The way the world works is that liberals look forward and conservatives look back.
That explains why conservatives always speak of “fundamentals” and practice the politics of necrophilia when it comes to the iconic Ronald Reagan. That also explains why the right is floundering/flailing as they try to wrap themselves in the flag, honk about the vaguest notion of “freedom,” and cheapen the idea that America is somehow safer despite (a) the rise of al-Qaeda; and (b) the plain fact that Osama bin Ladin is still on the lam.
Given the dearth of new ideas on the right, perhaps it’s no wonder that the twin tenets of traditional conservatives—lower taxes and smaller government—have become the last charred remains of a wildfire they would leave unchecked in the name of the free market. Throw in the strange bedfellows of Christianity (abstinence, penitence, condomless) and you can see the right is just plain baked after baking a political pie that not even Sweeney Todd could swallow.
Which brings us to the Lefties, of which I am one. Not to descend into self-hate but liberals tend to be every bit as self-indulgent as conservatives, and every bit as convinced they have the answer to the future. But my impression of the Democrats in particular is they have spent the last dozen years merely reacting—and reacting badly—to kneejerk Conservative talking points.
The result is plenty of nothing, a shadow party that does a bad imitation of what the Conservatives do best: slam the other side.
Where to go from here? There are bits and pieces of somethin’-somethin’ out there in the various campaigns—in the concern for the poor shown by John Edwards, in Hillary Clinton’s “individual mandate” health insurance plan, and even in Barack Obama’s willingness to give the Pakistanis what for. But what is missing badly is a vision that connects to the best of the liberal past in the last hundred years or so, and the idea that liberals move the country forward while conservatives hold it back.
Call it “The New Century.”
Perhaps the most prescient thing Obama ever said in his campaign was that people were still doing an awful lot of fighting about the Sixties and the Vietnam War—about things that happened almost forty years ago. He’s young enough to look forward, and so are the American people, in my opinion. But they (and me) need a context, a slogan, something to rally around.
Why “The New Century”? Franklin Roosevelt had The New Deal and John Kennedy had The New Frontier. Even Gary Hart, who fell ignominiously, had the right idea when he talked about “new ideas.”
Liberals have been the party of the new since at least the Great Depression and all the way through the Great Society. Then libertarians and conservatives became the party of new ideas in the 1960s, in part out of a rancid reaction to the liberal way of big government and sexual laissez-faire. The liberals, in contrast, had nothing left in their tank, politically speaking. They were, sometimes literally, down to seeds and stems again.
So The New Century has to include some ideas that are actually new.
One idea for liberals to embrace in The New Century is to triangulate, to quote the Hillary-hating pundit Dick Morris, to literally adopt the best notions of conservatism when it comes to cutting taxes and keeping government to a minimum. Rather than embrace the notion of big government, liberals need to hold forth about good government, with the checks and balances of accountability built in. They also need to embrace capitalism, particularly the entrepreneurship that drives our economy.
In so doing, they will immediately render the right punchless by simply taking the punching bags away.
The same goes for immigration. Whatever advantages the liberals might gain from leaving the floodgates wide open, the benefit from fixing what’s broke will be immensely more powerful—and good for the country to boot. As with taxes, big government, and capitalism, in The New Century, liberals will have to go against type to gain lasting traction.
But they also need to glom onto the best traditions of liberalism. Would there be segregation without liberals? You betcha. Would equality for woman in the workplace remain a distant dream without liberals? No doubt about it. Can homosexuals look to conservatives for true equality? Not a chance.
Liberals stand foursquare for freedom of religion and giving science back to the scientists. And the power of liberalism is paramount—and politically potent—in the way liberals have defended the natural environment and worked to solve climate change, while conservatives fiddled and faddled.
The biggest challenge for liberals in The New Century is sure to be in foreign policy, where jihad is simmering: they always fall prey to cries of weakness from the right. The words that keep running through my mind are tactical, strategic, surgical—and a foreign policy that relies more on right than might.
A pipe dream? Perhaps. But so was conservatism in 1964, when the seeds of the next forty years were sown. Liberals have to have to do more than morph into a bad imitation of the worst of conservatives. If you don’t look back, there’s no way to know where you’ve been, but if liberals don’t look forward in The New Century, they’ll never know where they’re going.