You Better Think!

On February 12, the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee are to elect a new chairman to replace Terry McAuliffe. Four days later, an important new book -- John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics, by Richard Parker -- is due to hit bookstores. These two events actually have a lot to do with each other -- or at least the appearance of the latter provides a timely dose of context for the former, and a suggestion of one unusual job the new party chairman needs to take on.

A party chairman, by tradition, is supposed to be a mechanic. He raises money, recruits candidates, assembles permanent databases of party activists. But if the next chairman wants to save his party from falling into minority status for the foreseeable future, he'll need to do more than that. He'll need to train his party to think again.

After John Kerry's defeat, the chief complaint was that both candidate and party failed to let Americans know what they stood for. It was typically appended -- or could have been when it was not -- that the reason for this was that they didn't know what they stood for themselves.

It's time to start knowing.

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In the recent iteration of their quadrennial finger-pointing party, Democrats were quick to say that they will re-examine their position on this new controversy or rethink their attachment to that old piece of party dogma. It's all well and good, except for one problem: No one is ever in charge of the re-examination and rethinking. Different Democrats go on television and say A or Not A and B or Not B, but no one ever takes control of giving the debate any cohesion or direction toward an end point. Thus, nothing is ever quite anyone's fault. And before you know it, a new election rolls around, and the party still hasn't figured out what it stands for.

I used to ask congressional Democrats why -- in the wake of September 11, when it was obvious that new paradigms were in order -- they, or at least some of them, had not banded together and presented a Democratic vision for foreign policy in the post–9-11 world. Invariably, the answer was that coming up with something that grand wasn't their job. In 2003, after the Iraq War had started (and “ended”) and it was time for Democrats to formulate a response to the Bush administration, I used to ask what that response would be. Not our role, I was told; when we have a candidate, we'll have a response.

This buck-passing is how things have normally worked. But these are not normal times. The Democratic Party is in unique straits. Someone has to take charge, not necessarily of deciding what the party stands for but of initiating a serious process whereby that is determined.

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This is where the Galbraith book comes in. Galbraith bestrode the world during the era of liberal dominance; part of the reason for that dominance was that Democratic politicians leaned on wise liberal intellectuals for advice and ideas. This relationship characterized Franklin Roosevelt's dependence on “brain trust” figures like Rexford Tugwell and Adolph A. Berle Jr.; Harry Truman's reliance on “wise men” like Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and John J. McCloy; and John F. Kennedy's relationships with men such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Thomas K. Finletter, and Galbraith himself. In each case, the thinkers came up with good ideas, and the Democrats listened. Can it be merely coincidence that all three of those presidents presented innovative ideas to the American people, and that when the man in the street was asked in those days what the Democrats stood for, he could think of an answer?

I am not saying that intellectuals can save the Democratic Party (indeed, one could argue that the intellectuals of the 1970s and '80s almost destroyed it). But politicians need to be in dialogue with thinkers, not just special-interest advocates and pollsters. One gets the sense that those relationships do exist on the Republican side, especially with regard to foreign policy. There is actual thought -- bad thought, but thought all the same -- in the neoconservative approach.

But with Democrats, a new approach always sounds more like superficial repositioning. When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi encouraged the anti-abortion Tim Roemer to seek the party chairmanship, she was doing just that -- superficially pandering to the party's opponents while making party loyalists very nervous. The party needs to figure out what to do about abortion. But not like that.

This is a crisis -- one might say the crisis -- and the new chairman needs to address it. He should convene meetings where progressive thinkers of all stripes can meet with elected officials in a structured way to start thinking … about thinking.

Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.