What's the Big Idea?
Democrats are scrambling for a new paradigm. Maybe they don't need one.
By Kevin Drum
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One of the most annoying conventions of serious book reviewing is the apparently widespread belief that it's unsophisticated to come right out and say what you think of a book. So let's get that out of the way right now: I had more fun reading The Argument than I've had reading any political book in ages. It was fun the way The Boys on the Bus was fun. The way Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 was fun. (Am I dating myself here?) Or maybe even the way Primary Colors was fun.

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Which is not to say that the book is entirely fair or entirely right. But it sure is a romp if you enjoy inside baseball. Really inside baseball.

Fair warning, though: The Argument is not really about an argument at all. In fact, it's more about the lack of an argument. It's about the angst and dejection of Democratic politicians and activists who woke up after the 2004 election and discovered that their party still didn't have what it needed to win elections. At various times the book's author, Matt Bai, calls this lack a "philosophical framework," a "compelling case," or a "new paradigm," but basically it all boils down to one thing: a big new idea—something that will define the Democratic Party in the information age and earn the loyalty—and votes—of a new generation of voters who take the past triumphs of the party for granted.

Bai takes a look at this search for a big new idea through three lenses. The first is the Democracy Alliance, a secretive group of billionaires trying to fund their way to an answer. The second is MoveOn, a grassroots organization that was founded in 1998 and then took off after 9/11. The third is the blogosphere. All three groups have spent the past few years, each in its own way, groping toward ... something.

But what? If you're willing to deal in very broad brushstrokes, the three big liberal waves of the twentieth century were powered by three different big ideas. The progressive era was mostly about labor rights and good government. The New Deal was about building a social safety net. The 1960s were powered by the rights revolution. All of these big ideas are still salient in the twenty-first century—Andy Stern, president of the 1.8-million-member Service Employees International Union, is busily trying to unionize the service sector, Michael Moore is trying to convince the country to adopt national health care, and gay marriage is right up there with abortion on the cultural hot-button scale—but they aren't new. What's worse, they're about battles that have mostly been won. Not completely won, but won enough that they can't command the kind of mass activism that liberals need if they want to seriously overhaul the political landscape and relegate the Republican Party to the ash heap.

So what's next? Bai starts his story with Rob Stein and his famous PowerPoint presentation. Stein, a liberal thinker who's worked both in and out of government since the late '70s, decided in 2002 to finally give form to a longtime obsession of his: the story of how the Republican Party went from friendless pariah in the '60s to 800-pound gorilla in the '80s and '90s. His answer, which he has since presented to hundreds of Democratic Party insiders, is a finely honed narrative of what Stein calls the "conservative message machine," a project originally kickstarted by a diverse collection of hard-core millionaire activists who, after the counterculture revolution of the '60s, began funding a think tank infrastructure dedicated to rebuilding the conservative movement. The resulting organizations—the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society, and others—did just that.

Stein's dream was to emulate this machine, and right away you can see where this might be a problem. After all, movement conservatism, despite its frequent and tiresome pretensions, has never really produced any big ideas. What it has produced is an intellectual superstructure designed to provide fresh justification for all its old ideas. Supply-side economics was a new excuse for cutting taxes. Constitutional originalism was an excuse for cutting down the regulatory state. Neoconservatism was an excuse for old-fashioned hawkery. Evangelical Christians provided ammunition for cultural traditionalism. These were all dusty ideas, but the think tanks and interest groups made them look shiny and new.

Unfortunately, America's liberal millionaires didn't seem to get this. The eventual result of Stein's proselytization was the formation of the Democracy Alliance, a group of megarich liberal donors who were convinced that a combination of money and business acumen could come up not just with new words and phrases, but with genuinely big new ideas. After all, if Peter Lewis and George Soros could bust new paradigms in the business world, why not in the political world too?

Bai's inside story of the Democracy Alliance is, depending on your temperament, either hilarious or disheartening. I found it to be a bit of both. The millionaires, unsurprisingly, all had egos to match their pocketbooks and little patience with lesser minds ("lesser" defined as anyone so doltish that they were unable to make at least a hundred mil or so playing around in the financial markets). And unlike the conservative tycoons they were copying, they insisted on a stifling, top-down management style. They hired staff and then refused to listen to them. They made up absurd rules for anyone who wanted a piece of their funding. They tried to come up with new ideas and ended up with banalities.

Bai is scathing in his description of the Democracy Alliance's millionaires, who spent most of their time involved in internal backbiting and then ended up funding all the same old organizations that liberals have always funded. Their political na´vetÚ was equally breathtaking, best conveyed by an almost painfully embarrassing story Bai tells about one of the alliance's founders, who got played like a country fiddle in his first encounter with Terry McAuliffe and Bill Clinton in the late '90s and, years later, still didn't realize what had happened. "[Clinton] was really listening," the millionaire said about an obviously staged conversation. "You can't fake that." But of course you can, and Bill Clinton, as Bai notes, could pull this off in his sleep.

