Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 23, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

MEANS vs. ENDS, PART 2....Jeanne d'Arc responds today to Jack O'Toole's challenge from a few days ago: "How, exactly, would a liberal Democratic administration differ from the [centrist] Clinton model with regard to its policies and initiatives?"

Jeanne writes that the most popular response in her comment section was "universal healthcare," but concedes that this is an ironic choice since Clinton tried awfully hard to implement a more modest healthcare plan and couldn't even get that passed. Then she switches gears and proposes a different defense of full-throated liberalism:

Rhetoric is important. What leaders choose to call attention to is important. What they ask us to see is important.

....That may be one of my biggest gripes about centrist Democrats. They act as if amelioration -- both economic and social -- is embarrassing and has to be handled under cover. Let's not talk about poverty. Let's pretend racism is now confined to the kind of white trash that dragged James Byrd to his death, but that drug wars and disenfranchising African-American voters have nothing to do with it. Let's not talk about gay rights because it makes some voters squirm. (Could all you gay people just try to blend it and shut up, so no one notices you're here?) Just trust us that we'll do whatever is politically feasible to make things better, but let's keep it quiet so we don't offend anyone.

This is cheating a bit, of course, since Jack asked about policy, not rhetoric. What's more, I'd suggest that Clinton was awfully good at the kind of rhetoric she's talking about.

Still, I think there's a good point here, and one that meshes neatly with the means vs. ends argument. I'd suggest that rhetoric is primarily about ends, and that inspiring rhetoric is important but that policy, conversely, is about means, and that implies figuring out what works, not what feels good.

This is one of the things that a lot of us like about John Edwards, I think: he combines an inspirational speaking style with a moderate policy agenda focused on programs that work. It's also at the heart of my (admittedly halfhearted) defense of Barbara Ehrenreich. I figure she's not going to be in charge of policy anytime soon, and having a voice that reminds us of what liberals stand for is worth having even if I don't always agree with her.

Like Jack, then, I'd defend centrist policymaking as the best way to actually accomplish our goals. But like Jeanne, I think we liberals could also do with a bit more no-holds-barred rhetoric it's rhetoric that molds public opinion, after all, and in the end it's public opinion that allows you to get things done in a democracy.

FDR was the premier liberal of the 20th century, and he was both an inspiring speaker and a policy pragmatist. (And a sneaky son of a bitch who wasn't afraid to make his opponents mad, too.) We won't see his like again in the near future, but that doesn't mean we can't try to emulate him. Liberals have been outgunned by conservatives in the arena of public opinion over the past couple of decades, and some good old fashioned speechifying might be the best way to turn that around.

Kevin Drum 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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