Goldwater Democrats

Why the losing party should learn to love limited government


My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn't any way to explain that to anybody.
—Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One

Four months into the great Democratic search for a Big Idea to right the ship of Party, no clear front-runner has emerged.

Do the Donkeys rediscover their tough-on-totalitarianism "Fighting Faith," as New Republic Editor Peter Beinart has lucratively urged, or is repudiating the "soft" pacifism of Michael Moore just modern-day McCarythism? Is it the foreign policy, stupid, or a Teddy Kennedy buffet table of domestic spending initiatives? Should the party get religion, fertilize its grassroots, emulate Newt Gingrich, tell its centrists to get bent, or all of the above?

New Party Chairman Howard Dean argues that the problem isn't the message, it's the pitch. "Here in Washington, it seems that after every losing election, there's a consensus reached among decision-makers in the Democratic Party is that the way to win is to be more like Republicans," he said in December. "When some people say we should change direction, in essence they are arguing that our basic or guiding principles can be altered or modified. They can't."

Amen, say Dean supporters like Oliver Willis: "This is a battle over how to be Democrats, not over what Democrats believe in. There are two tracks to go on: an accomodationist posture in search of bipartisanship that doesn't exist, or finally being as tough as the GOP purports to be."

In the short-term, the focus on comportment makes sense—Democrats can lick their wounds while demonstrating unity in opposition to the governing party's proposals, such as reforming Social Security. Mid-term elections are still 20 months away, and if either the economy or the Middle East tanks in the meantime, the loyal opposition can make gains without lifting an ideological finger.

But banking on American voters to flock back to the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" seems like a risky bet, given recent electoral trends. "Kerry's lead among young voters hid just how bad Election Day really was for Democrats," former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi wrote in The Wall Street Journal just after the election. "The Democratic Party has been in decline at just about every level of government. Forget the Kerry loss. Today the number of Democrats in the House is the lowest it's been since 1928. Democrats are on the brink of becoming a permanent minority party."

Trippi's ideological solutions—bash Wal-Mart, encourage unionization, further tighten campaign finance laws, reject moderation—do not at first blush sound like a recipe for majoritarianism. Nor do the many post-election tap-dances on the grave of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "The New Democratic movement of pro-free market moderates, which helped catapult Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992, has splintered," a gleeful Ari Berman reported in The Nation.

There's a better and arguably more attractive ideological option than being anti–"pro–free market," and it's sitting right in front of the Democrats' noses. When the party you despise controls most of the levers of government, it's an excellent time to run against government.

Disparate threads of limited-government rhetoric have begun to pop through the seams of the New Old Left unity. In the wake of the gay marriage wipeout and unpopular federal laws concerning the environment and medical marijuana, many Blue Staters are rediscovering the joys of federalism. "Fiscal responsibility" has cemented itself as boilerplate Democratic rhetoric, and not just as an excuse to jack up tax rates: Rising Democratic star Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, has been drawing praise from Cato for slashing his state's income taxes, and pushing his fellow Democratic governors to follow his lead.

Without much fanfare, some of the least attractive lefty orthodoxies have been falling by the wayside. Four years ago, when I covered Ralph Nader's wave-making presidential campaign, I didn't meet a single person who had a nice thing to say about international trade (hostility toward which was one of the crusader's biggest applause lines). Four years later, some of the most eloquent pro-globalization voices are coming from the left, and even the Manchester Guardian has a free-trade weblog.

Free speech, too, is becoming a renewed cause celebre, with The Nation questioning just why we need the Federal Communication Commission anyway, and lefty bloggers are up in arms about the possibility that the once-treasured McCain-Feingold Law might restrict their speech.

Even property rights are making a comeback—the lefty investigative magazine Mother Jones just ran a big package about the abuses of Eminent Domain, complete with an interview with the Institute for Justice's Scott Bullock.

Does this mean we can expect the Democrats to fill the "limited government" slot on the political spectrum? Alas, no. Among the many Big Ideas being bandied around by post-election Democrats, this ain't one of 'em. (And needless to say, I'm not a Democrat, and won't be any time soon.) In the very same Mother Jones issue that waxed rightfully indignant about individual property owners being trampled by the state, you can find an excruciatingly wearisome Todd Gitlin whither-Democrats essay, calling John Kerry's failed coalition of activists and defecting blue-collar types "a salvation movement in behalf of Enlightenment."

It's the Democrats who need Enlightenment now. The Republicans, with their ever-expanding government, runaway debt and anti-federalist moral crusading, have given the opposition a golden opportunity. If they don't seize it, "salvation" may be their only option left.