28 July 2008

Lost Initiative

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Imagine a group of politicians – indeed, an entire party – focused exclusively on gaining near-term, political advantages through small-bore initiatives. A party seemingly threatened, overly concerned with power (and its ability either to maintain or exert any), and an anticipatory sense of greater electoral losses afoot.

By all rights this description should fit the Republican Party, which (according to so much “invaluable” polling “data”) faces significantly diminished returns come the November 2008 elections. How sad, then, that it seems a perfectly apt description of the Democratic Parrty instead. The group that should be riding high at a time when President George W. Bush (and his GOP / Party of God) are held in such low esteem, the Democrats have only themselves to blame for their miserable, mixed-up state, which once again threatens their electoral opportunities.

Take the obvious idiocy of pandering for pennies: attempting to lower the price of gasoline by restricting speculation in the international oil markets, and by releasing oil from the U.S.’s strategic reserves. There are more than a few problems with this approach – first and foremost that it shows the Democrats failed to learn from Senator Hillary Clinton’s gas tax holiday disaster, which voters rightly rejected as pandering. It also suggests that – years later! even after the successes of the Clinton administration! – the Democrats still do not understand market economics. Have any Democratic legislators or their staffers ever flown JetBlue or Southwest airlines, both of which have (at different points) successfully speculated on oil prices in order to reduce costs for their customers? Have any Democrats bought – on sale – more more items than they may have needed immediately? That, too, is a form of speculation.

For a party that has (theoretically) placed the values of environmentalism and energy conservation at its core, lowering the price of gas is neither ideologically consistent nor an especially bold idea. Reducing the price of gas will only encourage more people to drive, and they will once again drive less intelligently: that is, with less regard for the environmental and financial impact of their driving. Reducing the price of gas also does nothing to encourage – whether through political or market mechanisms, or both – the development and deployment of new energy technologies, tools, and systems. We need to alter the degree to which America relies on oil, not defer the challenge of freeing ourselves from petroleum because of lower prices.

More to the point, this curb-the-oil-speculators, reduce-gas-prices pandering is a perfect example of small ball: of micro-focused ideas that reflect the Democratic Party’s lack of a broader, coherent, compelling vision. Beyond withdrawing from Iraq and (of course) protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, it is impossible to know what the Democrats stand for. Despite being the majority party in both houses of Congress, they have failed to propose (let alone pass) legislation with meaningful, far-reaching changes. Nor can one accuse the Democrats of being the anti-Bush party: they have willingly gone along with many Bush administration demands, from reducing Americans’ civil liberties by approving broader domestic spying opportunities, to renewing funding for wars that they – as the Constitutionally empowered legislature – have both the opportunity and right to de-fund. (And then there is one of my favorite bits of time-wasting: Representative Henry Waxman’s series of hearings on the use of steroids in major league baseball. Talk about an issue of urgent, national importance – not!)

Ideological and practical leadership is missing, at nearly every level of the Democratic Party. Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Howard Dean’s notion of “leading” the party seems to be to allow as much chaos as possible, and then to claim success when the dust settles. His strategy of pursuing election victories in as many districts as possible (see also this New York Times Magazine story from 2006) makes sense, but this seems to be the only contribution he has made to Democratic politics. The DNC has provided no vision for the country, and has not advanced the party’s campaigning platforms beyond the same tired platitudes that have been offered for years.

One might hope that Senator Barack Obama, once he formally becomes the candidate for president at the convention next month, will bring to his party some sense of his own vision – that he will find a way to express a sense of purpose that matches the beauty of his rhetoric. I wish I could say I was hopeful about such an audacious idea. Every step that the Democrats have taken since the November 2006 elections has been small, and focused on the most minute near-term calculation at the expense of a broader vision for their party, or the United States as a whole. While the Republicans seem rooted in the 1950s – no homosexuality, no abortion, no internet for John McCain, and white Christian values as far as the eye can see – the Democrats are rootless.

There may be compelling reasons to vote for Senator Obama, or his opponent Senator John McCain. Beyond the two presidential candidates, Americans face few good political options, and a pair of parties and Congressional representatives that have been entrenched a little too long.