Why Americans Hate Democrats—A Dialogue

More policy plans, please.

The day after the election, Slate’s political writers tackled the question of why the Democratic Party—which has now lost five of the past seven presidential elections and solidified its minority status in Congress—keeps losing elections. Chris Suellentrop says that John Kerry was too nuanced and technocratic, while George W. Bush offered a vision of expanding freedom around the world. William Saletan argues that Democratic candidates won’t win until they again cast their policies the way Bill Clinton did, in terms of values and moral responsibility. Timothy Noah contends that none of the familiar advice to the party—move right, move left, or sit tight—seems likely to help. Slate asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won’t vote for the Democrats. Click here to read previous entries.

After Slate asked me to contribute to this forum, I started brainstorming new solutions for the Democratic Party that wouldn’t involve banning abortion or legalizing shoulder-fired missiles. The best I could come up with was to find an incumbent who lost even more than 1.6 million private-sector jobs. And then to propose a really, really good jobs plan.

Listening to people talk over the last 24 hours about the role of God, guns, and gays in the election couldn’t be more depressing. It is sort of a double loss: First you lose the presidency and then you risk losing the moral core of your political party.

So, Bob Reich, you can imagine how thrilled I was to read your entry. If you’re right, we can have our plans and our values too. But I would not denigrate the plan half of the equation. I realize that after watching the Saturday Night Live version of the debates, it’s hard to even say the word “plan” with a straight face. But that doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party doesn’t need more plans, better plans, and better ways to talk about them.

Remember the recriminations back in the dark days of August and September, when Kerry started to slide in the polls? At the top of many pundits’ lists was the accusation that the Democratic Convention lacked substance, that we had squandered the opportunity to put forward more detailed ideas about health care, the economy, and how to fight the war on terror and succeed in Iraq. I don’t know a lot about politics and don’t want to be a Monday morning quarterback (at the time, like most Democrats, I thought it was a great convention). But looking back, that criticism has a ring of truth to it.

Take health care. Kerry had a great plan that would have provided health insurance to virtually every single child in America and cut the cost of medical treatment. He talked about this proposal in values terms each and every day, how health care should be a right, not a privilege. He talked about how it was wrong for 45 million people to lack health insurance in the richest country in the world. But that isn’t enough. I still feel the sting from a Sebastian Mallaby column in the Washington Post that praised Kerry for his health plan but complained that he only talked about it in general, values terms. Kerry’s really bold and innovative ideas, Mallaby said, “languish in his advisers’ files.”

Part of the failure of Kerry’s health plan to appear bold enough was simply an idiosyncratic result of the primary process: All of the Democratic candidates had bold health plans. Unlike on trade and Iraq, there was never any debate about health care in the primaries. So that by the time the general election rolled around, Kerry’s ideas seemed more commonplace.

The politics of this issue won’t be that different in the future. People always put health care at the top of their list of concerns and generally trust Democrats more on the issue. But this isn’t enough. We need new plans. The only domestic issue that the president (regularly) outpolled Kerry on was taxes. We can fix that by embracing tax reform. Our party should have forward-looking ideas that genuinely make the tax code simpler, fairer, more progressive, and more pro-growth.

In his first term, the president squandered an historic opportunity for tax reform, spending the surplus that could have greased the wheels for reform on a series of tax cuts that have made the tax code more complicated, not less. The crowning perversity was the dozens of special-interest tax breaks in the corporate tax bill passed last month. Bush should have no credibility on making the tax code simpler or fairer.

Democrats should be better positioned to make a convincing case that the complications in the tax code make it less fair, helping your neighbor get ahead but leaving you to pay more of the bills. And much of what it takes to make the tax code more pro-growth dovetails with other Democratic arguments: The most fruitful way to encourage savings and investment is not to provide windfall tax breaks to wealthy people who are already saving, but to find new ways to help moderate-income families save.

Finally, we need better ways of talking about our plans. We have a vision for, as Bob Reich puts it, a more socially just future. But we need to convey the future part. I hated it every time George Bush claimed the mantle of reformer with innovative ideas on taxes, Social Security, and health care. There’s nothing worse than the Republican Party accusing the Democratic Party of being conservative. The only way to fight back is to reclaim the label of reform and add real substance to it, with more plans and better plans.