Finally, Democrats Who (Almost) Get It

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Note: The May 10 2008 column “Finally… 21” and the
June 8 2008 column “June 3 2008 Election” will be written and posted at some
point after the November 4 2008 elections. 
When that happens I will post new Xanga entries alerting readers of the
published columns.

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I haven’t been following U.S. politics for terribly long
(not in real earnest until 2003) so considering that the years from 2003 to
2006 were ones of demoralizing losses for Democrats, I’m usually pretty unhappy
with the way things are going.  Even in
2006, an otherwise great year for Democrats was spoiled by the disappointing
losses of Phil Angelides and Ned Lamont. 
This year, however, for the first time everything seems to be going
great.  Not only is our presidential
nominee, Senator Barack Obama, looking like he’s going to win by 300+ electoral
votes, but we have great candidates who will add both numerically and
substantively to our majorities in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.  Candidates like Al Franken, who’s running for
the U.S. Senate in Minnesota and is the one person I want to see make it to the
Senate the most.

 

Not only are Democrats doing well electorally, we finally
seem to be pulling ourselves out of the ideological ditch we’ve been stuck in
the past eight years.  The liberal wing
of the party, especially the netroots, has regained considerable strength and
is poised to really get their place at their table instead of letting DLC-types
run the show as they have been for most of the past twenty years.  We saw this in our primaries, with the DLC
candidate Hillary Clinton losing to an outsider upstart with a tendency to
espouse a highly communitarian message, Barack Obama.

 

One of the reasons why I supported Obama over Clinton in the
primaries was because I felt that Obama had an understanding that a candidate
had to offer an overarching message – a narrative, if you will – that would
transform the political landscape, rather than simply offer a laundry list of
policy ideas and programs as John Kerry had done and Clinton looked like she
was doing.  Obama’s overarching message
was a solidly liberal/progressive one: that we as a country are all part of
one common society and we have a responsibility to each other, and the way we
take care of one another is through our common institution of government and by
strengthening the government and enabling it to do its duties effectively.
  It was a message he reinforced in his acceptance
speech
at the Democratic National Convention:

 

Ours is a promise that says
government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which
we cannot do for ourselves – protect us from harm and provide every child a
decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools
and new roads and new science and technology.

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt
us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and
influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.

That’s the promise of America – the idea that we are responsible for ourselves,
but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am
my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.

 

The idea of us all being connected and affecting each other,
and thus having a responsibility to one another, and acting on that
responsibility through a strong and effective government, is a common theme in
Obama’s speeches (though it has often gotten lost in the day-to-day
campaigning).

Barack Obama accepting the party nomination at the 2008 DNC. Source: Zimbio

 

Besides the lack of visibility of explicitly pro-government
rhetoric, there have unfortunately been speed bumps in Obama’s march in that
direction.  I’ll discuss them in a future
column but while they are somewhat disappointing, overall the direction that
Obama has been taking is much more promising than anything we’ve seen from
Democratic presidential candidates for quite some time.

 

The pro-government movement is going well beyond Obama.  Al Franken kicked
off
his campaign for the Senate – a campaign he looks to be on
track to winning, after having a miserable few months in the summer – with a
powerful narrative that embraced government as a people-enabler, an institution
that could both provide economic security and opportunity:

 

My mother-in-law and every single
one of those five kids became a productive member of society.  Now conservatives like to say that people
need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and I agree, that’s a great
idea.  But first, you’ve got to have the
boots.  And the government gave my wife’s
family the boots.  That’s what
progressives like me believe the government is there for – to provide security
for middle-class families like the one I grew up in and opportunity, opportunity
for working poor families like the one Franni grew up in.

[…]

Your government should have your
back.  That should be our mission in
Washington – the one FDR gave us during another challenging time – freedom from
fear.

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Al Franken with wife Franni. Source: alfranken.com

I see this phenomenon with Democrats everywhere.  Just four years ago we were a cowed,
pussyshit party who couldn’t find our own message if it was shoved down our
throats for us.  Now, we’re still kinda
pussyshit, but much less so.  Democrats
are more bold and eager to offer their own agendas rather than borrow from the
GOP.  And the smartest ones, like Barack
Obama and Al Franken, are explicitly talking about an active role for
government – a welcome change from the past.

 

Much of this has to do with a big shift in public opinion
about the role of government.  As Joe
Klein wrote in “The
Obama Surge: Will It Last?”
, September’s
financial meltdown and continuing health care worries have shifted the
political landscape ever so slightly in the favor of active government. (In the
past I expressed my belief that Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans
would have that effect.  It’s rather
unfortunate that it was the rich person’s debacle that got Americans to start
paying attention and changing their beliefs.) Obama, as a post-Clintonian
Democrat who isn’t cowed into offering a Republican-lite formula of “what the
Republicans want, but I’ll do it better!”, is a great reflection of that trend,
in that he’s finally voicing the other ideology that Americans haven’t heard in
awhile: that the free market isn’t very good for some very basic, important
things, and ultimately it takes a
strong, engaged and compassionate government to provide a great society in
which we can all thrive.

 

Now to be sure, Obama hasn’t pushed this angle as hard as I’d
like, and the emergence of Joe the Plumber-nomics has given the Right an ideological
answering shot.  Plus, it’s sad that just
as what
happened almost eighty years ago

(seventy nine years ago as of next Wednesday), it took a financial disaster to
get people on the side of active government. 
Nevertheless, the changes in Democratic politics of late that I
described are important steps in the right direction and certainly far better
than anything I’ve seen, not to mention expected, in the last eight years.  For what seems to be the first time in five
years of following politics, I’m really hopeful for the future.

 

Now, I’ll tackle the bad news in the next several columns.

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