Democratic Centrists Push Minimalist Policies
by Jonathan Singer, Sat Jul 29, 2006 at 08:53:57 AM EDT
In 1996, Bill Clinton perfected the art of passing poll-tested legislation limited both in its scope and its actual impact on voters, and in doing so helped convince Americans to reelect him just two years after they had broadly rejected the Democratic Congress. Ten years later, Hillary Clinton is continuing this strategy, as are many other centrists, as The Economist notes this week.
Mrs Clinton and the DLC represent the party's centrist wing: tough on national defence, liberal (in the European sense) on trade and distrusted by the left. "The American Dream Initiative" is an attempt to make globalisation sound less scary by supplying cushions and ladders. The cushions include more tax breaks for home-ownership, a free $500 bond for all new babies (an idea copied from Britain) and a subsidy for retirement savings. Small employers burdened with health-care costs would be able to use a nationwide "purchasing pool" for insurance. The ladders include more subsidies for college and a proposal for longer school hours.
All this will cost money. Mrs Clinton promised to find savings by curbing tax-breaks for rich businesses and axing 100,000 unnecessary consultants, though she wisely refrained from naming any potential victims besides Halliburton. At the same time, she promised to restore the fiscal discipline that has slipped so dangerously under Mr Bush. Democrats, she said, would restore the "pay-as-you-go" budget rules that, until 2002, obliged Congress to match any spending increase with a cut elsewhere or a tax rise.
The next day, in Washington, DC, another group of centrist Democrats called the Hamilton Project offered a complementary set of proposals. One gem: a young wonk named Austan Goolsbee suggested that 40% of American taxpayers should be exempted from filling in their own tax returns because the Internal Revenue Service already knows what they earn, having demanded records from their employers and banks. This, he said, would save $44 billion in compliance costs over ten years. It would be good for family values, he argued, since people would be able to spend 225m more hours with their loved ones instead of wrestling with incomprehensible forms.
These ideas all generally sound palatable, as they are designed to. Who wouldn't want to have to file tax returns with the IRS? Who doesn't think we need to fire unneeded consultants, like those at Halliburton?
The problem is voters are getting tired of small, poll-tested bills meant to keep certain segments of the population content. George W. Bush and the Republican Congress have also become fairly deft at pushing the right buttons among certain voters with targeted legislation, but still today only about a quarter to a third of Americans are content with the direction of the country, and what's more, voters appear ready to throw the Republicans out of control of Capitol Hill.
I don't believe that the Democrats need to give up on these tactics, because they can win votes, particularly in individual races. But it's not 1996 anymore. So when pretty much all that comes out of the mouths of leading DLCers are these policies that don't actually address the core problems Americans see afflicting this country, the Democratic Party as a whole runs the risk of being portrayed as devoid of actual ideas that will solve America's real problems.