LOS ANGELES — When the Democratic presidential contenders meet in Albuquerque tonight for the first of their official fall debates, they'll be hamstrung not only by their "nine dwarfs" tableau and by President Bush's popularity, but also by a loss of ambition that has perversely narrowed the boundaries of domestic debate.
Consider one of the most pressing issues, health care. John Edwards and Joseph Lieberman have unveiled plans to expand coverage that are more modest than the proposal offered by President George H. W. Bush in 1992 (which would have covered 30 million of the then 35 million uninsured). On the supposedly "liberal" side, Howard Dean, John Kerry and Richard Gephardt say they eventually want to cover everyone. But in the years ahead their various plans would reach perhaps 30 million of today's 41 million uninsured. No serious Democratic contender today would endorse Richard Nixon's plans from the early 1970's for universal health coverage and a minimum family income: Nixon's package was far too liberal.
Health care may be the most glaring example, but the same timidity characterizes Democratic talk on schools, wages and more. Millions of poor children, for example, are systematically warehoused with the nation's least qualified teachers, making a mockery of Washington's pledge to "leave no child behind." Yet no Democrat is offering a serious plan to raise teachers' salaries to lure a new generation of talent to urban schools. Fifteen million people live in poverty despite being in homes headed by full-time workers. Yet no Democrat has presented anything bolder than a modest hike in the minimum wage that might bring its value, adjusted for inflation, to what that wage was worth in the late 1970's.
What happened to the Democratic Party's willingness to take on the problems facing ordinary people? Since 1994, when the Clinton health care plan imploded in a fiasco that cost the party control of Congress, Democrats have been too scared to think big again. Republicans, emboldened by this timidity, have reacted by pushing harder on their traditional priorities of cutting taxes and regulations. As a result, a commitment to two longstanding American ideals — equal opportunity and a minimally decent life for citizens of a wealthy nation — has been lost.
Bringing these ideals back to the political mainstream requires a fresh approach. Democrats need to frame these issues as matters of common sense, not as part of any particular ideology. Democrats also need to realize that the means by which the nation achieves these goals is less important than a shared commitment to results. For instance, if we can give uninsured families generous vouchers (or tax credits) to buy health coverage at group rates from regulated private insurers, we should do it — not hold out for a traditionally liberal, government-centered solution. This is a moment for pragmatism in the service of ambitious goals, not doctrinal purity that remains marginalized.
What American politics urgently needs, in other words, is not a new left, but a new center. Democrats need to refocus domestic debate around a handful of fundamental goals on which all Americans can agree — goals that in turn become the new basis for setting fiscal priorities and tradeoffs.
Yes, there will be fights over details. But if we first ask what equal opportunity and a decent life in America mean, can't we agree that anyone who works full time should be able to provide for his or her family? That every citizen should have basic health coverage? And that special efforts should be made to make sure that poor children have good schools?
Fixing these problems will take federal dollars, an amount of cash that is mistakenly viewed as "unaffordably liberal" under existing terms of debate. In fact, an agenda that covered the uninsured, subsidized a new living wage of $9 an hour and adequately compensated teachers would cost less than two cents on the national dollar, or 2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
Such new angles of vision are necessary if we're to get serious about America's biggest domestic problems. But the first step is for Democrats to climb out of their decade-long crouch. Republicans have been allowed to frame the conversation for so long that the terms of public debate have become surreal. After all, Margaret Thatcher would have been tossed from office if she'd proposed anything as radically conservative as Bill Clinton's health plan — which still would have left several million people uncovered and had the private sector deliver the medicine.
As Democrats start sprinting toward their primaries, the candidate who can take what the Republican Party denigrates as "wild-eyed liberal dreams" and reframe them properly as simple common sense will have the best chance to beat President Bush — and of deserving to.
Matthew Miller, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is author of "The 2 Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company