The Democrats' Tunnel Vision

2016 Democratic presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, former governor of Maryland, from left, Hillary Clinton, former Secr
2016 Democratic presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, former governor of Maryland, from left, Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, and Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, participate in the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Charleston, South Carolina, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. Hours before Sunday's Democratic debate, the two top Democratic contenders held a warm-up bout of sorts in multiple separate appearances on political talk shows, at a time when the polling gap between the pair has narrowed in early-voting states. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By now even a narcoleptic could recite the GOP's parody of Democrats. The party of "big government." Champions of "class warfare" programmed to "tax and spend" other people's money. An amalgam of interest groups divorced from the national interest. Practitioners of "identity politics" bent only on getting to 51 percent. Enemies of the "job creators." Enablers of listless bureaucrats and their shiftless dependents. Spineless hand-wringers with no respect for our past or faith in our future.

A lot of this is political bilge, a shameless inversion of the GOP's divisive politics and intellectual vacuity. In debate all three Democratic candidates are specific, informed and grounded in a reality largely absent from the Republican contest. But all too often, and particularly on the stump, Democrats themselves can verge on self-parody, purveyors of programs bereft of a larger vision.

To a man -- or woman -- Democrats are spoiling for a fight. They will "fight for the middle class," "ordinary Americans," or "working men and women." (I herewith pledge to support any candidate who forswears pugilistic metaphors.) They will "fight" -- yet again -- the "war against women." (Fine, but why do they so often make it sound like this is the only war in town.) They will "fight" against student debt. (A good thing, but they fail to mention why anyone but cash-strapped families with college-age kids should care.)

It doesn't help that, whoever the candidate, the promise to "fight" is so often delivered with the overdone brio of a bad high school actor, spreading a synthetic patina over all that surrounds it. After a while all this fighting can begin to sound like nothing more than an electoral laundry list, an endless walking tour through the mind of Mark Penn.

Bilious as it is, Donald Trump's pledge to "make America great again" touches something deeper than just resentment or nostalgia -- a desire for national renewal which, at its best, could inspire a more transcendent politics, transforming widespread angst about our future into a shared and positive mission. All too often Democrats fail to transcend.

In 2016, this is no small matter. According to public opinion expert Peter Hart, the great majority of Americans want a new course after the Obama years, and by two to one believe that America is headed in the wrong direction.Thus a Republican nominee, assuming the GOP selects one who is not fatally flawed, will be able to run as a "change candidate."

The Democrats' presidential contenders also face their own challenges. According to Hart, a majority of voters have reservations about Hillary Clinton's trustworthiness; a great many voters also feel unease about Bernie Sanders' espousal of "democratic socialism," and Martin O'Malley has failed to register at all. Whatever else, taken together these difficulties suggest a need for Democrats to give the broader electorate -- not just their partisans, however impassioned -- a much stronger sense that they can take the country forward.

A significant component of these problems, it seems, is sometimes less an absence of specific policy proposals than a failure to summon that unifying vision those policies serve. A seasoned Democratic strategist asks: "When does our side get a message?" Speaking of Hillary Clinton, he adds that "all presidential elections are always about the future. Soon the time will come when we must understand where she hopes to take America's hopes and dreams."

Granted, as the more diverse party -- by far -- Democrats must address more seemingly disparate concerns. Granted, as well, that competitive primary seasons like this one narrowly focus the candidates' rhetoric on segments of the Democratic base, rather than on a broader appeal to the electorate as a whole. But as William Galston of Brookings observes, "Because Democrats typically think in governing terms, they can fall prey to programitis" -- talking about the means without sufficiently articulating the ends. Yet viewed through a wider lens, many of the programs embraced by Democrats add up to something more profound.

As merely one example, a spin through Hillary Clinton's very detailed website -- while informative in itself -- also suggests a still untapped potential to unify and inspire Americans at large only glancingly evoked in the increasingly contentious Democratic debates. One can do much the same with Bernie Sanders or Martin O'Malley -- my point is not to favor one candidate over another in this vigorously contested race. Nor is my purpose to assess the relative merits of specific policies proposed by the three Democrats.

Rather, while there are surely sharp differences between, for example, Clinton and Sanders, my aim here -- regardless of what nominee the voters choose -- is to suggest how areas of general agreement among Democrats might cohere in an uplifting whole. For the Clinton website addresses a list of concerns most Democrats -- including all three candidates -- share in common, yet seem but imperfectly, and too seldom, to serve a broader argument about the national interest.

Like her peers, Clinton would encourage job training for the new economy in workplaces and schools. To be sure, this serves workers and their families. But a more highly skilled workforce would make our products and services better, our businesses more efficient and innovative -- and our country more prosperous. Why not say so -- again and again. For to the extent we squander the potential of individual workers, we undercut the national potential for a more vibrant economy and stronger social fabric.

As with her rivals, Clinton would support early childhood education; encourage better performing schools and teachers; reduce financial barriers to higher education; and crack down on the consumer fraud perpetrated by for-profit schools on veterans and the poor. (On this issue, by the way, where are those veteran-loving Republican enemies of waste?) Properly designed, these initiatives -- by empowering those who get educational short shrift -- could unleash a torrent of creativity which would lift us all.

