KOLB: Democrats Need To Find A Governing Vision

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Changing brands and labels is not always easy. Remember “New Coke”?

So what happens when the two major American political parties try to rebrand themselves? We still have Democrats and Republicans, but we don’t hear much these days about conservatives versus liberals. Both major political parties are now redefining their priorities and policies before the 2020 presidential election.

Donald Trump’s persona has captured the Republican party’s political operations, but exactly what the GOP now represents is unclear, the result of Trump’s endless, kaleidoscopic policy zig zags: seal the border one day, open it another; close the government, then reopen it; leave Afghanistan, stay in Afghanistan; fix healthcare now, wait until after 2020. Everything Trump does fits within his vacuous, catch-all signature brand: “Make America Great Again.”

Democrats have a similar problem. Clinton-style political triangulation is over. After the debacle of his and his wife’s 1993 health-care proposals, Bill Clinton governed as a pragmatic centrist who announced that “the era of big government is over.” Clinton collaborated with Republicans and racked up important wins: a major foreign-trade agreement, welfare reform, and a budget surplus.

Today, centrism is gone, and big government could be returning, according to many 2020 presidential candidates. More government seems to be the rallying cry of today’s Democrats, who seem to prefer the term “progressive” over “liberal.” Some elected Democrats even openly embrace the label of “socialist.”

After two years, the GOP now stands for “MAGA,” and the Democrats are lining up behind “progressive.” Do words have meanings anymore, or are they mere slogans and catchwords?

The “new progressive” agenda includes proposals like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free postsecondary education, ending corporate welfare, a mandatory minimum wage, a guaranteed income, and higher entitlement spending. Cost estimates for some of these programs run into the tens of trillions of dollars. With budget deficits that may soon reach $1 trillion annually, it’s not surprising that the new progressives have been relatively vague about how to fund these programs.

To understand today’s new progressives, it’s useful to consider the early 20th century’s progressive movement. One of the best statements of this movement is Herbert Croly’s remarkable 1909 book, “The Promise of American Life.” Croly not only influenced leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, but in 1914 he founded “The New Republic,” a magazine still devoted to progressive causes.

In the Introduction to the 1963 edition of Croly’s book, historian Charles Forcey wrote that “[t]he great majority of progressives feared strong governments and believed in laissez faire; they saw the individual and the protection of his rights as the beginning and end of politics.”

With his anti-monopoly trust-busting, T.R. favored a vibrant government devoted to protecting average citizens from harmful economic practices. The progressive income tax was considered at the time as a way to “redress the balance of government revenues” and not to address income inequality or wealth redistribution.

The original progressives blended two important strains of American politics that have been present since the republic’s founding: Thomas Jefferson’s emphasis on individual rights and freedoms and Alexander Hamilton’s support for an activist central government. As Forcey put it, “Croly’s chief contribution to American political thought was the notion, obvious once stated, that under modern conditions Hamiltonian means could be used for the pursuit of Jeffersonian ends.” Croly remained a 19th century “liberal” in ways that Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, would have understood.

Today’s two main political parties offer slogans and labels but no clear governing agenda, no real vision of America’s future. Republicans have a leader but lack a coherent agenda. Today’s new progressives have an impractical, unaffordable agenda and are still searching for a leader among candidates ranging from age 37 to 77. The two Democratic front-runners currently are Joe Biden (age 76) and Bernie Sanders (age 77). Biden is, fundamentally, a Clintonian centrist who now feels compelled to label himself a progressive. Sanders, who served as the first chair of the House Progressive Caucus from 1991 to 1999, now calls himself a “democratic socialist.”

America’s political tradition has entailed ongoing struggles between individual liberties and the need to provide for the common welfare. Gun control, anybody? Croly envisioned a democratic nationalism for America: a strong Hamiltonian government directed toward achieving Jeffersonian social-democratic ends.

We should probe for more details and watch closely how candidates position themselves along this Jefferson-Hamilton continuum. Their decisions will determine the next stage in the promise of American life.

Charles Kolb served as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the Bush White House from 1990-92.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.