Comment: Politics and Beanbag

Politics, as Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley had it, ain't beanbag. But lately the Republicans have been playing political hardball while too many Democrats play beanbag.

Candidate George W. Bush managed to have it both ways, casting himself as a uniter but offering raw partisan rhetoric against the Democrats. During the debates, Bush kept faulting Al Gore for failure to accomplish in eight years many of the things Gore was now promising. But the vice president couldn't bring himself to utter the obvious rejoinder--that the culprit was Republican obstructionism--lest he sound partisan.

Throughout the Clinton years, the Republicans demonstrated the value of partisanship. In Clinton's first two years, they just blocked everything, making Clinton look ineffective. In 1994 they gained both houses of Congress. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America succeeded in nationalizing party politics and creating something very rare for the United States: a congressional caucus with near-parliamentary discipline.

Gingrich himself eventually became a victim of his own excesses. Right after he abruptly quit, Representative Bob Livingston became the shortest-lived Speaker of the House on record when it was disclosed that Livingston, too, had had an affair. An epic Saturday Night Live piece from the Lewinsky era has Gingrich and Livingston, despondent in a bar. Livingston keeps looking up from his drink and asking, "What the hell happened?" At the skit's close, inevitably, Clinton walks by, with a foxy babe on his arm.

But it wasn't an excess of partisanship that did in Gingrich and Livingston. It was personal hubris. Fierce partisanship served the Republicans well, and never more effectively than in the 2000 postseason. As the counting went on, it was Bush and Jim Baker who were willing to play rough with how much constitutional crisis the Republic could stand, and it was Gore who blinked. His feckless high-mindedness only reinforced the Republicans' claim that the Democrats had truly lost Florida and emboldened the Scalia Court to halt the count.

Now Bush has abandoned all pretense of governing from the center, and congressional Democrats are uncertain whether to muster wall-to-wall opposition. Imagine that Gore won Florida and the election, with a five-to-four Supreme Court ruling. Imagine that he compounded the sin by appointing lefties to his cabinet. Republicans would be boycotting the inauguration, vowing never to forget, and blocking nominees based precisely on their stated philosophies.

Why are Democrats less strategically resolute than Republicans? For one thing, they are less unified in substance. The New Democrat faction buys much of the Republican view of free markets. Democrats are more whipsawed by the system's dependence on big money. Even some liberals embrace the New Democrat label as a Good Housekeeping seal for fundraising purposes with big business and wealthy individual donors.

Professional politicians are also influenced by the media echo chamber. The media's tilt to the right has only intensified of late. Fox TV has joined The Wall Street Journal as a propaganda machine for the hard right, and MSNBC is not far behind. There is simply nothing like this on the liberal left. The Times and Post editorial pages, though cautiously liberal, above all strike a pose of fair-mindedness. When the commentators are not tilting explicitly to the right, they are preaching the virtues of a much-overrated bipartisanship.

Gore did best when he sounded partisan. His issues did better than he did. The fact that the country split in the last election, roughly 53 percent for the liberal left (Gore plus Nader) to 47 percent for the right (Bush plus Buchanan) does not mean that the correct policy for Democrats is the middle of the road. It does mean that Democrats in Congress should block anything right of center--while they rebuild a strategic vision that can lead to a governing mandate.

A good beginning is the cover theme of this issue of the Prospect: "Can the New Economy Be a Decent Society?" The answer is that it can, but only if government plays a major role. As Robert B. Reich writes, the very forces that make the economy more dynamic make the individual less secure.

With more job transition than ever, it's time to shift health coverage from a fringe benefit of employment to a universal benefit of citizenship. The economy would become that much more flexible and its workers that much more secure and productive. Employment would be less stressful if there were reliable day care for parents. With more public investment, transport would be less congested. The economy could grow much faster, without inflation, if millions of currently unemployable people were job-ready. All of this requires government. And none of it interferes with the dynamism of the information economy: It only makes that dynamism more sustainable.

And as two companion articles point out, the new economy's stunning wealth should be more broadly diffused. Wealth-broadening is an old American tradition. Jefferson steered public land to small freeholders rather than speculators. The Homestead Acts, the land grant colleges, and the GI Bill of Rights continued the theme. Wealth broadening complements income redistribution and, again, is only good for the economy as a whole. None of this fits easily onto a bumper sticker, but it's a coherent story that resonates with people's lived experience.

In this odd era, we have an increasingly liberal public mood and an illegitimate conservative president. It's a good moment for liberals to stretch our collective imagination. And let's retire the beanbag in favor of spirited hardball. ¤

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