Tucked away in Sunday’s New York Times is an article by former Colorado senator and presidential aspirant Gary Hart entitled “The Road Not Taken.” It posits a fascinating evaluation of Hart’s Democratic Party.
The 1970s brought societal revolutions, he notes, citing globalization; the decline of U.S. manufacturing; emergence of the oil cartel; and the “unsustainable costs of cold war military deployments.” The result: a squeeze on America’s middle class.
This posed an opportunity for Democrats to craft a political framework to address these potent developments and ease the burden on working-class and middle-income Americans. But the party insisted on clinging to its traditional social agenda, which required taxation of those people the party should have been seeking to protect—workers and the middle class. The result was a brand of politics “essentially splitting the difference between reactionary liberalism and increasingly virulent conservatism.” This, says Hart, “cost the party its identity.”
He says some young Democrats of the early 1980s (presumably including himself) sought to craft a political idiom designed to address the new realities and position America for the transition from traditional manufacturing to the new information and communications era. Some hallmarks: fostering modernization of steel and auto manufacturing; promoting development of new high-tech businesses; pushing an ethos of free-trade competitiveness. In foreign affairs, he notes, some Democrats foresaw the rise of irregular, unconventional warfare and advocated defense policies to address that looming reality.
In a poignant aside, Hart argues that this new thinking was “the answer to the clever debate taunt ‘Where’s the beef?’” That taunt, issued with devastating effect by Hart’s 1984 nomination opponent, Walter Mondale, essentially signaled the demise of Hart’s kind of thinking within the party and the triumph of the old New Deal nostrums represented by Mondale—and carried forward by the party even as the world was rendering them increasingly irrelevant.
“By failing to innovate some 30 years ago,” writes Hart, “the party of hope and compassion has permitted itself to lapse into the defensive, perhaps reactionary, posture that now plagues it.” Much smart analysis in these plaintive musings.