But if Bai's scorn for the millionaires is both palpable and richly deserved (and funny!), his attitude toward his other subjects is more ambivalent. MoveOn, for example, was until recently a purely virtual organization, basically a gigantic e-mail list dedicated to raising money for candidates and causes. But what was the cause? Bai says it was, at bottom, always the same: "Republicans were evil, arrogant, and corrupt, and they had to be banished back to the wormy little holes they had crawled out of, the sooner the better. This was the only real message object its members cared about."

Pitch your ears in one direction, and this description is both playful and probably accurate. Pitch them in a different direction, however, and you can hear the overtones of world-weary condescension poking through. The same is true for his description of a MoveOn house party, which shows a terrific ear for detail and some obvious sympathy for the difficulty ordinary people have when they try to go beyond mere loathing of the Republican Party and instead work to actively produce a new political vision. But it's also obvious that he thinks of this gathering as a bit naive and ditzy, sort of a group therapy session for people who are working their way through some anger issues and don't really understand their own minds.

As it turns out, though, both attitudes seem partly justified. After all, Bai's house party was one of hundreds going on at the same time, and once the results from all the parties were tallied up the final vision ended up being an all-too-predictable liberal laundry list: health care for all, energy independence, and "democracy restored." As Bai notes dryly, "these weren't entirely novel ideas." And so they weren't. MoveOn's house parties hadn't produced a paradigm shift any more than the millionaires' club had. Still, he admits, their ideas were probably more substantial than anything the gray-suited politicos in Washington were coming up with. So that was something, at least.

The third leg of The Argument, the blogosphere, is another animal entirely, and one that Bai only partly gets. He focuses nearly all of his attention on one site, Daily Kos; two bloggers, Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong; and the constellation of netroots activists who surround them. And he obviously understands what they're after: they want the Democratic Party to get a spine. They want candidates who will fight back against the conservative message machine, who won't shrink from confrontation with the Republican Party, and who are proud to be progressives. In short, to echo the words of Paul Wellstone and Howard Dean, they hail from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, and they want that wing to crush the Blue Dogs, DLC centrists, and assorted other moderate sellouts who they believe are currently running the liberal establishment.

Bai obviously has some affection for this bulldog attitude, which tends to sweep away as irrelevant anything that happened before 1998, but he also correctly notes that this focus on partisanship Řber alles frequently results in ideological incoherence. One minute Moulitsas is railing against the Democratic Leadership Council for being a sellout to the liberal cause and the next he's casually describing himself as a libertarian. Armstrong ends up consulting for former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, as centrist a DLC moderate as you'll ever find. If there's a big new idea here, it's hard to figure out what it is.

But that may be because Bai was looking in the wrong place. Liberal political bloggers generally view the blogosphere as split into two halves: the netroots activists on one side and the "wonkosphere" on the other. They aren't separate groups so much as two halves of a single brain. Both sides want to win, and both sides want to push the Democratic Party moderately to the left, but it's the wonkosphere that likes to gab about policy big think. If the blogosphere is ever likely to produce a big new idea in an ideological sense, this is where it's going to come from.

But you'd never know that, because Bai doesn't waste any time with the wonkosphere, an omission that's unfortunate. It's not that the wonks have necessarily gotten a firm handle on the future any better than the millionaires or the house parties, but at least they're talking about it. I usually think of the wonkosphere's discussions as "policy lite," but even at that they're frequently more penetrating and more honest than the 300-page white papers from the think tanks. And they make policy interesting and digestible to a huge number of people who wouldn't otherwise hear anything about it at all.

In the end, Bai fails in his search for the Holy Grail. He never finds his big new idea. He contends that this betrays a hollowness at the core of modern liberalism, but as entertaining as The Argument is—and it's very entertaining—that may be a flaw in the book more than a flaw in the Democratic Party. As bloggers will endlessly (and correctly) tell you, liberals have loads of good ideas—certainly far more than the tired carcass of conservatism bequeathed to the country by George Bush—and if none of them truly qualifies as a New Deal-esque paradigm shift, that may be because there just isn't one to be had right now.

It's easy—maybe too easy—to toss around glib references to the "information age" and the "postindustrial state," but the fact that people put these phrases into book titles doesn't automatically make politics-as-we-know-it obsolete. Sometimes, after all, you live in an era that demands progress but not a root-and-branch transformation, and that may just be the era we live in. Bai quotes an awful lot of smart politicians and liberal thinkers repeating the mantra that Democrats need a big new idea, but it's telling that not a single one of these smart people ever actually suggests one that's compelling. Maybe that should tell us something.

   

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Kevin Drum, contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, edits Political Animal, at www.washingtonmonthly.com.  
 
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