Thursday, November 11, 2004

Is the conventional wisdom upside down?
The story of values costing the Democrats the 2004 presidential election is being increasingly challenged. A few days ago, Paul Freedman argued that it was terrorism, not values, which was the big story in the campaign, and that Democrats had not managed to convince voters that they could be trusted on national security. Freedman notes that the gay marriage-ban states had only marginally higher turnout in 2000, and that Bush's margin in these states actually decreased slightly from 2000 to 2004.

However, to really evaluate the effects of the gay marriage bans in those states, we would need to know what kind of voters were providing Bush's margin of victory in each case. If moderates broke for Kerry in 2004 in Ohio, for instance, then it is still possible that Bush's nearly-identical margin of victory would have had to come from fired-up values voters. It is also telling that Freedman refuses to acknowledge another big change between 2000 and 2004 -- the fact that more Americans identified themselvs as conservatives and fewer as liberals. I'm still not sure we have quite enough information to decide once and for all what won or lost this election for the candidates. But in any case, Freedman's article has been widely read and discussed, and it seems clear that morals and values weren't the only story in this election.

As I said immediately after Black Tuesday, I believe it is the ability of the GOP to wrap their agenda in a coherent cloak of values and ideology that allows the party to appeal to those most concerned with morality. The Democrats need not compromise on core principles of reproductive freedom, gay rights, and free speech to pick off some of these voters; they need instead to articulate the Democratic agenda in terms of liberalism's core values of justice, equality, and fairness, and to undermine the GOP agenda in moral terms. This involves not simply picking an issue or two -- the minimum wage and stem-cell research, for instance -- and reframing them as moral imperatives, but rather making liberalism itself the object of a positive and uplifting ideological project. As Kennedy said in this oft-circulated quote:

"What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal?" If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of "Liberal." But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a 'Liberal.'"

The Democrats should not run away from this word, but should take every opportunity to define and defend liberalism and expand upon its intellectual foundation. Part of the problem is that liberals have spent the greater part of 25 years defending the accomplishments of the New Deal against assaults from the right, and have thus not contributed very many compelling new ideas to the sphere of public debate. This is partly a problem of the right dominating the think-tank culture and the left dominating the Ivory Tower, but it is also evidence that liberals have not been very good at getting in front of our most pressing problems and offering bold and convincing policy alternatives. Here's just one of many, from Matt Miller:

"Miller explains why the current debate over a "living wage" -- now enacted in 80 cities, with more coming -- isn't serious about the 15 million people living in poverty despite living in homes headed by full time workers. The problem is that while liberals are right about the injustice facing unskilled workers, they're wrong about the economics of fixing it. It is simply not possible to solve the problem on a sustainable basis, Miller shows, by mandating that private firms pay wages as high as $10 or $12 an hour for employees who, in economic terms, are "worth" only six. The living wage laws that have been enacted have passed, paradoxically, only because their scope has been narrowed so as to have almost no impact -- a weird rallying cry for a movement! But at least the left is trying. While liberals settle for baby steps, the right merely sidesteps with calls for "education and training" that can't help those not destined to be retooled into software whizzes. Our national "living wage" debate amounts a showdown between the inadequate and the ineffectual. Shouldn't there be a better way?

Miller says yes -- starting with a national commitment that full time work should deliver at least $9 an hour. But they key is to make sure this cost isn't all be borne by the employer. Miller would guarantee $9-10 an hour for full time work via a sliding-scale tax credit to employers (based on an plan crafted by Columbia University economist Edmund Phelps). The "grand bargain" here requires the left to stop trying to place the full burden of a living wage on employers, while the right accepts the need to have government fund the rest. Business should love it, because workers could be hired for as little as $6 an hour, with government putting up $3 to match it. Since the social benefits of work (in terms of less crime, welfare dependency, etc.) exceed less skilled workers' productivity (which limits what employers can offer in wages), it makes sense for society to subsidize the difference."

The living wage issue could be a big winner for the Democrats if they were willing to get behind it with a solution that didn't rely entirely on either the government or on private employers. Ditto for health insurance. Ditto for a whole host of pressing social problems for which conservatives have no convincing ideas. Ditto for tax reform.

These should be liberal issues, framed in liberal terms, backed up with a strong, liberal conception of morality and values. Get behind them, articulate them firmly, defend and expand the ideology, and watch the electoral map change.


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