Surely among them is the next Ben Carson, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs; the doctors who could help cure cancer; the generals who can modernize our military; the scientists who could stem the threat of global warming; the entrepreneurs and innovators who could create new and better jobs;and millions of more modest men and women who could hold their families together and take their children further yet. In short, people who could make us a better country -- and a richer one.

As do Sanders and O'Malley, Clinton proposes to strengthen our health care system; lower prescription drug costs; improve support for reproductive care. Set aside for now Obamacare versus single payer versus something else -- again, my point is not about specific policies but overriding purpose. Is there any doubt that a healthier country is stronger and more prosperous? That the needless deaths caused by failures in preventive care have economic as well as social costs? That catastrophic illnesses which bankrupt families also drain our human and financial capital? Or that using ERs as the healthcare of first resort places heavy burdens on our health system that all of us wind up paying?

How callous then -- and how costly -- is the GOP's broadside against extending decent care to more Americans. This issue is not simply about compassion, though it surely is -- it's about the social and financial health of our society writ large.

The three Democrats would invest in infrastructure and scientific research. This is often cast as a jobs program -- and it should be. But it is not a boondoggle. Economic growth demands good roads and bridges; electrical grids and water systems suited to the present and future; airports which encourage rather than inhibit travel; mass transit which keeps our cities moving. And government alone can make this happen.

This is where the progressive palliative that government spending is "investment" truly works -- stopping the erosion of our infrastructure will pay for itself many times over in a greater and more widely shared national prosperity. And there is no better investment in the future than preserving America's leadership in science and technology, all the more so when there is a desperate societal need for jobs which provide upward mobility for workers with sufficient skills.

Much the same argument applies to encouraging green technology; promoting workplace equity; protecting the right of collective bargaining; educating Dreamers. It is not that Democrats never say so. In the third debate, for example, Clinton expressed her aim to "grow the economy, not just for the top, but for everyone"; as the candidates made plain in all four debates, the party's guiding ethic is that a society which widens opportunity works better. But they don't say often enough, and clearly enough, that they mean to be the party of economic growth and national empowerment which comes from empowering Americans as a whole.

This in no way diminishes the party's commitment to social justice -- as in the civil rights movement, time and again our history shows that a collective conscience is essential to American greatness. But another tributary of "American exceptionalism "at its best is unleashing the potential of all our citizens to enrich us in every sense of that word.

Saying so requires Democrats to address the means of doing so. This is a daunting task. Americans' instinctive reserve about the efficacy of government is not without basis: anyone who has worked for the federal government knows that it can be a great lumbering beast, cumbersome and slow to adapt. Beginning with the Reagan years, Republicans have prospered by arguing that our society will thrive if only we get government and its patrons, the Democrats, out of the way -- slashing taxes, reducing regulation, and shrinking the size of government.

Despite presiding over massive deficits and a crippling recession which left millions of Americans ever more vulnerable, the GOP has made this mythology a central part of our political narrative. Thus while Americans may like specific programs which benefit them, they lack a broader faith in the efficacy of government to help address societal problems. Based on her experience in government and as a party official, Elaine Kamarck of Brookings calls this "a chronic Democratic problem" -- compelling Democrats to talk about their agenda in discrete pieces while avoiding a larger vision.

Thus Democrats must identify those things which government has done well, and those that only government can do -- defense, disaster relief, infrastructure -- undertakings which have made us more prosperous and more secure. Only then can the party set forth how government can be deployed in a free enterprise economy to serve the national good in the least intrusive and most flexible and effective way.

This also requires clearly stating where we are, how we got here, and how Democrats mean to take us forward. This is no simple matter. While it is imperative to catalog the gap between the Republican narrative and their failed policies, it will not to simplistically blame Republicans for all of our problems, or to dwell on the vulgarity of the current Republican race.

Not only does this involve explaining how Democratic policies cohere, but also confronting realities Democrats have generally avoided. As Galston notes, for the last four decades Democrats have been concerned about the decline of the working class, and the slowing of growth in the economy as a whole. But the reasons for this decline -- among them a world economy increasingly inhospitable to the welfare of American workers; a growing concentration of wealth at the top which is saved rather than than spent on American goods and products -- are complicated and not easily solved. Democrats must say so, and then spell out concrete solutions to start making things better.

With respect to the problem of stagnant wages and growth, one example at least touched on by Democrats is using the tax code to confer the benefits of private enterprise on the country as a whole -- not by the delusional GOP formula of tax cuts at the top, but by encouraging corporations to keep American jobs at home, to invest in research and development, and to share their profits with their workforce.This deserves more emphasis, for it would help address the urgent problem of job creation for a generation with declining prospects, while strengthening the economy for all by improving the lot of working-class Americans.

Another path to credibility is committing to long-term deficit reduction to shrink the national debt. Democrats should embrace deficit spending in times of economic distress -- as in the Great Recession of 2008 -- where the Republicans' bogus fiscal probity stood in the way of national recovery. Thus they should call the GOP on its pretextual use of deficit reduction to cut social programs without, in reality, doing anything to reduce deficits.

