The Democratic Party enters its 2012 convention this week on a surprisingly even keel.
Despite harsh electoral conditions -- high unemployment, low growth and public pessimism about the economy -- President Barack Obama remains in a tight race with Republican Mitt Romney. It seems possible that Democrats might even retain their majority in the Senate, a prospect that appeared unlikely just months ago.
Democrats’ competitiveness, however, owes more to the weakness of the rival party than the strength of their own. As Republicans grow increasingly infatuated with fringe policies and candidates, Democrats can’t help but look more appealing by default.
To be fair, Democrats have also earned their status as a relative haven. The party survived its flirtation with the fringe in the 1970s, during which its indulgence of antisocial behavior, identity politics and a sometimes lurid suspicion of capitalism threatened its future. From George McGovern to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Democrats traveled a long and rocky road back to the political center.
The good news is that the journey resulted in a center-left party wedded to realism and largely dominated by moderates. The passage of health-care reform in 2010 showed that Democrats -- and the nation -- can still accomplish difficult, important things. Even so, health-care reform was a long-belated capstone to the New Deal, a decidedly 20th-century venture. Barring a foolish repeal, Franklin Roosevelt may now rest in peace. His party can afford no such luxury.
This year’s Democratic campaigns rest mostly on a promise to resist Republican threats to the way things are. Being the party of the status quo is no great recommendation at a time when the U.S. economy is producing inequality, stagnation and a paucity of middle-class jobs. Under such circumstances, a vow to mend but not end the web of government social spending that consumes an ever greater share of the federal budget, and a willingness to raise taxes to Clinton-era rates -- but only on the wealthy -- sounds like a plan for treading floodwaters.
The party shows strength in pluralism, its ability to enfold different races and classes. That is also its weakness. Once the party of the working class and the union rank-and-file, the Democratic identity and mission are no longer so clear. What political agenda ties the aspirations of a poor Hispanic family in Tucson, Arizona, to those of a white college professor in New Haven, Connecticut? Tolerance and compassion are essential values. But Democratic candidates must offer more than a sensibility; what the nation needs is a program.
Globalization has been as much a Democratic project as a Republican one. Unfortunately, neither party can claim success in managing its ill effects, including relentless pressure on the wages of low- and middle-skilled workers. Democrats have proved no more capable than Republicans in preparing the nation’s schools and workforce for the upheavals fomented by technology and unbounded global capital. The stimulus, health-care overhaul and re-regulation of Wall Street were all necessary. But they don’t add up to a compelling vision of the future or the means for shaping it to American purposes.
This is a difficult political moment, marked by fear and conflict. It is no place to idle. This week in Charlotte, North Carolina, President Obama and his party must show that they aren’t stuck in place -- that they can both see beyond the present fog and lead us to a better place.
The goal is plain, if elusive: a social contract that supports opportunity for all and an education system that can deliver it, an economy that provides meaningful work and tangible rewards, and a federal government that fulfills vital duties at home and abroad while gradually paying down its extravagant debt.
This means the Democrats must be open to reforms they’ve previously resisted, such as raising the retirement age and means-testing some cherished benefits. They must also offer more than higher taxes on the rich as a solution to budget deficits, and commit to reining in excessive public-sector union benefits. Above all, the party must focus less on expanding benefits for those left behind and more on helping such workers gain skills for a globalized economy.
Americans have seen just enough of this new century to understand there are no easy answers, but not enough to know where the nation is heading or the price of the voyage. The Republican National Convention promised hard truths and offered sly evasions. Will Democrats do better?
Today’s highlights: the editors on addressing West Nile virus and dengue fever in the U.S.; Jeffrey Goldberg on confronting potential genocides; William Pesek on this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference; Ramesh Ponnuru on how hard an Obama second term would be; Cass R. Sunstein on how voters can escape from their political cocoons; John H. Cochrane on Keynesian assumptions at the Congressional Budget Office.
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