A clean electoral defeat and four more years of Bush will force the Democratic Party to change. Launching his new bimonthly column, Quo Vadis , TomPaine.com Associate Editor Patrick Doherty looks at the big picture and sees both great threats and great opportunities.
Patrick C. Doherty is associate editor at TomPaine.com. Previously, he spent a decade working on conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and the Caucasus and holds a master's degree in security studies from the Fletcher School, Tufts University.
Now that Bush has been re-elected, the Democratic Party is faced with a major strategic challenge—perhaps the greatest challenge since the Great Depression inspired the New Deal.
Meeting that challenge is what this new column is about. Starting today, Quo Vadis —Latin for "where do we go from here?"—will advance the quest for a new progressive agenda. Every other week, I will ask the big questions of leaders, policymakers, executives and academics in an effort to focus Democratic attention on the larger picture.
Let's cut to the chase. The Democratic Party is in the doghouse for at least two years, perhaps four. That will leave Bush plenty of time to continue his radical march backwards while the major problems facing the nation fester and, in many cases, bleed. Certainly, congressional Democrats will be able to blunt the worst assaults, but if the last two years is any measure, without a central, shared agenda, Democrats can be picked off one by one.
It is now time to ask the ancient political question “quo vadis ”—where do we go from here? That requires that Democrats— indeed, all Americans—understand where we are now, where we want to go and then wrestle with how to get there.
Unfortunately, this presidential election did more to obscure than illuminate these questions. It reinforced terrorism as equivalent to a world war. It is not. Both candidates claimed their plans will fix the deficit. They cannot. And neither campaign ever bothered to ask where we are going. Instead, Bush described a future measured in battles won and taxes cut. Kerry measured it in alliances forged and jobs created. If America is to remain secure and prosperous, we need to be guided by a strategy built on vision. Neither candidate came close.
America can and must do better. The opportunity was there. Democrats in this election had the chance to combine Howard Dean’s populism with Gary Hart’s strategic vision, but instead got the opposite. John Kerry somehow managed to marry Gary Hart’s populism and Howard Dean’s strategic vision. Combined with Bob Shrum’s sleazy preference for tactical messaging, this election was always going to be a referendum on Bush, never about where John Kerry wanted to take the nation.
To understand part of the problem, we have to recognize that this election cycle was the tenth consecutive contest in which we fought the battle of 1964. The underlying message of that storied election, between Johnson and Goldwater, was the nearly identical in its major themes: the American economic engine is sound and simply needs better economic management; the common enemy is “out there” so we simply need a better commander in chief. For the past 40 years, you’re either for the “great society” where the wealthiest nation builds the middle class and accepts responsibility for social injustice, or you’re looking for that “rendezvous with destiny” where free men and free markets come together to form a limited government.
The problem is that America today no longer resembles 1964. This is true at the micro level, where most families are two income, loaded with debt and only barely able to preserve the same standard of living as their parents. Social injustice is now tied to income, not race, and income inequality is increasing. Jobs are scarce, education is expensive and commutes are getting longer and longer. For the majority of Americans, the American Dream is not within reach.
But the larger issues are the reason I believe this will be the last election fought in the narrative of 1964. We can no longer focus on a single problem, like education or terrorism, and find a discrete solution. The source of our insecurity is no longer “out there.” The Congressional Budget Office admits that there is no way to balance the Federal budget. Higher walls, smarter bombs, bigger safety nets or deeper tax cuts will not fix the problem, for the problem lies deeper.
It is time to recognize that the problems are more profound for the challenges are structural. Unlike before, the major threats to the American Experiment are based here at home, not in Moscow, Beijing or Pakistan. And those threats are flaws in our own political economy—not superpowers, rogue states or terrorist networks. And the longer we continue to ignore them, the more Americans will pay the price in both treasure and blood.
The Four Horsemen
There are four clear challenges threatening the American Experiment. Oil dependence tops the list. America consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil but has only 3 percent of the reserves. Our addiction to oil has driven us, since 1980, to pursue a strategic doctrine of securing foreign oil supplies with our military. That policy, along with the nature of the global oil market, has sustained corrupt, illegitimate regimes in oil producing regions. That corruption, combined with the long festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has bred Islamic terror networks. As Chinese energy consumption expands, oil prices will continue to rise, putting more money and more military pressure into the mix. Indeed, China just signed a giant, $70 billion gas deal with Iran yesterday. The result is threefold: strategic competition with other consumers, like China, India, Europe and Japan; terrorism born of the oppression and humiliation suffered by local populations caught in the strategic crossfire; and rising energy prices at home.
Likewise, our fiscal situation is dire. Eminent bankers from both parties, like Pete Peterson and Robert Rubin, are warning that the nation’s fiscal imbalance is about to ruin what remains of our economy. If we continue along the current path—the path accepted by both parties—the nation’s debts will drive interest rates through the roof and crowd out domestic discretionary spending. That will devastate workers, homeowners, retirees, investors and small businesses alike. Healthcare, education, infrastructure will all atrophy. The Congressional Budget Office concurs; without a major structural change, the deficit will overwhelm the economy.
And there’s more. The multiple failings of suburban sprawl are converging with dire consequences. The housing market is arguably the foundation of the American economy; indeed, suburban sprawl anchors spending in cars, energy, consumer products and durables. Today that foundation is crumbling. Federally-subsidized sprawl has segregated America by income and, as a result, public education is failing and politicians are able to gerrymander undemocratic districts. Continued expansion has meant overstretched but essential public services have broken down while more than $1 trillion of much-needed infrastructure investment has been ignored. As baby boomers discover that suburbs are unfriendly to the elderly, they are moving back into higher-density cities, displacing poverty into the first-ring suburbs. These migrating seniors are not interested in paying taxes for inner-city schools. That pushes young middle-class families ever farther out, increasing commuting time and decreasing good parenting. It’s downward spiral.
And then there is climate change. Florida got socked with four major hurricanes this year. Japan was hit by a record-setting eight-story high wave caused by a typhoon. Our polar ice caps are melting at increasing rates, raising sea levels, flooding low-lying cities and threatening the Gulf Stream. In a few decades, global warming will dry out California’s central valley and bake its cities. Already, reports are coming in of Bangladeshis fleeing starvation into India. France alone suffered 15,000 extra deaths in the summer of 2003 due to heat. We have a scientific consensus that the cause of all this is from burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests. Yet America is building more SUVs, OPEC and Russia are promising more oil, China is burning more coal and Brazil is cutting down more of the Amazon.
John Kerry spent the last two years arguing that the symptoms of these four crises can all be addressed without dealing decisively with their root causes. As a result, he could not make his agenda add up. When you read of Kerry having trouble articulating his vision, this is why.
To address these challenges will require that Democrats and progressives evolve and move beyond their comfort zone. We will have to think strategically, not tactically. We will have to work with the private sector to transform our unsustainable economic engine. We will have to balance the budget. We will have to embrace smart growth and renewable energy. And, we will have to generate a national security strategy that leverages our domestic economy in the service of global peace and prosperity. We did no less with the New Deal. We did no less with the Marshall Plan. It is time to do it again.
Nov. 3, 2004 could mark the dawn of a new political era. Think of the contrast: one party is the defender of an unjust, dysfunctional, post-WWII economy and the other party recognizes that real security and prosperity lies in innovation, not consumption; partnership, not domination; and justice, not avarice.
One thing is certain: we need a plan. As we search, Quo Vadis will be there to help cajole and comprehend.