Here lies a real area of Republican vulnerability: the GOP field embraces tax cuts at the upper end which, in the view of experts, would add ruinous amounts to the national debt. This creates an opportunity for Democrats to become the party of true fiscal responsibility, determined to secure our future.

Democrats should spell out how ongoing structural deficits retard economic growth and accelerate yet more deficits -- then indict Republicans as the party of exploding deficits and fiscal-make-believe, neatly reversing the GOP's false narrative. Equally, they must honestly address the hard choices in budgetary priorities necessary to fiscal balance, and shape those priorities in terms of what is best for our society as a whole.

This is an urgent matter. As of now we are on track to see interest payments on the national debt triple as a percentage of GDP, crippling our economy by making us pay for the past instead of invest in the future. Democrats cannot simply wish -- or promise -- this problem away, indulging in their own form of budgetary make-believe. Not only is this trend destructive in itself, but it would leave us without the fiscal reserves necessary to deploy deficit spending in the face of another financial crisis. Democrats should promise to do better in order to secure our shared prosperity, now and in the future.

This brings us squarely to the subject of Social Security and entitlement programs as a whole. As a component of structural deficits, entitlements threaten to crowd out other priorities. But as Kamarck points out, defending Social Security has been an electoral winner for Democrats -- far from dealing with fiscal realities, Democrats talk about expanding benefits without regard to the underlying costs, or the impact on other programs and the budget at large. Their tactic has been to exploit their electoral advantage until necessity compels someone else -- a bipartisan commission, perhaps -- to fix a problem which has only gotten worse.

That may be smart politics, but for how long? Who really believes that the system can go on as it has, particularly for our young people? To be credible as stewards of the future, it is not enough for Democrats simply to decry privatization, promise more benefits, or frighten Mom and Pop.

Suppose, instead, that Democrats allied themselves with the next generation by proposing what everyone knows must be done -- incremental reforms such as a modest raise in the payroll tax ceiling, and means testing the distribution of benefits. Obviously, this preserves the system which, by ensuring the security of older Americans going forward, also helps our economy function in the long run. Far better for Democrats to provide for the future than to troll for short-term political advantage in a present which no one believes sustainable.

How to pay? With a tax system meant to promote the common good in a way which seems, and is, fair. While the GOP mantra of "class warfare" is cynical and mendacious, among many Democrats there is more than a whiff of "it's payback time." Understandable, especially in a time of burgeoning income inequality, a punishing recession fed by the depredations of Wall Street and a political system inundated with soft money unleashed by Citizens United. These are critical -- indeed essential -- subjects in any Democrat's campaign. But the politics (and economics) of resentment will take Democrats only so far.

Populism can become its own tunnel: in itself, it is neither a path to election or a program for successful governance -- were it otherwise, Washington would contain a monument to the several terms of President Williams Jennings Bryan. It is well to recall that the popular outcry against George McGovern's proposed 100 percent estate tax came overwhelmingly from ordinary Americans who thought it rapacious and, yes, un-American.

Instead Democrats should argue for a reasonable distribution of personal taxation -- not through "confiscatory taxation" at the top but to assure, in the words of Warren Buffett (which Clinton recently cited), that his effective tax rate is not lower than his secretary's. Rather than drastically higher income taxation, a principal means would be to equalize the rates on all types of income, as well as closing loopholes which benefit only a privileged few.

Tax equity need not damage affluent Americans who, after all, have benefited for decades from a flow of wealth to the top -- as the greater prosperity and balanced budget which followed Bill Clinton's 10 percent tax hike demonstrates. As many of our wealthiest citizens know very well, a system of taxation which assures economic growth and fiscal soundness serves their best interests along with everyone else's.

In short, Democrats must become the party of national vitality. It is not sufficient that changing demographics and the growth of social liberalism help the party in national elections no matter what, or that the Republicans help further by embracing the extreme and outright stupid. In this volatile year, as in others, these advantages are no guarantee of victory. And beneath this picture lies an ongoing defeat across the country.

Setting aside high- turnout presidential cycles, Republicans are eating the Democrats' lunch in local, state and federal elections -- as one startling example, the GOP controls 70 percent of state legislatures. Although much of this owes to being outspent and out-organized, it does not help that Democrats often sound intellectually exhausted. A more uplifting sense of shared purpose will also build a stronger bench of state and local candidates and officeholders who, in time, could help renew the party at the national level. For Democrats it is imperative, as Robert Kennedy said, "to seek a newer world."

This call for national renewal should be a call for growth: in the potential of each life, and in the economy -- and country -- we share in common. Democrats must say that it will not do for Americans to live in gated communities of the mind and spirit, defined only by the most crabbed definition of self-interest. In the long run, no class can do better in a society which does worse. History's graveyard is filled with plutocracies which strangled the aspirations of their citizens and made government the weapon of a privileged few. We must not become the next one.

So let Republicans take that path, if they dare, then call them on it -- not simply because it is unfair, but because it will destroy that better country which all of us can build together. Then Democrats can tell us what it truly means to make America great again.