WASHINGTON - With Democrats increasingly optimistic about this year's midterm elections and the landscape for 2008, intellectuals in the center and on the left are debating how to sharpen the party's identity and present a clear alternative to the conservatism that has dominated political thought for a generation.
Many of these analysts, both liberals and moderates, are convinced that the Democrats face a moment of historic opportunity. They say that the country is weary of war and division and ready if given a compelling choice to reject the Republicans and change the country's direction. They argue that the Democratic Party is showing signs of new health intense party discipline on Capitol Hill, a host of policy proposals and an energized base.
But some of these analysts argue that the party needs something more than a pastiche of policy proposals. It needs a broader vision, a narrative, they say, to return to power and govern effectively what some describe as an unapologetic appeal to the "common good," to big goals like expanding affordable health coverage and to occasional sacrifice for the sake of the nation as a whole.
This emerging critique reflects, for many, a hunger to move beyond the carefully calibrated centrism that marked the Clinton years, which was itself the product of the last big effort to redefine the Democratic Party.
This analysis is also, in large part, a rejection of the more tactical, consultant-driven politics that dominated the party's presidential and Congressional campaigns of the last six years the emphasis on targeted issues like prescription drugs for retirees and careful, constituent-based appeals.
"What the Democrats still don't have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society," Michael Tomasky, editor of the liberal journal The American Prospect, wrote in a much-discussed essay in the May issue.
A broader vision, many of these analysts say, will help the Democratic Party counter the charge, so often advanced by Republicans, that the Democrats are merely a collection of interest groups labor, civil rights, abortion rights and the like each consumed with their own agenda, rather than the nation's.
John Podesta, who heads a center-left research group, the Center for American Progress, says an appeal to the common good "gets away from what we've sort of gotten used to in the last couple cycles a pollster-driven niche idea framing toward a larger vision of where you want to take the country."
Democrats and progressive intellectuals have a history of debating philosophies and world views. Sometimes those debates result in a consensus and even a winning campaign, like Mr. Clinton's; sometimes the results are irrelevant in the rush of real-world campaigning.
This discussion, still early, is bubbling up in journals like The American Prospect; research organizations like the Center for American Progress, The Third Way and the Democratic Leadership Council; a wave of new books; and especially among bloggers who are demanding that the party become more assertive in fighting for what it believes in.
The frustration with consultants and their impact on Democratic politics is widespread among the Internet pundits, and at the heart of several recent books, including "Crashing the Gate," co-written by Markos Moulitsas, founder of the blog the Daily Kos. In another, "Politics Lost," Joe Klein mourns the passing of a more authentic, preconsultant politics that he argues was embodied by Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 campaign.
Even the film industry recognizes the mood; "Bobby," an account of June 5, 1968, the day Kennedy won the California primary and was assassinated, is scheduled for release in November.
This discussion of first principles and big goals marks a psychological shift for many in the party; a frequent theme is that Democrats must stop being afraid, stop worrying that their core beliefs are out of step with the times, stop ceding so much ground to the conservatives.
Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, said, "One of the most successful right-wing ploys was to demonize any concern about the distribution of income in America as, quote, class warfare."
Many of these analysts argue that Republicans have pushed the ideological limits of the American people so far notably, with Mr. Bush's tax cuts for the affluent and his effort to partly privatize Social Security that Americans are ready for something different. Elaine Kamarck, a former top aide to former Vice President Al Gore, argues that the combination of the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina has driven home to Americans the need for strong and effective government, "and gets us back to our strengths a government that can deliver."
William Kristol, a leading conservative thinker and editor of The Weekly Standard, counters that parties are ultimately defined not by big visions from intellectuals but by real positions on real issues.
"Foreign policy is critical," said Mr. Kristol, whose magazine was considered an important influence on the Bush administration's foreign policy. "Do they share a basic understanding that there is a global war on terror, and Iran is a threat that has to be dealt with? Is the next Democratic presidential nominee going to raise taxes or not?"
He added, "It needs to be brought down to earth."
Many of these Democratic and liberal analysts acknowledge as much; they have a huge challenge on foreign policy, with divisions over the war in Iraq hanging over every philosophical discussion. There is more of a broad consensus on domestic policy, like the need to expand access to college and health care, but Democrats can still muster a good internal fight over whether to raise taxes and on whom, or how to deal with trade and a globalized economy.
Moreover, any party, in the end, is essentially defined by its presidential nominee.
Potential Democratic presidential candidates are already getting pulled into this debate. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York drew fire from Mr. Moulitsas, in an essay in The Washington Post on Sunday, as being too careful, thinking too small, essentially being a throwback to an outmoded centrism.
But as Representative Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, puts it, "The conversations we're having now are essential," in part, he argued, because the last two presidential elections "were more about biography than about a view of government or a vision of the future for this country."
Mr. Emanuel, a former Clinton White House adviser, plans to weigh into the debate with a book coming out this August called "The Plan Big Ideas for America's Future," written with Bruce Reed, another former Clinton White House aide and president of the Democratic Leadership Council.
The debate begins with a diagnosis of the problem: 15 years ago, in the runup to the Clinton campaign, influential Democratic thinkers argued that the party had lost three presidential races in a row because it was too liberal and had lost touch with the middle class. These days, some analysts argue it has become so tactical and so prone to compromise that not enough Americans know what it stands for. John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress recently described it as an "identity gap."
Mr. Tomasky argued in his article that "the party and the constellation of interests around it don't even think in philosophical terms and haven't for quite some time. There's a reason for this. They've all been trained to believe by the media, by their pollsters that their philosophy is an electoral loser."
Mr. Tomasky argues that the Democratic Party needs to stand for more than diversity and rights; it needs to return to its New Deal, New Frontier and Great Society roots and run as the party of the common good the philosophy, he says, that brought the nation Social Security, the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps and civil rights legislation. After years of what he calls "rapacious social Darwinism" under Mr. Bush, Mr. Tomasky argues that the country is ready for the idea that "we're all in this postindustrial America, the globalized world and especially the post-9/11 world in which free peoples have to unite to fight new threats together."
Peter Beinart, editor-at-large for The New Republic, argues for a new Democratic foreign policy in a new book, "The Good Fight," saying liberals need to reclaim the tough-minded approach they brought to the cold war recognizing the need for strong engagement in the fight against totalitarianism and for democracy, but doing so through international institutions.
Mr. Beinart, who backed the war in Iraq but now says, "I was wrong," said there were "important cautionary lessons" for supporters of that war about the dangers of "apocalyptic thinking" and the conviction that quick action is essential. On the other hand, he said, "It was the wrong lessons of Vietnam that led the Democratic Party off the cliff into mass opposition to the gulf war" in 1991.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company