An activist postwar agenda

William Schneider

February 11, 1991|By William Schneider

THE USUAL rule for a party out of power is, the worse things are, the better things are. If the United States is in a deep and prolonged recession, and if things go badly in the Persian Gulf, then President Bush's popularity will go down and the Democrats' stock will rise.

That bit of conventional wisdom is obvious. But it may also be wrong.

The reason is that the war is not only lifting Bush's approval ratings. It is also producing a new sense of public purpose. And that is something the Democrats can turn to their advantage, after the national agenda shifts from the country's mission abroad to its needs at home -- or, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) put it in a recent speech, when the nation turns from Bush's "new world order" to "a new American order."

Democrats sell activist government. They have tried to get the middle class to support activist government -- and higher taxes -- by talking about fairness and compassion. The lesson of the 1980s, however, is that there are limits to middle-class guilt.

The war raises another possibility. Why not appeal to national pride and ambition -- precisely the themes Bush is using to promote an activist foreign policy? That way, Democrats can celebrate America's boldness and determination abroad while lamenting the Bush administration's lack of any comparable commitment at home. For partisan as well as patriotic reasons, Democrats should be rooting for a short, victorious war and a rapid economic recovery.

Wars produce either national exhaustion or national exhilaration. After a long and difficult war involving deep public sacrifice, people generally want to return to normalcy. That was exactly the nation's mood after the Civil War, the two world wars and the war in Vietnam. Each war gave rise to an era of materialism (the Gilded Age, the 1920s, the 1950s, the 1980s), not to a period of renewed public purpose.

Right now, however, the public is far from exhausted. It is exhilarated. You can see it in the polls measuring national self-esteem. Since 1958, poll takers have regularly measured public confidence by asking, "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" The percentage who said "just about always" or "most of the time" reached a peak of 76 percent in 1964. Then confidence started dropping -- rapidly -- to a low of 25 percent in 1980. The figure edged back up during the 1980s.

According to a late-January survey by the Washington Post, 46 percent of Americans now say that they can trust the federal government to do what is right. That is the highest level of public confidence registered over the past two decades. And confidence in government is what the Democratic Party is all about.

Bush exuded confidence in his State of the Union address, at least when he talked about foreign policy. But the same sense of confidence did not spill over into his remarks on domestic policy. Bush recycled some modest proposals for school choice, tenant ownership of public housing and enterprise zones, saying they would "put more power and opportunity in the hands of the individual."

That is the conservative notion of empowerment: reduce the power of government and increase the power of individuals. Conservatives borrowed the idea from liberals, but liberals meant something quite different by empowerment. To liberals in the 1960s, empowerment meant taking political power away from the wealthy and the privileged and giving it to the poor and the disadvantaged. Liberals wanted to empower groups, not individuals. Their purpose was to increase political power, not reduce it.

"The dirty little secret in Washington these days," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., told a Democratic gathering last month, "is that the Bush administration had no domestic agenda the day before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and it will have no domestic agenda the day after we drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait."

No one much cares right now. The country is at war. But the Democrats are already trying to shape the postwar agenda by appealing to the country's increasing sense of public purpose and self-confidence. "If we can make the best smart bomb, why can't we make the best VCR? If we can build a high-speed Patriot missile, can't we build a high-speed train?" Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) asked.

A successful war, followed by a rapid recovery, would give the Democrats the opportunity to talk about a renewed public commitment. They can follow Bush's lead. He defined the nation as "a community of conscience" in the Persian Gulf. Why not "a community of conscience" at home?

The Democrats' postwar strategy is to celebrate our success in the Persian Gulf. And then change the subject to the domestic agenda. Democrats may not have a candidate in the 1992 presidential race. But they are beginning to formulate a message.

Democrats may not have a candidate in the 1992 presidential race. But they are beginning to formulate a message

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