By NICK GILLESPIE
Published: September 2, 2007
With the possible exception of the Republicans, is there a major political party more stupefyingly brain-dead than the Democrats? That’s the ultimate takeaway from “The Argument,” Matt Bai’s sharply written, exhaustively reported and thoroughly depressing account of “billionaires, bloggers, and the battle to remake Democratic politics” along unabashedly “progressive” (read: New Deal and Great Society) lines. Well-financed and influential groups ranging from the Democracy Alliance to the New Democrat Network to MoveOn.org may be taking over the Democratic Party, he says, but they are not doing the heavy thinking that will fundamentally transform politics — unlike the free-market, small-government groups formed in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s historic loss in the 1964 presidential race.
Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.
By Matt Bai.
316 pp. The Penguin Press. $25.95.
Bai has the grim job of covering national politics for The New York Times Magazine, which means his livelihood depends on following closely whether the Tennessee actor-turned-politician-turned-actor-again Fred Thompson will actually run for president (a decision reportedly put off until after Labor Day, allowing an anxious nation to savor the last days of summer) and taking seriously the White House fantasies of Senator Joseph Biden (at least in Biden’s presence). While sympathetic to the new progressives, Bai describes a movement long on anger and short on thought.
In detailing the machinations of superrich Democratic activists like George Soros, who blew through close to $30 million of his wealth in an unsuccessful attempt to unelect George W. Bush in 2004, and barricade-bashing cyberpunks like Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of the popular Daily Kos Web site, whose participant-readers attack all things Republican with the same fervor they showed when championing the already forgotten Ned Lamont in his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Senator Joseph Lieberman in 2006, Bai reluctantly and repeatedly owns up to a hard truth: “There’s not much reason to think that the Democratic Party has suddenly overcome its confusion about the passing of the industrial economy and the cold war, events that left the party, over the last few decades, groping for some new philosophical framework.”
To be sure, these are giddy times for the Dems. Since last year’s elections, they’re back in control of the Congress they’ve dominated most of the time since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term. According to a July 27-30 poll conducted for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, the general public thinks Democrats will do a much better job than Republicans not just on global warming, health care and education but also on traditional Republican bailiwicks like controlling federal spending, dealing with taxes and protecting America’s interest in trade. The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, continues to lead her Republican counterpart, Rudy Giuliani, in most polls, and a generic Democrat beats a generic Republican in 2008 too.
But as John Kerry might tell you, never write off the Democrats’ ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The recent farm bill passed by the House — and pushed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi — maintains subsidies to already prospering farmers, angering not just conservative budget cutters but liberal environmentalists. House and Senate Democrats allowed a revision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that broadens the scope of warrantless wiretaps just after holding hearings denouncing the man who would issue them, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for routinely abusing his power. Although the misconceived and misprosecuted war in Iraq was the issue most responsible for their return to power, Congressional Democrats have yet to put forth a coherent or convincing program to end American military involvement there.
Little wonder, then, that the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 24 percent of American adults approve of the job the Democratic Congress is doing. That’s a decline of seven points from March. There are longer-lived trends that should worry the Democrats. In 1970, according to the Harris Poll, 49 percent of Americans considered themselves Democrats (31 percent considered themselves Republicans). In 2006, the last year for which full data are available, affiliation with the Democrats stood at 36 percent (the silver lining is that the Republicans pulled just 27 percent). If the Democrats are in fact the party of Great Society liberals, the problems run even deeper. The percentage of Americans who define their political philosophy as “liberal” has been consistently stuck around 18 percent since the 1970s, and the Democratic presidential candidate has failed to crack 50 percent of the popular vote in each of the past seven elections.
“The Argument” provides plenty of reasons to think that the Democrats, owing to an off-putting mix of elitism toward the little people and glibness toward actual policy ideas, are unlikely to go over the top anytime soon. Or, almost the same thing, to make the most of any majority they hold. The book describes Soros, after Bush’s victory in 2004, coming to the realization that (in Bai’s words) “it was the American people, and not their figurehead, who were misguided. ... Decadence ... had led to a society that seemed incapable of conjuring up any outrage at deceptive policies that made the rich richer and the world less safe.” Rob Reiner, the Hollywood heavyweight who has contributed significantly to progressive causes and who pushed a hugely expensive universal preschool ballot initiative in California that lost by a resounding 3-to-2 ratio, interrupts a discussion by announcing: “I’ve got to take a leak. Talk amongst yourselves.” Bai never stints on such telling and unattractive details, whether describing a poorly attended and heavily scripted MoveOn.org house party or a celebrity-soaked soiree in which the host, the billionaire Lynda Resnick, declared from the top of her Sunset Boulevard mansion’s spiral staircase, “We are so tired of being disenfranchised!”
Moulitsas, the Prince Hal of the left-liberal blogosphere, comes off as an intellectual lightweight, boasting to Bai that his next book will be called “The Libertarian Democrat” but admitting that he has never read Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and social theorist, who is arguably most responsible for the contemporary libertarian movement. Moulitsas’ co-author (of “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics”), Jerome Armstrong, talks a grand game about revolutionary change, but signed on as a paid consultant to former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, an archetypal centrist Democrat whose vapid presidential campaign ended almost as quickly as it began. When MoveOn — the Web-based “colossus” whose e-mail appeals, Bai says, have always centered on the same message: “Republicans were evil, arrogant and corrupt” — devised its member-generated agenda, it came up with a low-calorie three-point plan: “health care for all”; “energy independence through clean, renewable sources”; and “democracy restored.”
Recalling a meeting of leading progressives — including Armstrong, Representative Adam Smith of Washington and Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network — just after the 2006 midterm elections, Bai writes: “Seventy years ago ... visionary Democrats had distinguished their party with the force of their intellect. Now the inheritors of that party stood on the threshold of a new economic moment, when the nation seemed likely to rise or fall on the strength of its intellectual capital, and the only thing that seemed to interest them was the machinery of politics.” The argument at the heart of “The Argument” is less about vision and more about strategy.
That’s bad news, even or especially for those of us who don’t see large differences between Republicans and Democrats. Our political system works best — or is at least more interesting — when big ideas are being bandied about, both within parties and between them. The lack of depth among the Democrats may not hurt them in the 2008 elections — the Republicans, whose would-be presidential candidates have mostly publicly rejected evolution, are not exactly bursting with new ideas either. But it remains profoundly disappointing.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason magazine.
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