Tom Geoghegan’s unlikely run in the first special Congressional election of the Obama era yielded the likely result: a defeat. The labor lawyer and author inspired enthusiastic support from fellow public intellectuals, liberal bloggers and activists who are pushing the Obama administration toward a new New Deal. But Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, who had a reputation as a reformer, plus newspaper endorsements and more money, easily won the March 3 primary for the Chicago seat vacated by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Geoghegan may not have prevailed in the vote, but he won the ideas primary. How? Most Congressional Democrats merely promise to preserve Social Security; Geoghegan proposed a massive extension of it. “Social Security now pays about 38 to 39 percent of your working income. In other developed countries, it averages 65 percent,” he says. “That’s where our fiscal stimulus should be: a commitment to reach this goal, a public pension that ordinary working people can live on.” Geoghegan’s idea isn’t just a smart response to an economic meltdown that’s left tens of millions with empty retirement accounts. It’s smart politics. Democrats are going to need a plan to provide for the retirement of hard-working Americans whose 401(k)s are fading fast. Geoghegan has provided that plan. Though he lacked the prominence and resources to win his primary, Geoghegan’s big idea will eventually prove to be a winner for Democrats who are smart enough to adopt it.