Agents of change

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Jon Wiener teaches American history at UC Irvine and is a contributing editor of the Nation.

“CLINTONISM”: That’s the target of four new groups seeking to transform the Democratic Party. They hate triangulation -- finding a “third way” between liberals and conservatives. And if you don’t like what the Great Triangulator has done to the party, you will also oppose the First Lady of Triangulation.

Matt Bai, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who covered Howard Dean in Iowa in 2003, focuses this book not on the candidates or the coming presidential election but on “an oddly heroic group of activists” who call themselves “progressives”: the Democracy Alliance, an assemblage of several dozen billionaires, including George Soros; the online community of; the bloggers, led by; and the Howard Dean movement. All seek to overthrow the Clintonian party leadership; all agree that the party needs big new ideas. “The argument” of the book’s title is about what those big ideas should be.

The Clinton strategy focuses on winning the swing voters in the swing states -- independents, moderates, the undecided. Both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton are revered by the party establishment, the professional operatives -- who are happy to remind us that Bill Clinton is the only Democrat to have been elected to the presidency since Jimmy Carter and the only Democrat to have been reelected since Franklin D. Roosevelt.


But the success of Clintonism wasn’t the result of any electoral strategy; it seems to have been due instead to the prosperity of Clinton’s years in the White House and his awesome personal talent for politics. That’s the lesson of Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 and John Kerry’s in 2004.

The progressives want to get more votes not by fighting the Republicans for the small number of moderates in the middle but by expanding the electorate -- bringing in some of the 50% of eligible Americans who don’t vote. These are mostly poor and working-class people who ought to vote Democratic but are alienated from the party and the entire system. The reformers believe that a strong populist message, combined with a powerful turnout organization, will attract millions of new Democratic voters.

The Democrats have done something like that twice before: They won huge majorities and transformed America, first under FDR in the 1930s and then under Lyndon Johnson in the ‘60s. And they didn’t do it with moderate ideas that appealed to swing voters but with big ideas based on big moral principles: opportunity for the poor, unions for the workers, security for the elderly, equality for the excluded. Each of these principles, Bai points out, “infuriated large numbers of reasonable and influential Americans -- but that was precisely what made them compelling and important. That was the cost of forcing people to choose between one governing path and another.”

Starting with Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Republicans set out to challenge all that with their own big ideas: Government is the problem; tax cuts will liberate the economy. Their attacks on the policy achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society were so effective that Democrats came to see their task as preserving the party’s legislative legacy rather than addressing the problems still facing Americans. “The new Democratic mission,” Bai writes, “was essentially to protect the old one.”

The progressives want to change that, but nobody really knows whether their strategy can succeed. They claimed victory in the 2006 midterm elections, but Mario Cuomo, the liberal former governor of New York, disagreed, calling those victories “a gift.” People didn’t vote for the Democrats because of their powerful new ideas, he argued; instead, they voted against the Republicans because of George W. Bush and his failed war.

The billionaires of the title -- Soros and other wealthy progressive activists -- decided to pool their money to counter the $170 million spent each year by the right on think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution. Over the last 30 years, these organizations have come up with the big ideas that formed the core of the Reagan-era Republican message. And Republican big money has also provided the tools to market those ideas -- talk radio (Rush Limbaugh et al.), journals of ideas (the Weekly Standard, the National Review), cable news (Fox News Channel). The progressive billionaires were galvanized, above all, by the Iraq war, which had made plain the bankruptcy of the Washington Democratic establishment. Bai’s account of the Democracy Alliance’s first conference -- a secret meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., in April 2005 -- is devastating. Their big ideas sounded “like a high school project on the meaning of America.” They were in favor, they said, of “a just and peaceful world founded on truth.”


MoveOn is the antithesis of the billionaires’ club: ordinary people -- now more than 3 million strong -- connected by the Internet. They felt isolated and neglected, and they wanted to discuss big ideas with progressive candidates, whom they would support with small individual contributions. Their principle was democratic with a small “d”: Members, not leaders, would develop the big ideas at local gatherings and then online, where MoveOn could poll the membership constantly. The result, Bai found, is an agenda with substance: “Health care for all, energy independence through clean, renewable sources; democracy restored.”

The bloggers, Bai’s third progressive group, are represented in the book by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, whose, “the single most influential political blog in the country,” has helped make the Internet “the single most efficient means of getting an idea across.” But as Bai learned at the 2006 YearlyKos Convention of bloggers, the blogosphere is not so much about big ideas as about tactics -- how to be tougher and more aggressive than the Republicans. It is an arena of abuse rather than a forum for ideas.

Finally there’s Dean, chair of the national party in the 2006 elections, who wants to build a permanent infrastructure, with “organizers on the ground in every state, a volunteer chairman in every county, and a volunteer captain in every voting precinct in America,” including all the places the Democrats have not won in decades. Bai deems this “50-state strategy” an effective plan but notes that it too is all about tactics.

At the end of the book, a hero of sorts emerges: Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the fastest-growing labor union in North America. He has a big idea -- universal healthcare -- and a strategy for achieving it: Along with John Podesta of the Center for American Progress (a new progressive think tank funded by Soros and friends), he’s formed partnerships with some large American corporations, including Wal-Mart, the most hated of them all. Stern knows that Wal-Mart has a strong financial interest in getting the government to take over health coverage for its employees. Stern has been bitterly denounced as a traitor to the working class in such publications as the Nation -- but his is precisely the kind of rethinking that Bai claims the Democrats need, if they are indeed to remake their party’s politics.