The Democratic Convention speakers did an excellent job of convincing the country that this is a “choice” election, pitting two rival philosophies of government against each other. And they are right in principle: the country does need to choose between conservatives who distrust government and put their faith in markets, and liberals who believe that government is a necessary counterweight to business. Rhetoric aside, however, we will have no such debate. To understand why, we have to look at the recent history of the Democratic Party, and especially at the Clinton Presidency.
The Democratic Presidents of the sixties, such as Kennedy and Johnson, were the children of the New Deal. Similarly, the conservative Republicans who came to power in the 1980 election of Reagan were opponents of the New Deal. Faced with a strong challenge from the right during the seventies and eighties, Democrats could have forthrightly defended progressive principles, albeit revised for changing times. After all, these principles had defeated fascism, created the modern middle class, ushered in forty years of prosperity and sparked the civil rights and feminist revolutions. However, the Democrats made no such arguments.
Under Bill Clinton’s leadership, first as head of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and then as president, they advocated and enacted a “third way.” This meant that they became pro-business, promising to shrink government, deregulate the economy, and attack “dependency.” Most importantly, they accepted the Republican idea that balancing the budget had to be at the center of the national agenda, abandoning their earlier view of the budget as a tool of national planning. The result was an effective fund-raising and election-winning strategy, but one that had two disastrous consequences from the point of view of a national debate.