The Democratic party is in pretty sad shape when, four months before the New Hampshire primary, either Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis could mop the floor with the current batch of challengers. The campaign will proceed nonetheless. George Bush seems unassailable on foreign affairs, so the Democrats will focus on domestic policy. One Democratic theme you'll hear goes something like this: George Bush wants to be President of the World. We need a President of the United States. Unfortunately, most Democrats promote the kind of tax, spend, and regulate policies that Bush's campaign can easily shoot down. What the Democrats need is a new message that can win votes while not simply mirroring George Bush's record. Here's a way to repackage traditional Democratic appeals using fresh issues that can entice disenchanted voters:
• Tax fairness. The biggest beneficiaries of our current loophole-ridden tax structure are those people wealthy enough to afford lawyers and tax accountants. Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley has pushed for simpler, flatter income taxes (at lower rates) for nearly a decade. Supply-side cuts will stimulate the economy, benefiting everyone, and fewer loopholes will encourage people to do more productive work and spend less time evading the tax man.
• Fiscal responsibility. During the economic expansion of the 1980s, tax revenue grew by $70 billion or more each year. The federal government continued to run deficits because spending increased even faster than tax receipts.
Thanks to the recession, the red ink is getting deeper. The Congressional Budget Office says the deficit will exceed $300 billion annually over the next four years. And George Bush hasn't gripped the purse strings tightly; domestic spending has gone up by an average of 10 percent a year during his term. Democrats could become the fiscally responsible party by combining supply-side cuts with a cap on total spending so that revenue can catch up. Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder balanced his budget without new taxes; other Democrats can learn from him.
• Empowerment. Republican Jack Kemp champions school choice, housing vouchers, and other market-based welfare reforms. But he isn't running in 1992—Bush is. And the president's support for such structural changes has been tepid at best. A number of Democratic officials, however, do push for at least one of these plans. Former Democratic Del. Walter Fauntroy has long supported tenant ownership of public-housing units. Wisconsin state Rep. Polly Williams courageously marshaled through the legislature a voucher plan for Milwaukee's poorest students. And Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton speaks of making public-assistance programs more entrepreneurial. The party simply needs one candidate to pull the empowerment agenda together.
• Consumer protection. House Speaker Tom Foley advocates the most proconsumer program around: free trade. A Democratic president could rescind the "voluntary" limits on imports Ronald Reagan and George Bush handed down. Similarly, the White House could appoint a trade representative and a commerce secretary who would unilaterally tear down other trade barriers.
Other agencies in the executive branch have hindered consumer protection. FDA regulations, for example, keep drugs in the laboratory and away from sick people. A proconsumer FDA would encourage the development of and easier access to life-saving products.
All of these positions risk alienating the traditional special-interest groups who fill Democratic campaign coffers. And the national Democratic party seems content to maintain its majorities in Congress even as it continues to lose the White House.
But if the Republicans keep winning at least 40 states in every presidential election, they can convincingly argue that the Democrats cater to parochial factions instead of the national interest; when that message sinks in, the GOP will start to win congressional elections.
After he left office, Ronald Reagan received grudging praise from Democrats because he had effectively and consistently articulated a few basic ideas. This new Democratic agenda of lower taxes, spending restraint, and empowering the poor also benefits from simplicity. And it's been tested on the campaign trail before: Republicans have used it to win the past three presidential elections.