I was a liberal Democrat when I was young. I wore a green Army jacket with political buttons on it — for Hubert Humphrey, Birch Bayh, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. I even wore it in my high school yearbook photo.
It's a magic green jacket. I can put it on today and, suddenly, my mind shifts back to the left. It makes me feel beleaguered because the political winds are blowing so ferociously against "my" party, but satisfied because the Democrats have overseen a bunch of programs that, while unappreciated, are probably going to do a lot of good in the long run.
For example, everybody hates the bank bailouts and stress tests. But these are some of the most successful programs in recent memory. They stabilized the financial system without costing much money. The auto bailout was criticized at the time, but it's looking pretty good now that General Motors is recovering.
But the magic-jacket-wearing me is nervous about the next few years. I'm afraid my party is going to get stuck in the same debates we always lose. First, the same old tax debate. We're not going to extend the Bush tax cuts on the rich. The Republicans will blast us for killing growth and raising taxes, as they did in 2000 and 2004.
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Then the same spending debate. We'll point to high unemployment and propose spending programs too small to make a difference. Republicans will blast us for bankrupting the country, and the voters are so distrustful of government, they'll side with the Republicans on that one, too.
So I sit there in my magic green jacket and I wonder: What can my party do to avoid the big government tag that always leads to catastrophe? Then I remember President Barack Obama's vow to move us beyond the stale debates. Maybe he couldn't do that in the first phase of his presidency when he was busy responding to the economic crisis, but perhaps he can do it in the second phase.
It occurs to me that the Obama administration has done a number of (widely neglected) things that scramble the conventional categories and are good policy. The administration has championed some potentially revolutionary education reforms. It has significantly increased investments in basic research. It has promoted energy innovation and helped entrepreneurs find new battery technologies. It has invested in infrastructure — not only roads and bridges, but information-age infrastructure such as the broadband spectrum.
These accomplishments aren't big government versus small government; they're using government to set a context for private sector risk-taking and community initiative. They cut through the culture war brewing between the Obama administration and the business community. They address the core anxiety afflicting the public. It's not only short-term unemployment that bothers people. It's the sense we're frittering away our wealth and are a nation in decline.
So I sit there in my green jacket and I think: What would happen if Obama sidestepped the fruitless and short-term stimulus debate and focused on the long term? He could explain we're facing deep fundamental problems: an aging population, overleveraged consumers, exploding government debt, state and local bankruptcies, declining human capital, widening inequality, a pattern of jobless recoveries, deteriorating trade imbalances and so on.
These long-term problems, Obama could say, won't be solved with centralized government or free market laissez-faire. Just as government laid railroads and built land grant colleges in the 19th century to foster deep growth, the government today should be doing the modern equivalents.
Not much is going to get passed in the next two years, but Obama could lay the groundwork for a whopping second-term agenda: tax simplification, entitlement reform, regional innovation clusters, marriage- friendly tax policies.
I see a party breaking out of old stereotypes, appealing to entrepreneurs and suburbanites again, and I start feeling good about the future. Then I take off the green jacket and return to my center- right self. A chill sweeps over me: Gosh, what if the Democrats did change in that way?
THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE