Jun 21, 2008

Obama And The Death Of The New Democrats

Who are the New Democrats?

The New Democrats were born in the 1980s, in response to Ronald Reagan's triumphs. Prominent Democrats worried the party was out of touch, and created the Democratic Leadership Council. Its members were foreign-policy hawks, unafraid of cultural conservatism, and preached economic centrism. Their poster boy: Bill Clinton.
The 1990s were their midlife heyday, though even then the New Dems struggled. Party liberals despised Mr. Clinton's embrace of free trade, hated his accommodation of welfare reform, cringed when he pronounced "the era of big government" over. But no one could deny his success at giving the party its first two full terms in the White House since FDR. So they shut up and went along.

What has haappened to the New Democrats?

When Mr. Clinton left, so did the most prominent New Democratic voice. Party liberals have been reasserting control ever since. Howard Dean's 2004 consolation prize was the Democratic National Committee. Nancy Pelosi became House Speaker in 2006, and gave back committee chairs to the old 1960s liberal bulls. And now comes Mr. Obama, the party's most liberal nominee since Hubert Humphrey.
What's left of the New Democratic agenda? On foreign policy, Bill Clinton engaged in Bosnia, and as recently as 2004 John Kerry saw the wisdom of running as at least a moderate hawk. But today's unpopular war has only emboldened the party to revert to its antiwar comfort zone.

Yes, there are still New Democrats in prominent positions. House Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel has used his clout to help protect party centrists. But on trade, economics and foreign policy, Mrs. Pelosi and the liberals are in charge. The speaker has given "passes" to her more conservative members on tough votes, but she's not asked them to help craft an agenda.

So who is pulling Obama's strings? Big Labor?

Economic centrism? What's that? Even Mr. Clinton's wife disavowed his New Democratic legacy by trashing free trade and Nafta. Mr. Obama raised her bet, aligning himself with leftist trade populists. The Democratic leadership has held up deals with Colombia, Peru and South Korea. Big Labor is calling the shots, and Big Labor will suffer no new trade.
Mr. Obama is hawking a tax policy that would take the nation back to the effective marginal tax rates of the Carter days. He wants to further tax income, payroll, capital gains, dividends and death. His philosophy is pure redistribution. Congressional Democrats voted for a budget that includes the largest tax hike in American history.

What about fiscal restraint? Clinton ran progressively larger budget surpluses.

About all that remains of the New Democratic economic agenda is the mantra of "fiscal discipline." But since taking power, Democrats have passed spending bills far beyond President Bush's limits, and broken their own "pay-as-you-go" rules. The party's Blue Dogs have fought its leaders on some spending, though not when it risks derailing, say, farm bills. Mr. Obama recently revealed that his plan for economic recovery was to spend the nation out of its doldrums.

We thank Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal for answering our questions.