Liberals scent political opportunity

Democratic Party leaders in Congress yesterday were expected to agree on a military-funding bill that imposes an “advisory” timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq next year.

The Democrats have enjoyed a wave of electoral success and political momentum since the midterm elections in November 2006. Despite initial signs of internal disunity in January, the party’s leaders have achieved near-unity on key votes and presented a common position to the electorate — perhaps laying the foundation for future electoral success.

The Democratic Party’s ability last month to muster razor-thin congressional majorities in favor of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq will have little near-term impact on President Bush’s military strategy — he will use his veto power to block the legislation. However, it is seen by many liberals as evidence that their quarter-century-long retreat before the waxing power of the conservative movement may be at an end.

Democratic confidence.
The relative unity and coherence of the Democrats has two principal implications:

•National security. The Democrats have refused to align themselves with Bush’s Iraq policy without fear of being labeled as “anti-military” or unpatriotic. The party’s position is largely in line with a shift in public opinion: 57 percent of respondents to a recent national poll wished to see a commitment to withdraw from Iraq, and a slim majority favor the Democrats’ approach to national security. This is a highly unusual political alignment: The Republican post-Vietnam advantage on national-security issues had been a bedrock feature of U.S. politics.

•Conservative weakness. This may signal a more profound shift among voters away from the conservative political and intellectual climate that has prevailed since former President Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. Issues that have historically worked to the advantage of liberal candidates, such as healthcare, are again a priority for the electorate. The centrist approach adopted by former President Bill Clinton was successful in electoral terms, but continued many of the intellectual and policy trends initiated under Reagan. Now the political tide may be changing.

These trends suggest that the conditions for a new “liberal moment” in U.S. policymaking may be emerging.

Fertile ground?
There are several conditions that may facilitate a liberal policymaking shift after the 2008 presidential election:

•A strong executive. A key legacy of Bush’s tenure will be a stronger executive office. Bush and Vice President Cheney have pushed hard — and generally successfully — to strengthen the president’s hand versus Congress. While the legislative branch has begun to rediscover its capacity to check executive power, the presidency is a much more vigorous institution that it was when Clinton left office in 2001. Ironically, a conservative Republican may have strengthened the presidency in a manner that rebounds to the benefit of his liberal opponents.

•A strong mandate? If a Democratic candidate captures the presidency in 2008 and his (or her) party increases its grip on Congress — a distinct possibility — then liberals will have a much stronger mandate to effect change than Bush did in 2000. Again, the precedent offered by Bush’s ambitious response to a limited mandate could be exploited by his potential liberal successors.

•Moribund conservatives. The war in Iraq and Bush’s dismal approval ratings have caused his brand of conservatism to lose electoral salience. Doubt about the conservative agenda is revealed by the unhappiness that rank-and-file party members have expressed about the 2008 Republican presidential candidates, compared to the relative satisfaction of Democrats with their slate of contenders.

•Changing “values agenda.” Despite emphasizing the mobilization of conservative voters around “values” issues, such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage, the administration has sponsored only modest initiatives in these areas. This may make Republican social conservatives less inclined to remain politically active, organize and vote. Moreover, some influential social conservative leaders — such as Pastor Rick Warren and National Association of Evangelicals Vice President Richard Cizik — have expressed a wish to broaden evangelical political activism, adding an emphasis on combating poverty and climate change. This may gradually make conservative Christians a less cohesive voting bloc.

•Resurgent bureaucracy. Since Reagan entered office in 1981, the politicization of the federal bureaucracy has intensified (the Clinton administration was no exception). Combined with the Bush administration’s emphasis on outsourcing many government functions, this has weakened government. However, bureaucratic resistance to this trend — stimulated by unease within the civil service about particular government policies (such as the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay) and a more general resistance to the increased role of outside contractors — is increasing. This may increase civil service receptiveness to liberal reforms.

Liberal intellectual stirrings.
Policy and political revolutions require both institutional resources and intellectual leadership. After a long hiatus, the U.S. Left is beginning to show signs of life in this respect:

•Leadership. Fresh from their clash with Bush over Iraq, Democrats look quite different from the party that anointed Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) as its presidential candidate in 2004. Kerry’s criticism of U.S. involvement in Iraq was relatively tepid, and he did not challenge the fundamental basis for Bush’s “war on terror.” This is miles from the more forthright, confrontational approach now offered by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). However, it is not sufficient simply to expose the inadequacies of prevailing administration policies. To bring about significant reform, liberals must have a set of compelling intellectual arguments and policy ideas, ideally encapsulated in a single strong phrase.

•The “common good.” One idea gaining currency within liberal circles and think tanks involves articulating a vision of the nation’s “common good.” That is, to regain political appeal, liberal Democrats must succeed in tying their reformist agenda to a common purpose to which almost all voters can relate. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal-era goal of “freedom from fear” is a classic iteration of this theme. The success of the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America” in expressing a vaguely specified but broadly felt sense of voter discontent is another example. Obama’s meteoric rise as a serious contender in the pending Democratic primaries may be partly attributable to the fact that he has fashioned an image around the narrative of his life that evokes the sense that he understands the common good. Like Reagan’s approach, this narrative is fundamentally tied to a belief in the essential goodness of the United States and U.S. citizens, but also suggests strongly that some of the nation’s policies could be better.

Need for specifics.
The challenge for liberal Democrats is to seize the current political opportunity by devising specific policy proposals that can be attached to these broadly appealing themes. If the current “liberal moment” is to endure politically, the Left will need to emulate the Republicans’ effectiveness, over the past 25 years, at devising novel policy approaches.


Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com .