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The Clock Ticks as Democrats Stumble in the Fog
Published on Friday, January 11, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
The Clock Ticks as Democrats Stumble in the Fog
by Matthew Miller
 
Poor Tom Daschle.

He can't call for a repeal of the Bush tax cut because so many top senators in his party voted for it.

He can't call for any major initiatives without repealing the tax cut (and for fear of being tagged a big spender). The result is that everyone is mad at him. Conservative Democrats like Zell Miller and John Breaux think he's a political moron. Liberal Democrats like Paul Wellstone think he's a substantive traitor.

They're right about one thing: His agenda is incoherent. But in that respect, poor Tom is only a faithful reflection of the Democratic Party itself.

Now, incoherence isn't necessarily a defect in political life, if it can be marketed effectively to gain the power to shape events on your terms. Ronald Reagan's agenda--boost defense, slash taxes and balance the budget--was masterfully incoherent, and he never paid a political price for the massive deficits it bequeathed. As a result, American politics took a long-term turn to the right.

George W. Bush's agenda--the surplus is big enough to do it all, so let's start with big tax cuts for the wealthiest--turned out to be brilliantly incoherent as well. It's on track to push the U.S. political center of gravity even further to the right, by which I mean shrinking government as a force in equalizing opportunity and mitigating some of the burdens of bad luck.

Daschle's--and the Democrats'--current problem is that successful incoherence requires bold, inspiring goals (or incompetent opposition, which helps explain Bush's domestic successes). Timid incoherence is simply a sign of confusion.

That's the lesson of the great Republican irrationalists: If you're going to be incoherent, shoot for the moon. Put those huge gaps in logic and math in the service of "ending the evil empire," not toward pushing puny goals like a "patients' bill of rights." Who'll storm the barricades for that?

Yet Democrats can't think big. Take health care. Every day brings fresh news of rising costs and shrinking coverage. The ranks of the 40 million uninsured seem sure to soar.

It's a disgrace. It's a major problem. It should be a political opportunity.

So what do Democrats, in their wisdom, focus on? Health coverage for the recently unemployed, as part of the faux debate over a "stimulus" bill.

Why is this the limit of Democratic ambition? You can't distinguish this goal from what Bush himself says he wants to do.

Democratic strategy today is a game of inches. Inches don't inspire.

This game of inches can't change the landscape, and it can't begin to address the larger challenges (in health care, urban schooling and more) that matter--issues that Democrats remain the supposed voice for in our system. For those who care about substance over symbols, the key question of the decade may be this: Can Democrats develop a political strategy that would include solving our biggest problems?

The outlook is discouraging. And meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Every day the baby boomers get closer to their rocking chairs. The surge in health and pension costs after 2010 will drain away the cash and political energy to do anything but cope with their retirement.

If you're a conservative, that's fine by you. If you think there's an unfinished agenda for the nation that needs to be funded, this is a calamity.

Republicans are happy to run out the clock. For Senate Majority Leader Daschle and the Democrats, the fog is so thick you can't even see the myopia.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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