The scent of political change is in the air. There appears to be a grinding political shift afoot in America, fueled by dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and the exploding budget deficit. It's been made more tangible by last week's Democratic primary defeat of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman by Ned Lamont.
But amid the sense that November will bring a fresh start, there's been a great deal of clamor – coming from pundits on the right, left, and what remains of the center – about the need for Democrats to come up with "a plan."
Just ask Rep. Rahm Emanuel, (D) of Illinois, and head of the Democratic Leadership Council Bruce Reed. They've titled their new book "The Plan: Big Ideas for America," and suggest, in their introduction, that it contains "a new social contract for the 21st century and a new patriotism and responsibility to make it happen."
The underlying assumption: Democrats really need a new social contract for the 21st century.
The secondary underlying assumption: Something was wrong with the old one.
But the problem isn't that mainstream Democratic ideas – such as maintaining a system of progressive taxation; federal regulation of food, drugs, and the environment; nationalized Social Security; a multilateral, pragmatic foreign policy – have been discredited. It's that Democrats, lacking control of the White House and Congress, therefore lack a national leader. And without a national leader, it's far more difficult for Democrats to whip their own members into shape with political carrots and sticks, and to speak with a unified national voice.
The result is that every individual member is free to zig or zag on almost any issue, presenting the appearance of a party in disarray. For example: Colorado's Democratic senator, Ken Salazar, is supporting Senator Lieberman's independent bid for reelection at the expense of his own party's official nominee. His Republican equivalent would be (rightfully) drummed out of the GOP overnight.
Democratic "weakness" isn't a lack of strong ideas; it's a pure lack of political discipline, a weakness magnified by the efficient internal discipline of the Bush-Cheney-Rove machine.