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Breaking into the ‘90s. A New World in Time. Walls fall, debts rise, politicians thrive, environments suffer-a look over the shoulder and over the horizon. : Democrats Lack Ambition, a Truly National Ambition

<i> William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion. </i>

If you believe in the cyclic theory of history, you could argue that the 1990s will be good for Democrats. The Democratic Party is the party of activist government. And support for activist government rises and falls by decades in the United States. The usual pattern is two decades up, one decade down.

The first two decades of this century saw a great surge of activist government --progressive reforms, followed by our crusade to make the world safe for democracy in World War I. Then came the 1920s, when the great national purpose was a return to normalcy. Under three successive GOP administrations, the business of America was business.

The ‘30s and ‘40s saw the greatest expansion of federal power in U.S. history--the New Deal followed by World War II. After two decades of depression and war, Americans in the 1950s were understandably preoccupied with private goals--suburban retreats, conformism, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”

Activism--and the Democrats--returned in the ‘60s with the civil-rights movement, the Great Society and Vietnam. A decade of social turmoil followed by a decade of economic disruption: The 1970s started with Watergate and ended with gas lines, inflation and the tax revolt.

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Retreat from the public sector came right on schedule during the 1980s. The spirit, like that of the ‘20s and ‘50s, was to go out there and get yours. The country was ruled by selfishness, materialism and Republicans.

Now, the Democrats are poised for a comeback. The 1990s are supposed to be a decade of renewed public purpose and that is always good for Democrats. After all, here’s George Bush with his “kinder, gentler nation.” Bush acknowledges that the country has serious problems such as drug abuse and educational decline but refuses to put his money where his mouth is and devote serious public resources to solving those problems. All the Democrats have to do is prove the President a hypocrite and they’ll control the White House for the next two decades.

Maybe. And maybe not. There is one big difference between the 1980s and earlier periods of Republican rule. The ‘20s and ‘50s were decades of consolidation. Republicans did not reject the liberal reforms of the Progressive years or the New Deal; they accepted and legitimized them.

The 1980s were different. Ronald Reagan was not Dwight D. Eisenhower. He did not consolidate the liberal activism of the previous two decades. He repudiated it. Voters went along because they believed big government had failed.

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The 1980s marked the collapse of the left. Big government is on the defensive everywhere, from welfare-state liberalism at home to social democracy in Western Europe and repressive communism in Eastern Europe. Conservatism is triumphant. And intellectuals proclaim “the end of history.”

There are two things that can save the Democratic Party in the ‘90s. One is an economic collapse. If the nation’s economy goes belly-up under Bush, then Democrats will finally get the chance to run with the campaign message they have been waiting to use since 1980: “We told you so.” And they will probably win.

If the economy remains reasonably stable, however, Democrats have a problem. The very thing that defines the Democratic Party, the belief in activist government, isn’t selling these days. So the Democrats have two choices--renounce their beliefs or figure out a better way to sell them.

They won’t renounce beliefs. Too many Democrats will argue, persuasively, that this country does not need two GOPs. Given that kind of choice, people vote for the real thing every time.

The answer is figuring out a way to repackage activist government. Liberalism used to be packaged as guilt. The way to get the middle class to support big government was to talk about fairness. The message of the 1980s, however, was that there are limits to middle-class guilt. Walter F. Mondale discovered them when he called for a tax increase in 1984.

Guilt doesn’t work any more. But ambition might. Under Bush, the United States seems to have lost ambitions, at home and abroad. This country has always believed in great enterprises. With Bush, however, we have become embarrassingly small-minded.

To sell big ambitions, Democrats need to reclaim the symbols of nationalism. Americans will buy big government only if it is linked to great national purpose--economic revival or securing the future of democracy. If Democrats make the case for a new nationalism, Republicans will be reduced to complaining that big ambitions cost big money.

But Democrats have a problem with nationalism. The party is controlled by educated, upper-middle liberals. Blatant appeals to nationalism make liberals squirm. Economic nationalism sounds like protectionism. Military nationalism sounds like “gunboat diplomacy.” Liberals want to talk about a “new world order,” not the resurgence of U.S. power.

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1989 has been a year full of irony for the United States. American ideals--democracy and free enterprise--are triumphing all over the world just as American wealth and power seem to be in decline. Our cause is winning, but we no longer have the ability to control or influence events.

The only way the Democrats will win in the 1990s is by promising to reverse the decline in U.S. power. The problem is that too many liberals in the party prefer to celebrate that decline.


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