.C. — whether to pursue an ambitious agenda or slam on the brakes. Matt Yglesias and Steve M. disagreed, at least in part, with my take on this, so I thought I’d flesh this out a little more.

Reading over the various reports, and reviewing the Democratic handwringing, there are effectively three competing contingents:

* Go Big: These are Dems who want to generate excitement within the party’s base, and run in 2010 on a lengthy record of accomplishments. They envision a scenario in which Dems can pass health care reform, a climate change bill, financial reform, an education bill, immigration reform, and a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the end of next year. It’s ambitious, but doable, and would prove that Dems know how to get things done.

* Go Home: These are center-right Dems, generally from “red” states and districts, who believe every one of the votes the Go Big crowd wants is like a nail in the proverbial coffin. They’ll drive “independents” away; reinforce negative stereotypes of the party; and motivate the right wing. It’s better to scale back, the Go Home contingent believes, slam on the brakes, and focus on issues like deficit reduction.

* Take A Detour: These Dems don’t want to crawl into a hole, but they say it’s time to reshuffle the party’s priorities. The wish list can remain long, just so long as Democrats limit their ambitions, keep issues like the economy on top, and relegate issues like DADT repeal to the bottom. If Dems focus on job creation, the elections will take care of themselves.

Go Big strikes me as the smart course, but I’m not unsympathetic to the Take A Detour crowd. The problem is the specificity of this group’s agenda — the same congressional Democrats who want the party to “focus like a laser” on job creation and economic growth aren’t prepared to show any real follow-through.

In other words, center-right Dems are looking for an excuse to avoid Going Big, and their talk about focusing solely on the economy is just that: talk.

Atrios explained:

While a Congress in which one party theoretically has 60 votes in the Senate can probably walk and chew gum at the same time, it would be nice to know just what focusing on jobs and the economy would mean. For me it would mean direct aid to state and local governments and a massive public works project. To Evan Bayh it might mean cutting the corporate tax rate, or maybe it means nothing at all, but at least he could… propose that!

Right. Bayh and others who are encouraging the party to scale back its ambitions aren’t really proposing much of anything. They don’t want another stimulus; they don’t want more aid to states; they don’t want more deficits; they don’t want more spending; and they don’t even want a climate bill that would create jobs in the energy sector.

These Dems talk about job creation as their top priority, but then fall silent when the inevitable question comes: “OK, how do you propose we create more jobs?”

Matt concluded:

Setting aside elements of the progressive wish list in order to focus on improving the labor market is a reasonable idea. But this crowd doesn’t have any actual ideas for doing that. It seems to me that there’s good reason to think that resolving uncertainty about the future direction of American energy policy and immigration policy would, in fact, help spur economic growth. But I’d also be amendable to having congress take up additional stimulus legislation as a way to spur economic growth. Or maybe they could do tax reform. But as best one can tell Tanner & Bayh & Lincoln don’t want to do any of those things or anything else. It’s sad.

It is, indeed.