Saturday, November 25, 2006

"The Democrats Is Stupid"

Before I saw that it is being more or less shredded all over the blogosphere, that's the headline I thought might better fit The Struggle Within, Thomas Edsall's latest New York Times editorial. The most common criticisms of the piece seem to be that Edsall believes that the Democrats can only succeed while catering to a fickle group of swing voters who could as easily vote Republican in the next election, whereas the Democrats have tried to build a more stable foundation for a "progressive" platform. I think this is a bit of a mushy criticism, as the term "progressive" often seems to be no better defined than the term "libertarian" - I would challenge anybody to fill a room with a random selection of self-described progressives (or libertarians) and try to come to a consensus as to the meaning of the term.

It doesn't mean much to say that the nation has embraced a progressive agenda if there is no agreement as to what that means. In fact that seems as misguided as the position of Karl Rove's adherents, often derided alongside Edsall's editorial, that the nation had embraced moderate conservativism - if the last year has demonstrated anything, it is that this nation's factions of self-described conservatives have a lot less in common than they (and Karl Rove) had previously assumed - and perhaps that a good number of them are more thoughtful (and more progressive) than many self-described progressives had previously assumed.

But enough of that - on to my problems with Edsall's piece. I don't disagree with the thesis that sometimes it is necessary for a political party to make a break - perhaps a painful break - with some of its historical positions and historical groups of supporters in order to obtian or maintain a mandate to govern. But I disagree with pretty much every specific issue raised by Edsall as something the Democrats should abandon.
Many Democratic constituencies — organized labor, minority advocacy organizations, reproductive- and sexual-rights proponents — are reliving battles of a decade or more ago, not the more subtle disputes of today. Public sector unions, for example, at a time of wide distrust of government, are consistently pressing to enlarge the state. For these players, adapting to a re-emergent center will be costly.
As his first and last example is the labor union, perhaps that's a place to begin. The problems that can be created by unions are anything but secret, and to say that today's unions are not thriving would be an understatement. Edsall presumably focuses on public sector unions because of the current weakness of private sector unions. Edsall doesn't state what he wants the Democratic Party to do, but he seems to be suggesting that they can only maintain relevance by ensuring that private sector unions languish as they do their best to undermine public sector unions. I don't think that's either true or that it would be wise policy.

In a sense, the Democratic Party may have an "Only Nixon could go to China" moment with unions - an opportunity to review labor laws in association with union leaders to determine how to make unions more relevant to today's business environment. In terms of public sector unions, Edsall is probably most concerned about the possibility of the expansion of union rights to the TSA, but that's really not where the largest problems lie - and I am skeptical that all the sound and fury of Fox News and right-wing radio would make a reform which let TSA agents unionize would be anything more than a political blip. The biggest problems with public unions lie at the state and local level, where the cost of union benefits (particularly health care) threatens the financial stability of many governmental units. There's also a peculiar aspect to public sector unions in that, as management almost always gives itself better benefits than are awarded to union members by contract, there can be a disincentive for governmental units to truly negotiate for the best labor deals. These problems will not be easy to address, but it nonetheless seems feasible that a Democratic agenda which includes modest labor law reform and steps toward national health care could be deemed acceptable by public sector unions, the leaders of which seem to recognize that the status quo cannot be sustained indefinitely (even if they do their jobs by stretching things out as long as they possibly can). Even if these issues are not tackled directly, health care reforms could provide significant indirect benefits to state and local governments by diminishing or even removing an increasingly contentious issue from labor negotiations.

Similarly, as we move past the era of traditional affirmative action programs, it will be necessary for the political parties to address issues of race relations and integration. It is silly to suggest that the Democrats should walk away from these issues, when they would be much better served by maintaining a dialog with minority organizations such as the NAACP, developing new strategies to advance racial equality. I don't hear Edsall complaining about the elements of "No Child Left Behind" which aim to diminish racial inequality, so it seems safe to assume that he knows it is possible to work toward a more equal society without the use of racial preferences.

In terms of "reproductive- and sexual-rights proponents", I assume he's speaking not of the right of access to contraception, but to abortion rights, gay marriage and civil unions. I don't believe that the Democratic Party would do itself any favors by abandoning its overall stance in favor of reproductive rights, and I suspect that the backlash against gay marriage and civil unions has peaked. I don't expect the Democratic Party to take any strident positions on either issues. If recent elections are any indication, Edsall's fears are misplaced - the Democrats tiptoe very carefully around these issues without any apparent fear that their refusal to endorse stronger abortion rights or gay marriage will hurt them at the ballot box.

And next comes "They is stupid":
An army of conservative media is determined to recreate the political climate so advantageous to the G.O.P. in 1994. At the same time, very liberal senior House Democrats now have vastly enhanced power to add inflammatory provisions to bills moving through their committees (think Rangel and the draft).

Nancy Pelosi and her closest advisers in the House are more likely to support such radioactive amendments than to serve as guard dogs protecting a slender Democratic majority.
Well, if they truly are stupid, and they truly demonstrate themselves unfit to govern, the Democratic Party deserves to lose the next election regardless of whether they're catering to the left, right or center. I just don't see this happening. On the whole, I'm left wondering if Edsall's critics are correct - that his biggest concern is not with the future of the country, but with trying to breathe life back into the thesis he outlined in his latest book, Building Red America. Perhaps rather than lecturing the Democrats about what should no longer be important to them, he should consider lecturing Republicans on those issues they had deemed unimportant but which cost them the election.

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