Walter Russell Mead:
Our political parties may be ideological in some of their inspirations and their rhetoric, but they are pragmatic. If an approach to an issue works and pleases voters, political leaders try to bring it on board.
This is especially true at times of transition like the present. The classical progressive approach to social problems has long jumped the shark; this means that conservative and Tea Party activists can seize the political high ground if they can convert slogans and preferences into policies that work. If you can get better educational outcomes for less money, your ideas will gain traction. If you can provide necessary environmental protection while creating a more favorable business climate, your state will start to grow—and people around the country will notice.
The strength of a ‘natural party of government’ is that those who believe in the ideological principles of a political movement do, on a long term, sustainable basis, a better job than their opponents at developing policies that address the actual problems of the American people. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the key ideas of the Democrats (like Bismarckian social insurance programs, government as the umpire in an economy of stable oligpolies and monopolies, expansionary fiscal policy during the Bretton Woods era when the dollar was the global monetary yardstick) worked so well that Republican presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon worked within a basically Democratic policy framework.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the conservative ideas espoused by President Reagan seemed to work, and so a Democratic president like Bill Clinton made some long term Republican ideas (welfare reform, fiscal restraint) an important part of his governing approach.
But the point is that longterm power is less about shouting slogans and proclaiming ideological principles. It is about using your political ideology to build policies that work so well that your political opponents try to steal them. You know you are winning when the other side promises to carry out the main ideas in your vision.
In a politics and poll obsessed period like the closing days of a national presidential campaign, it can be hard to remember, but the principle is something that any serious political activist of whatever ideological stripe can’t afford to forget. In America, political power doesn’t flow out of the barrel of a gun, and it doesn’t flow out of a megaphone either. Real political power — enduring, transformational political power — is the result of good policy. Fix problems that matter, and the people will listen to your ideas.
The Vile Progs were right about one thing – they could get away with all the lying and cheating if their policies were successful. Unfortunately for all of us, their policies failed.
Imagine if unemployment was down to 4.0% and the economy was growing at 4.0% (like when the Big Dawg was in office). Obama would be a shoo-in for reelection and Romney would be “taking one for the team” as token opposition.
The fact is most voters aren’t really into ideology, they are into whatever works. And they evaluate how well things are going based upon their own lives, not a bunch of data on the news. Unemployment is just a statistic unless you or someone close to you is out of work. And if you are unemployed you don’t care about statistics – you just want a job.
From a pragmatic standpoint the Clinton years were enormously successful. According to the ideological left they were the dark ages.