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September 13, 2013 4:13 PM Ends and Means

By Ed Kilgore

My quick reaction yesterday to Peter Beinart’s sprawling essay predicting a generational “challenge from the left” to a Clintonian ascendancy in the Democratic Party didn’t much do it justice, though it did register some demurrals that reflect my basic misgivings about his take. But first, let me pay my respects: Beinart is right that the trauma of the Bush years and the economic disaster we’re still struggling with and the dashing of brief hopes we were making progress on inequality and the radicalization of the Republican Party—all these things have seriously eroded the immediate relevance of the circa-1992 Clinton Model for Democratic policy and politics, particularly for a Millennial Generation with very different life experiences than those of its predecessors. And as a Baby Boomer who firmly planted in the Clinton tradition, I’ll be the first to admit that some of the lefty complaints about the New Democrat tendency, particularly on economic policy (where New Dems engaged in irrational exuberance for the New Economy that did some serious damage later on), turned out to be largely correct. But a lot of these old arguments on the Center-Left were never really engaged or resolved because of the common threat from the Right and different perspectives that obscured the real from the ephemeral differences, and in any event progressives have new challenges and new things to argue about. It would be a good thing if a renewed Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party gets underway with a much clearer sense of priorities.

Above all, it’s critical to separate arguments over principles with arguments over strategy and tactics. Much of the New Dem critique of traditional liberalism in the 1980s (see Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck’s “The Politics of Evasion,” the classic presentation of this critique) was an argument that Democrats had ceded the initiative to the GOP by ignoring whole swaths of public policy that voters actually cared about while devoting most of their energies to defending past economic and social policy accomplishments. And periodically ever since, folk on the Left have criticized Clinton and his political heirs for ceding crucial policy ground in the pursuit of increasingly barren political advantages.

These type of arguments are legitimate and even essential, but they do not necessarily denote gulfs in basic values, ultimate goals, or good faith, or other matters of “the soul.” Yet you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the rhetoric sometimes hurled between factions, with “true progressives” accusing “conservaDems” (itself an insult) of corporate whoredom and Trojan Horse treachery, and Clintonians accusing “paleoliberals” (another insult) of hackish loyalty to bureaucracies and organized interest groups instead of people in need. On the subject of the social safety net alone, there have been countless rhetorical drive-by shootings as one side accuses the other of obsessing about maintaining Social Security and Medicare benefits for people who don’t actually need it on the basis of some cynical theory of voter bribery, while the other side fires back by accusing its tormenters of colliding with conservatives to dynamite the New Deal. So even on individual issues, separating strategic and tactical from substantive arguments is essential even to conduct an accurate taxonomy of center-left points of view. I do not see a lot of awareness of that in Beinart’s essay.

But Beinart is also correct that some arguments are more a matter of basic framework and generational experience than of differences of opinion on how to skin this or that cat. One of the key critiques of traditional liberalism associated with New Dems was that the Old Guard confused the means of securing goals like equal opportunity or economic security with the goals themselves. If non-bureaucratic mechanisms like markets or decentralized experimentation could achieve the same or better results at less cost and without the political taint of Big Government, why not try it? What’s “progressive” about insisting that the ideal governing model was found in the impure compromises and constant experimentation of the 1930s or 1960s? But the high comfort-level of New Dems with market forces brought all sorts of temptations to excessive compromises with conservatives and coziness with powerful business interests.

It’s often difficult to sort out strategic, substantive or experiential differences among progressives. When in his first budget Clinton decided to “bend to the bond markets” by devoting resources earmarked for “investments” to deficit reduction instead, was this a strategic decision, or a test of loyalties he failed? And in either event, did his success in that same budget of securing high-end tax increases and a historic boost in the low-end Earned Income Tax Credit offset this offense to progressive priorities? Likewise, when Obama and the Clintonians around him chose to help rebuild rather than scour Wall Street in 2009, was that a prudential decision to avoid a global financial collapse, or a reward to campaign contributors, or just a habit of mind? It is very hard to say, just as it is hard to say if Clinton’s and Obama’s largely successful battles against conservative efforts to destroy progressive taxation and decimate redistributive federal programs make them heroes in the cause of economic equality or feckless colluders in a long-term political drift to the right.

And so Beinart’s suggestion of a sea change away from the Clintonian framework depends on an understanding of that framework that I’m not sure is either widely accepted or accurate. As Matt Yglesias notes in his response to Beinart’s identification of Bill de Blasio’s campaign as a potential herald of the equality-based Democratic politics of the future:

De Blasio’s campaign message and its strong focus on inequality is definitely a populist break with Clintonite politics. But his campaign agenda of higher taxes on a small slice of wealthy people in order to finance increased investments in early childhood education fits extremely comfortably inside the current Democratic Party consensus. Just ask Lawrence Summers who thinks that “the current tax system is, in certain ways, manifestly unfair at a time of rising inequality” and that “there are fairly expensive aspects of the current tax system that favor the most fortunate - aspects that border on the indefensible.” At the beginning of this year, no less a mainstream Democrat than Obama himself rolled out a proposal for universal preschool paid for with progressive tax increases.

Beinart’s characterization of Millennials as ready to lead and support a big “turn to the left” in the Democratic Party is also a bit iffy. Most of the evidence he offers is really about how much more liberal Millennials as a whole are than earlier generations; this doesn’t necessarily mean Millennial liberals are more left-bent than earlier models. It could actually mean we are slowly entering a period when Clinton-Obama style Democrats can achieve their goals more easily without conservative obstruction, or when the strategic/tactical incrementalism and bipartisanship of the Clintonian era can be significantly scaled back. Best I can tell, yes, Millennial progressives are significantly more dovish, more civil libertarian, and more egalitarian than progressives generally. But they are also more hostile to government and politics, more interested in bipartisanship and civic enterprise, and more likely to identify with ideas like “entitlement reform” and debt reduction and free trade that traditional liberals often abhor. Maybe Elizabeth Warren is the political avatar of the next generation of Democrats, but you could make just as plausible a case that it could be someone like Michelle Nunn (if she joins Warren in the Senate next year), who has spent her whole life in the civic sector and worries about partisanship and debt. And we can only begin the speculate what will happen to the center-left of the political spectrum if Republicans win control of the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, putting an end to the Clinton-Obama era and ushering in an assault on all that is holy to every progressive.

Still, even if you buy the idea that a Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy in 2016 can or should put off the Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party that’s been in suspension since 2008, it will happen sooner or later. If it’s later, maybe its participants will scoff at the current generation’s preoccupation with the battles of the 1980s and the 1990s or of 2004. But if so, Beinart’s most fundamental point may have been made, and you’ll have to go to the history books to find out why.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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