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Jewish World Review Sept. 8, 2004 / 22 Elul 5764

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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Caught in a triangulation traps


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | If President Bush is re-elected, his victory will come in part because the Republican Party has a strong domestic agenda. If Sen. John Kerry loses, it will be because the Democratic Party lacked one.


That is one of the conclusions we can draw with the closing last week of the political convention season. Consider what happened in New York City and in Boston.


New York: Some of the presentations at Madison Square Garden were downright painful. The Bush daughters did the entire female sex a disservice with their "young-women-can-be-goofs" performance. Other speeches were weak. Then there were those autobiographical details. The Depression-era parents and grandparents, so praised by the speakers, would have been put off by their descendants' sentimentality.


Still, the Republicans' rehearsal of the American success story reflected a consistent policy message. We are microeconomists, they were saying; we focus on property ownership and shareholding, and our model is the late President Ronald Reagan.


"Faith in the free market," rumbled California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "The key to a richer culture is a strong family," intoned Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Democrats accuse Republicans of using conventions to hide their radical agendas. Madison Square Garden belied that accusation. After all, Schwarzenegger did not gently peddle compassionate conservatism. He commanded: "Don't be economic girlie-men!"

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Boston: The Democratic National Convention by contrast offered — what? The rebuttal to reliance on the private sector is to stress the importance of the public sector. The reply to the argument for individual ownership and control is the argument for the good of the collective. But Democrats instead nervously advocated the free market. At times they were indistinguishable from Republicans.


  • "We believe the private sector, not government, is the engine of economic growth and job creation." The phrase comes not from Schwarzenegger but from the Democrats' 2004 platform.

  • "We can strengthen and lift up your families." The line is from John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, in Boston, not Santorum in New York.


In Boston, party leaders also stressed middle-class pain and argued for restoring government benefits, as they championed deficit reduction. The policy conclusion: Republican inconsistencies exist, but Democrats' inconsistencies are greater.


Political observers blame Kerry. The Democrats, so goes the thesis, need not "Sen. Flip-flop" but a candidate such as former President Bill Clinton. The reason Kerry flails is that he is no Clinton.


The Clinton comparison, however, is not fair. For while Kerry may be opportunistic, his policy trap was laid by Clinton himself — and by Dick Morris, Clinton's cheery, fickle political adviser. The pair, along with then-young groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council, established a different model of Democrat, the New Democrat. To the chagrin of traditional Democrats, New Democrats treated the old ideas of President Lyndon B. Johnson as something vaguely shameful. The Democrats' job was to capture the center, even the center-right. Or, in other words, steal the opponent's ideas, then marginalize him — as an ideologue.


This tactic can work, especially in good times and especially with a likeable candidate such as Clinton or British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Kerry clearly thinks so. He signed the Hyde Park Declaration, a manifesto of the New Democrats created at Franklin Roosevelt's home on the Hudson River.


But while "triangulating," as it is known, may be good for the individual candidate, it is not good for the party in the longer run unless both leadership and base are committed to a philosophical change. And many Democrats — indeed many Americans — still believe that rights are about entitlement, not the chance to compete. The result is that the party comes off as cynical and loses support.


Democrats are resorting therefore to bashing their opponent, both on policy grounds and personally. Bashing, after all, is easy and pleasurable — in no small part because it generates such a reliable echo from abroad. (When North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il recently characterized Bush's job performance as "imbecilic," one could not help wondering whether he had been in touch with the Democratic National Committee.)


Given the enormous uncertainty over the Middle East, bashing Bush may indeed be enough to win Kerry the presidency. Still, without policy to reinforce it, bashing can backfire. Consider the Republicans, whose ideas Clinton kidnapped in the 1990s. They threw policy discussions out of the window and, for years, devoted themselves to president-bashing of an intensity not seen again until the premiere of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" film.


Note to Democrats: As 1996 demonstrated, this behavior can lose a party a presidential election.

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JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.

Up

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