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Jewish World Review June 19, 2003 / 19 Sivan, 5763

George Will

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The contours of the political landscape are becoming increasingly inhospitable to Dems | The contours of the political landscape are becoming increasingly inhospitable to Democrats. This is partly because of what Democrats are, partly because of what they have done to themselves with campaign finance reform, partly because demographic changes are weakening one of their signature issues and partly because of a conflict between their ideology and fiscal facts.

James Carville, political consultant and agitator, warns his fellow Democrats that voters "won't trust a party to defend America if it can't defend itself." Unfortunately, he says, "Democrats by their nature tend to look weak." Unsurprisingly, Carville thinks this defect reflects a virtue: "We" -- Democrats -- "tend to see six sides to the Pentagon." Meaning Democrats comprehend the complexity of things, which renders them rhetorically mushy.

Carville believes, preposterously, that Democrats are "reluctant to judge." Actually, they are hair-trigger hanging judges, promiscuously ascribing to Republicans sinister objectives such as the repeal of the 13th Amendment and the denial of driver's licenses to women. But Carville has a piece of a point: Many Democrats, although as dogmatic as John Calvin, are also philosophical relativists. They seem reactive, a party of protest, more capable of saying what they do not like -- George W. Bush, his judicial nominees, tax cuts and other works -- than what they like. Hence Democrats are perceived as the servants of grievance groups. A consequence of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms will be an exacerbation of that perception.

Democrats' ideological aversion to the rich, and the Democratic itch to legislate equality, prompted them to support McCain-Feingold. Now they have awakened from their dogmatic slumbers to the consequences of banning "soft money" -- the unregulated and hence often large contributions not for the election of specific candidates but for voter turnout and other party-building activities.

Democrats divide their time between deploring anything that benefits rich people and standing in front of rich people, like Oliver Twist with his porridge bowl, begging for more. In an article on McCain-Feingold ("The Democratic Party Suicide Bill") in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Seth Gitell notes that in the 1996 election cycle, when Democrats raised $122 million in soft money, a fifth of it -- $25 million -- came from just 168 people.

Republicans have a large advantage in raising "hard" dollars, which are for specific candidates and are covered by annual limits. Democrats, deprived of soft money, will be forced to rely on paid issue advocacy by their "groups" -- environmentalists, gun control advocates, the pro-abortion lobby. Dependence on the groups will cost the party control of its message and pull the party to the left, away from swing voters.

In their reactive mode, Democrats practice reactionary liberalism. For example, their idea for making Social Security solvent for the baby boomers' retirement is to oppose Bush's proposal for partial privatization of the system. But Mitch Daniels, who after more than two years as head of the Office of Management and Budget is heading home to run for governor of Indiana, offers a parting observation: America has reached a "tipping point" in the argument about partial privatization, because there are now more younger voters strongly skeptical about the viability of the current system than there are older voters strongly averse to changing it.

Furthermore, Daniels discerns a paradox that will increasingly bedevil Democrats. One reason there are two parties is to accommodate two broadly different valuations of freedom and equality: Republicans tend to favor the former, Democrats the latter. But, says Daniels, Democrats have a stake in substantial, even increasing, income inequality.

This is because Democrats favor a more ambitious, high-spending federal government. Almost half of the government's revenue comes from the personal income tax, and, in 2000, 37.4 percent of income taxes were paid by the wealthiest 1 percent of income earners.

The liberals' conundrum is that their aspirations for omniprovident government depend on a large and growing supply of very rich people, whom Democrats deplore in principle but enjoy in practice. Rich people are the reason federal revenue surged into surplus during the boom times of the latter half of the Clinton presidency as income inequality widened and there was a gusher of revenue from capital gains taxes. The liberals' conundrum is condign punishment for the discordance between the way they talk and the way they live.

Sociologist David Riesman suggested there are broadly two kinds of political people. Gyroscopic people have internal guidance systems. Radar people steer according to signals bounced off others. Today, Democrats are more a radar party, Republicans are more a gyroscopic party, and stronger.

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George Will's latest book is "With a Happy Eye but: America and the World, 1997-2002" to purchase a copy, click here. Comment on this column by clicking here.


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