(This started as a comment to Lex’s thoughtful post and I got carried away.)
The Democrats can’t win on the economy as long as the main question is how much to cut taxes. Nor can they win on defense while the central issue is a very serious war and the central question is how aggressively to prosecute it. In each case the best they can do is act like Republicans Lite, in which case they lose because voters will prefer real Republicans. Where have we heard such ideas before? Bush is making brilliant use of the same tactics which Clinton used to such good political effect against Republicans for eight years. Now as then, the opposition party finds itself stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of lamely reacting to the President’s initiatives.
I think the Democrats can get out of it, but tired hacks like Lieberman aren’t the answer. There may be, however, opportunity for a party that shows sincere concern for civil liberties – something that neither party currently exhibits. Of course, this path may be anathema for the Dems, whose leadership is dominated by amoral statist authoritarians who are hostile to self-defense and on the take from trial lawyers, environauts, race hustlers, the entertainment industry, and other groups hostile to the open society.
But if the Democratic leadership could, somehow, become again as sympathetic to individual rights as, say, Hubert Humphrey was, they would likely pick up votes from independents and libertarians for whom the Republicans are now the lesser of evils. Probably lots of people who vote Republican have deep misgivings about the drug war, about extra-judicial detention of U.S. citizens, about the Bush administration’s eagerness to impose dubious snooping and data-mining schemes on us in the name of fighting terrorism, and about other similar issues. Given the closeness of current electoral divisions, a pro-individual-rights Democratic party, even one that was still on the wrong side of taxes and defense, might pick up enough support on the margin to win elections.
Will it happen? I doubt it, at least in the short run. First of all, the current Democratic leadership is reflexively pro-government to the core and likes things as they are. Second, the war could last for a while, and it crowds out most other issues, making it difficult for Democrats to do much except go along with the Administration’s agenda. But in the long run it’s conceivable the Democrats will become more open to a radical reorientation if they keep losing. And if they did transform themselves successfully it would pressure the Republicans to start paying more than lip service to issues that are now seen as the province of the libertarian fringe. Maybe this is all wishful thinking on my part, but we live in an age of radical transformations all over the world. Something in the way of an anti-government upheaval has been simmering in our politics for years. If anything it has quickened since Sept. 11. What happens if Democratic candidates see this as an opportunity and run with it?