Opinion

The lost Democrats

Democrats stand against Republicans. But what do they stand for?

What does it mean to be a member of the Democratic Party? What do Democrats believe in 2017? I have no idea. Do you?

Republicans, for good or ill, know what they stand for: on economic issues, an interminable litany of libertarian lite clichés; in foreign affairs, recklessness and posturing adventurism; on the so-called social issues, a holding pattern in which something is opposed half-heartedly until it's inexorable.

What about Democrats? They are not, as Dana Milbank recently suggested, "socialists." No one in the party is clamoring for the nationalization of industries. Even single-payer health care, which is about as left-wing in practice as Lee Kuan Yew, is a fringe issue in the party of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Bernie Sanders, despite his self-designation as a "democratic socialist," is nothing so much as a throwback to the party of FDR.

It would, in fact, be a gross exaggeration to call the Democrats left-wing. The Democratic Party is, vaguely, a pro-business, pro-free-trade, socially moderate, hawkish entity. In any European country, they would be the right-wingers in an uneasy coalition with the mainstream center-right party. The British Conservative Party of half a century ago under the leadership of the High Tory Harold Macmillan looks Stalinist in comparison with today's Democrats. When my Marxist friends told me that from their perspective the only meaningful difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was that the former was a credible opponent of free trade, they were on to something.

Insofar as it has stood for anything in my lifetime, the Democratic Party has defined itself against its opponents. When George W. Bush was president, the war in Iraq was bad and so were the unconstitutional Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay prison, and the lame aesthetics of the '60s anti-war movement were due for a revival. When President Obama and his first secretary of state made a hash of Libya, there was virtually no outcry from within the ranks of his party; the ill-fated invasion was not a wrong-headed and arbitrary exercise of presidential authority but a prudent example of statesmanship by a credible tough-minded intellect firmly ensconced in the tradition of foreign policy realism. (Republicans did not, to their credit, change their tune: Rather than suggest that overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi was a bad idea, they trivialized the murders of American diplomatic personnel with conspiracy theories. Clearly consistency for its own sake has its limits.)

Nothing could be more bleakly hilarious than to read what its sounds like when a roomful of Democrats gather to discuss their collective identity problem. Some of them insist that all they need to win control of the House for only the third time in 13 elections is to denounce President Trump. A few of the more self-aware members recognize that this probably won't work. Instead what they need is an agenda — a "Better Deal." What should the deal look like? Do they need a bold, detailed but practical new outline for revitalizing the American economy, like the one that Hillary Clinton lost on in 2016? "I think we're going to avoid 18-point plans," says Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), wisely.

Not even Howard Dean knows what to do. It is impossible not to appreciate his refreshing honesty when he observes that the party's young voters not only do not identify with the Democratic brand but are "libertarian economically." With obvious relish, he points out that by not totally selling out their own base of socially conservative voters, the Republican Party has missed an opportunity to remake itself as the voice of my own upwardly mobile, forward-thinking, optimistic, socially antinomian generation. Meanwhile the Democrats hold onto most of us with an increasingly desperate series of #woke gestures.

The pleas for relevance are getting more desperate every day. If Twitter is to be believed, Hillary Clinton's new memoir begins with a quasi-hip reference to Chipotle, that not-at-all lame chain restaurant beloved of young foodies everywhere, and contains, among other things, a pseudo-admission that hearing "Fight Song," her erstwhile campaign theme, brings her to tears. On the floor of the Senate, Schumer dismisses the border wall as a "Game of Thrones idea for a world that looks a lot more like Star Wars." It's meant to make him sound cool and with it, but it doesn't work unless you acknowledge instantly that he's BSing. The idea of Schumer earnestly sitting down to enjoy hobbit smut on Sunday nights is only slightly less uncomfortable than finding Tinder on your grandpa's phone. Say what you want about Mitch McConnell, but at least his idea of what's cool is still Seersucker Thursday.

There is an upside for Democrats, however, namely that a party that is ontologically parasitic on the unpopularity of another can technically never run out of things to be against. As long as Paul Ryan doesn't come out in favor of same-sex marriage, small plates, and Ghostbusters (2016) in an op-ed for Verrit, Democrats will probably manage to survive.

Too bad that isn't the same thing as winning House seats.

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