Monday, July 31, 2006

Chuck Schumer: The Death of New Deal Politics

American Prospect Online - What Would Joe and Eileen Do?:
(hat tip to Mark Thoma)
Senator Schumer:
"I want to talk about the future of the Democratic Party and where we’re going, and why we don’t an issues template, a values template. I mean, to sum it up in a nutshell, we all knock George Bush but he won the election on eight words: war in Iraq, cut taxes, no gay marriage. Frankly, those things -- I don’t agree with them -- but they’re what politics is supposed to be. Specific issues that he took flak on and was willing to make some waves over that were related to a system of values. "

I was actually quite impressed with Chuck Schumer, in that interview. It may be that part of the problem was having too many fine journalists and pundits in the room; none could get into the kind of extended dialogue Schumer seemed to be inviting, but the impression I came away with is that Schumer stood a head taller than any of them, in terms of his understanding of the details of practical politics. Which really should not be all that surprising.

Given Schumer's schedule, which must be grueling, it is amazing to me that he or any politician, once he first starts campaigning or holding office (which, today, "is" campaigning, apparently), ever manages to have another reflective thought about anything.

My own view is that New Deal politics died in 1968, when Nixon was elected and began fashioning a new Republican majority out of the silent majority of resentful, middle-class, used-to-be ethnic whites and the Southern Strategy of converting southern white racists into Republican libertarians.

Democrats like Schumer and Clinton and the DLC fought a partially successful rear-guard action, in the South and among post-ethnics (Schumer's base) in the North. It was more successful in the late 1980's, when it was still possible for a moderate Democrat to win in the South with a combination of blacks and whites, who didn't know they were voting with blacks. But, it is a form of identity politics, which depends on sneering at a caricature of 60's radicalism, which Schumer clearly practices and endorses.

Identity politics is critical to the stability of a two-party system. Both parties are continuously trying to get a 60-40 split in their own favor. The Democrats had such a split from 1828 to 1858; Republicans had such a split in the rump Union from 1860 to 1876, and from 1896 to 1930; the Democrats, from 1932 to 1968. Rove clearly believed that he could get there with Bush.

Generally, some combination of accident and a reaction to a constellation of issues determines the shift. It is a truism that somehow grabbing the political middle is key.

What I think Schumer is missing is that there is a potential now for such a shift. The Republican Party has become so repulsive in its character, and events are so discouraging, that there is a real possibility that 5-10% of the electorate will shift parties.

Since the Republicans are uniformly more conservative than the Democrats, this means that the Democrats will add a New Democratic Right. The old Democratic Right, represented by Lieberman and the DLC relied on the tactic of attacking a largely imaginary Democratic Left and making nice with Republicans. The New Democratic Right consists of former Republicans, who, though still ideological conservatives to an important degree, are becoming Democrats because they are repulsed by Republicans. Right now, it is a movement of activists and leaders; if a part of the electorate follows in 2008 and later, it will be huge political shift.

Schumer seems to suspect that the passion of the Democratic Left -- the DailyKos crowd and the rabble-rousing of Howard Dean -- somehow represents a resurrection of the 60's Left, which, in Schumer's memory, drove so many ex-ethnic middle class whites out of his party. In fact, Kos and Dean (and Tester and Webb and Lamont), ideologically, are on the right of the Democratic ideological spectrum. What they are stoking with their passion and their shouting is revulsion with the current crazy, incompetent, corrupt Republican Party. It seems to me that Schumer is missing the potential for revulsion against Republican excess to shift party identity, a truly monumental event, if it happens.

60's radicalism is awfully far in the past, and, personally, I see little evidence of its revival. But, the importance of revulsion to hippies is widely evident in the punditocracy's defense of Lieberman. See Digby

Republican awfulness is here and now. I suppose there's some potential for the whole project to fail because people like Schumer and Lieberman and Casey (Pa) and Nelson (Fl) and Nelson (Ne) don't get with the program. If the Democratic Left cannot stomach being in the same party with New Democratic Right conservatives or vice versa, that won't be good, and old-style 60's radical bashing, which Schumer still wants to engage in, won't help. Guys like Casey, who is pro-choice and Schumer's idea of a Democratic Conservative, are not ideal, but, maybe, cross your fingers, Lieberman's fate will be an object lesson.

Intra-party squabbling among Democrats, however, is the least of the country's problems. I think it is still quite possible that the Republicans will hold onto power. Thru media consolidation, the Republicans have turned the Media into a pliable propaganda machine, and Joe and Eileen (the "average" Americans of Schumer's imagination -- read the Prospect interview) may be unreacheable. Unions are dead. Society is more atomistic than ever in history.

More important than anything else, the Democrats cannot quite bring themselves to articulate a vision; it is not that there is not general agreement on important issues. Actually, there's a lot of agreement among Democrats, who mostly want universal health care and legal abortion and gay rights and peace in the Middle East. The problem is deeper and broader than individual issues, deeper than Democratic identity, the problem is that the country needs to make a radical change in direction, a change in direction, which will be painful and costly to make.

Gore articulated it very well: "Right now we are borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the most unstable region of the world, and to bring it here and burn it in ways that destroy the habitability of the planet. That is nuts! We have to change every aspect of that." Not 8 words, admittedly, but punchy, and dare I say it, realistic. Still, any sane politician would run away.

Bush's tax-cutting policies were deliberately designed as a ticking time bomb, as is his cooperation in with Dubai and China in selling off America's future. And, his Iraq policy has taken on a similar design. Global warming and peak oil are ticking time bombs all by themselves, without Bush's help. If these things blow up on Bush's watch (or even McCain's, God forbid), the Democrats would be free to step up to the plate with a sensible and coherent agenda of painful, but necessary change. If the Democrats pick up power dropped from Bush's feeble grip, and then everything blows up in their faces, well, welcome to fascism, people, and a truly permanent Republican "majority".

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