Moderation and the Party of Opposition
I'm a moderate because I realize change is difficult, because 90% of all suggested solutions stink, because pragmatism trumps ideology1 and because we can't solve the next generation's problems today. In my idealized America we'd have a liberal House trying to solve all the problems, a conservative Senate tossing away all the bad ideas while perfecting the good ones and as president we'd have, well, me (hey, it's my fantasy.) Ok, in the Oval Office would sit a moral, moderate, Stratum IX leader wisely guiding the way.
Given that moderate approach it may seem surprising that I keep reminding Democrats we are now the party of opposition and we need to hold the line on the social security privatization/phase out plan. Shouldn't we work with the Republicans to minimize the harm while maximizing the benefits of their privatization scheme? Isn't that what moderation is all about?
Well, yea, in theory. But you have to hold some power make the theory work. Pragmatism trumps ideology I claimed and that includes the ideal of moderation. As the saying goes, "moderation in all things, including moderation." Democrats hold very little power in Washington right now -- that power needs to be used wisely. Josh Marshall had an excellent post yesterday primarily to complain about Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois' appearance on Meet The Press, but he goes on to explain the big picture:
When Bill Clinton was president, I'm not sure he had any bigger supporter than me. But many of those who worked with him in the White House got into a mindset that can easily lead Democrats astray in our present circumstances. Clinton's critics often knock him for his reliance on tactical positioning, on tacking back and forth against the wind, on finding the small rhetorical or policy distinctions, the sweet spots that could upend his opponents.I whole-heartedly agree.
But when you hold the White House those approaches really can work -- because you have three levers of power, the executive branch, the bully pulpit and the veto pen. That power gives you control over the terms and pace of the debate. And those let you bring clever tactics and fancy footwork into play.
But the Democrats don't have any of that today. They're completely excluded from power in Washington. The only effective power they have is the ability to deny the president the cover of bipartisanship in enacting his agenda when his agenda conflicts with their fundamental principles.
No one is saying that Democrats should meet the president with effrontery. That would be counterproductive. Nor should the Democrats be unwilling to work together if President Bush supports legislation that doesn't go against Democrats' fundamental principles. But President Bush has made explicitly clear in this case that his proposal will go against those principles and he's made clear over the last four years that he has little interest in true legislative give-and-take.
Given those facts and given that the Democrats hold neither the White House nor either chamber of Congress, the only power the Democrats have is their power to state the facts clearly and withhold the legitimacy they alone can impart through providing bipartisan cover. This isn't rude or political. If Democrats believe private accounts are wrong they should say so and vote so. No voter expects politicians to vote for bills they believe are flatly wrong.
Is there a Social Security crisis? No.
There's no reason to cook up some other 'crisis' to provide some sort of silly balance.
Is the president being honest about private accounts? No.
Will Democrats support a phase-out bill with private accounts? No.
Should the Democrats have an alternative beyond just saying 'no'. Yes, they should. And they have a very good one. But it is very much the secondary part of the strategy. And their alternative can only be comprehensible and effective if the primary part is made sufficiently clear: that Democrats don't believe Social Security is in crisis and that whatever long-term funding challenges it faces do not require a fundamental revision of the structure of the program, let alone phasing it out as President Bush wants to do.
This is what opposition parties do. State their contrary vision where they have one, vote their principles on matters of fundamental political difference, and build a clear contrast on key issues which they can take to the voters in the next election. All the more so when the facts and the people's values are on their side. That's democracy.
1But, for the record, morals trump pragmatism.