Quo Vadis, Democrats?

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I will tell you a story of New York politics.

Years ago, the late, storied Ed McDonough, as Rensselaer County Democratic Chairman, took Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then seeking the nomination for the US Senate, over to the University Club in Albany to kiss the ring of Dan O’Connell, the late éminence grise of Albany Democratic Politics.   Moynihan’s likely opponent in the 1976 Democratic Primary was US Rep. Bella Abzug, an ardent New York City liberal, known for her fancy hats.

Moynihan, not unexpectedly, probably assumed he would get O’Connell’s support.  There were ties between them of ethnicity and religion.  Like O’Connell, Moynihan was a street kid, in his case, born in Tulsa and raised on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, who was intelligent and well read.  (O’Connell, who had never graduated from grammar school, much less high school, was known for giving his friends and opponents biting nicknames drawn from the characters of William Makepeace Thackeray.)

Moynihan’s potential opponent, Abzug, was a far more liberal Democrat than Moynihan or O’Connell.  She was flamboyant where O’Connell was austere.  She was formally educated at Columbia Law where O’Connell was an autodidact.  She was of the New York City of the post-World War II era; of Tamiment, progressive housing co-operatives and the rivalries of rising intellectuals from City College,  just as O’Connell was of the Albany of the post-World War I era; when he captured the City Clerkship in an electoral upset, still wearing his Navy uniform.

However, O’Connell, probably not liking the fact that Moynihan had been a policy adviser to Richard Nixon and the UN Ambassador for Gerald Ford, and thinking that she was a far more loyal Democrat, gave the Machine’s support to Abzug.

As Moynihan went on to win the election, becoming one of the most powerful Democrats, nationally and in New York, during the Reagan years, I have often wondered if O’Connell (who died in 1977) and his successors had occasion to regret this decision.

Now, this was 1976.  The Democrats were in the process of nominating James Earl Carter, whom most people forget was a very conservative Democrat.  The early winds of the Howard Jarvis/Proposition 13 movement in California were stirring.  Ronald Reagan was already starting to mount a primary challenge against a moderate sitting President with surprising success.  Bella Abzug’s uber-liberal views were starting to lose favor with the electorate, even (as the 1977 mayoral election showed) in New York City.  The Albany (and Rensselaer) County Democrats were more conservative than the Party was nationally.  Supporting Moynihan was an opportunity.  However, as Abba Eban famously said of the Arabs, the Democrats (here, the Albany Democrats) never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

In their dealings with the Tea Party/Liberty Movement today, the Democrats again are missing an opportunity.

Being the party that carries the mantle of Andrew Jackson, in the sense of concern for the common man, and that of Alexander Hamilton, as the party of centralized, federal power, may have made sense in the era of the New Deal, but today the contradictions abound.

Bill Clinton said that the era of big government was over, but I think it is fair to say that the era of centralized, big, bloated anything is over, with the fiscal crisis of last September being the prima facie evidence.  “Too big to fail” often really means “Too big to compete fairly or even function.”

The Obama Administration is probably beginning to wear out its welcome with the electorate. This is not due to an inchoate racism, but, as the President himself has said, due to ancient, passionate and deeply held beliefs about the relative virtues and drawbacks of centralized and decentralized power.  The President, wisely, has said that the issue is not big government versus small government generally, but what amount of government is necessary to engage the issues we face.

However, I think the Administration has a bias towards more centralized, federal solutions where decentralized solutions would have been optimal.

For example, we have adopted the Stimulus Package on top of the Bush Administration’s monumental expenditures under the Troubled Assets Relief Program (“TARP”).  We have had an anemic recovery burdened with unsustainable debt.  Germany, on the other hand, opted for tax cuts, government spending reductions and regulatory reform and has enjoyed a more significant economic recovery.  In the end, the Administration has proven what its critics foresaw:  you can’t solve a debt crisis with more debt.

The current proposed health reform plans are, in my opinion, both sorely needed and fatally flawed.  These plans thus far are not solutions that seek to use market forces to lower costs, expand access and improve quality; hence they are no solutions at all.

What then is the solution?  Quo Vadis, Democrats?

In part, an aspect of the solution is seen in the Ellis Campaign for Albany Mayor: you have a Liberal Democrat running on a platform that includes property tax reduction and expanded police presence.  His proposals are not substantively different from those of Republican opponent, Nathan Lebron, as the problems are clear and so are the solutions.

Policy must be about solutions, not received wisdom; about treating the pathologies that exist, not reciting and enacting comforting nostrums.  In part due to the success the federal government had in preparing for and waging World War II, fighting de jure segregation in the South, and due to the (probably vastly over-rated) success the New Deal had in ending the Depression, Democrats have been the party propounding government of the government, by the government and for the government rather than “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Too often, the Democratic Party has seemed more interested in expanding centralized federal power, rather than improving the commonweal.   This is untenable in today’s world.

Over the last eight years, our once centralized, top-down, bureaucratic military has started to win the war against Al Qaeda, more a meme than a conventional military (or even conventional insurgent) force, only by becoming less centralized, less bureaucratic and more bottom-up.  In a world of narrow-casting and limitless choice, the centralized cannot survive.

Both parties, in fact, limit their legitimacy by pursing government for the sake of the governing, not the governed.  Politically, the only advantage that Democrats in New York State enjoy is that the State Republican hierarchy is even more disorganized and discredited.

The Wild Card in all of this is the Liberty/Tea Party Movement.  This movement is part of the same groundswell that elected President Obama: a desire for functional, honest government.  They crave legitimate . . . and limited  . . . government and greater freedom.

The Republicans have an advantage with these people in that their stated dogma (if not their sometimes statist actual policy) is more in tune with these people’s aims.  Additionally, they are out of power and are more willing to listen.  However, these people do not seem to fully trust the Republicans qua the Republicans, either.  At best, this movement reflects the hope of citizens making their Republic work; at worst this movement could point towards the Hobbesian nihilism of government that has no legitimacy with its people.

Democrats must talk to those people and listen to them.  They don’t have to agree with them on everything; likely they won’t.   But if Democrats talk to them, they will be surprised by how much both sides do agree about the nature of the problems and, oddly enough, some of the better solutions.

Albert Camus, stoic and libertine, artist and hero, wrote to a Catholic religious community he was trying to get to help him oppose the Algerian War:

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are      tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t  help us, who else in the world can help us do this?

Perhaps, in terms of honorably conducting wars that achieve the nation’s ends without betraying or misusing the men and women who stand in the phalanx, or insuring that we have working markets that enable our people to toil and prosper and a just and efficient legal and regulatory structure, or in generally advancing the commonweal, Democrats need to ask that same question, “And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?” of the people  in the Liberty/Tea Party Movement.