The Democratic Party has come a long way from the “lockbox” economics of 2000. Four years ago, Al Gore campaigned on a promise to maintain federal budget surpluses as far as the eye could see–and to use the money to pay off the national debt. This year, every candidate has evidently figured out that fiscal rectitude does not alone win elections. So they are all promising to spend public money on more positive objectives–big spending, in some cases. Four years ago, Gore attacked from the right, denouncing Bill Bradley’s modest healthcare proposal as fiscally irresponsible. This year, every Democrat has a substantial plan to reform healthcare, and some of them want to go all the way: universal coverage. Gore himself now blesses the concept.
Collectively, the Dems share a far more aggressive posture on economic issues than the one inherited from the Clinton era. The party is not exactly turning left, but its would-be leaders are definitely sidestepping toward a more ambitious liberal agenda. The shift is probably accompanied by belated regrets. If Gore had run on a stronger agenda in 2000, he would likely be President today. If Congressional Democrats had not lost their voices during the 2002 elections, they might not be a virtually impotent minority in the House and Senate.
In any case, the Democrats hardly have much choice for 2004, given that Bush has governed so brutishly and nearly obliterated the landscape left behind by Bill Clinton. Who can accuse the Dems of liberal profligacy when Bush has shifted fiscal policy from $200 billion surpluses to $500 billion deficits? How can the right attack Democrats for expanding the welfare state when the Republicans have just done so themselves, with their expensive new drug benefit?
If one sifts through the candidates’ policy papers and speeches, a rough consensus is visible on three large propositions–all important goals. Healthcare reform, including insurance coverage for all children and maybe for all adults too. Confronting the global trading system with major reforms, that is, “fair trade” rules on labor rights and environmental protection, and less freewheeling power for multinational corporations. A major restoration of public investment for long-term objectives–renewable energy production and public infrastructure, everything from high-speed rail to hydrogen fuel cells to rebuilding inner-city neighborhoods. One way or another, these three proposals are also designed to stimulate jobs and raise incomes.
The most imaginative and forward-looking item is the public-works vision called the new Apollo Project–a $300 billion, ten-year plan to jump-start the transition to the postpetroleum era. Every Democratic candidate has endorsed the concept in generalized terms. It would reduce US oil dependence by financing alternative energy sources like wind and solar power but also guarantee a market for cleaner technologies like hybrid cars and other energy-efficient products. The agenda was fashioned by a blue-green alliance of organized labor and environmentalists, joined by some businesses and civil rights and community groups. Dick Gephardt bought the whole package, which he dubbed “Apollo 21.” Dennis Kucinich goes further and calls for $500 billion in spending. The public investments under the original program will leverage $1 trillion in private activities, generating some 3.3 million new jobs (about what Bush has lost in the past three years).