You would think that with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Democrats at least would get that we need to make big, transformative changes as soon as possible.
And most of them do. Certainly President Barack Obama's economic recovery bill and budget -- as well as calls for fundamental reform of health care, education and energy policy -- show that he does. Certainly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does: On Tuesday, she said in a meeting I attended that the House would pass Obama's major reform legislation in 2009. Most Democrats in the House and Senate understand that the moment for big change has arrived.
Not so much for a small minority of Democrats in the Senate. In Wednesday's Politico, 14 Democrats are identified as having concerns with Obama's policy plans. They're saying, "Hold on; not so fast; let's go slow; let's be cautious; Americans didn't want big change." Said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): "The American people and businesses are tightening their belts. I think we need to show that the government can economize, as well." Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), asked when he'd reach his breaking point, said, "Right now. I'm concerned about the amount that's being offered in [Obama's] budget."
These senators are charter members of what I refer to in my new book as the culture of caution. In the 1960s and '70s, Democrats led the fight for major change in America, passing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Legal Services Corp. and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as well as getting us out of Vietnam and working on other great accomplishments.
In the 40 years since, Democrats have accomplished a few solid achievements -- the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the Superfund among them -- but they haven't pushed for big, bold, transformative change. Too many Democrats are comfortable with the status quo and their business lobbyist friends, and they are scared to go out on a limb.
These kind of "be cautious, go slow" debates have been at the cusp of every big change moment in American history. Abraham Lincoln got a lot of advice from "go slow" Republicans not to write the Emancipation Proclamation. Teddy Roosevelt got massive pushback from corporate-allied members of both parties not to break up the big trusts. FDR got pushed by Southern Democrats and deficit hawks not to go forward with his New Deal programs, and he was even persuaded in 1937 to try balancing the budget, which caused the recession of 1937. The Kennedys and LBJ were begged by Southern Democrats and other cautious folks not to go too far with civil rights.
In each case, those cautious naysayers slowed the tide of big change but were not able to roll it back.
Unfortunately for those of us in the Clinton administration, our too-cautious message, along with the "don't do anything transformative with health care" Democrats -- folks such as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) -- slowed the Clinton health care reform effort enough that it stalled in Congress, which kept our voter base home in the 1994 elections and cost Democrats control of Congress. With our problems far worse now than they were in the '90s, I fear that these cautious Senate Democrats could damage Obama's ability to make big enough change. If that happens, voters who expected big change from Obama will be severely disappointed, and 2010 could be another 1994.
Windows for real change and real reform don't come around very often in American history -- four times since our founding days (in the 1860s, early 1900s, 1930s and 1960s). These moments close fast when they do arrive. Democrats need to break out of the culture of caution and embrace Obama's transformative agenda.
Mike Lux was an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to the Obama-Biden transition team and is the author of "The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be" (Wiley, 2009).
Published this morning in POLITICO