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The Case Against New Ideas

Ideas--the idea of ideas, anyway--have always held a lofty place in our political culture. But perhaps never before have they been imbued with such power as at this particular moment. Since last November, conservatives have been braying about their victory in the war of ideas, often with a whiff of Marxian assurance. "Conservatism is the ideology of the future," gloated Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. "Republicans are driving the course of history with new solutions." A GOP operative, even while conceding President Bush's recent difficulties, noted that things would be worse but for the fact that "the Democrats are really brain dead and have nothing positive to put on the table."

Oddly enough, it's not just conservatives who say this. Liberals, too, widely attribute their minority party status to a lack of new ideas. "Feeling outmatched in the war of ideas," The New York Times noted last month, "liberal groups have spent years studying conservative foundations the way Pepsi studies Coke, searching for trade secrets." Or, as Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris wrote last December, "[Y]es, there is plenty of blame to go around, from an admirable but not widely loved presidential candidate to his stunningly ineffective strategists. But at this point, it requires a willful act of self-deception not to see the deeper problem: conservatives have won the war of ideas." Since the 2004 elections, liberals have earnestly set about writing manifestos, establishing new think-tanks, and generally endeavoring to catch up with a conservative idea machine.

The notion that conservatives are winning politically because they are winning intellectually has a certain appeal, particularly for those in the political idea business. And the aspiration of liberals to sharpen their thinking is perfectly worthy. As analysis, though, it's all deeply misguided. The current ubiquity of such thinking owes itself to the fact that liberals and conservatives have a shared interest in promoting it. (Liberals in the spirit of exhortation and internal reform, conservatives in the spirit of self-congratulation.) But, more than that, it reflects a na?fvet6 about the power of new ideas, one that is deeply rooted in long-standing misconceptions of how our politics operate.

To begin with, the plain fact is that liberals have plenty of new ideas. Troll websites of the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, or the Century Foundation, and you will find them teeming with six-and twelve-point plans for any problem you can imagine: securing loose nuclear weapons, reforming public education, promoting international trade, bolstering the military, and so on. They get churned out by the shelfful providing more material than any presidential administration could hope to enact.

And these are not merely retreads of old wish lists. The best liberal ideas take account of new information. Noting academic findings that most workers base their savings decisions on simple inertia, Brookings scholar Peter Orszag and others have proposed automatic 401(k) enrollment. Yale's Jacob S. Hacker (writing in The New Republic and elsewhere) has shown that Americans face growing fluctuations in their income, and he is working on a total income security plan.

Indeed, devising earnest new ideas is the very thing liberals enjoy the most. Accusing them of having no new ideas is like accusing a member of the Kennedy family of excessive sobriety: If anything, the actual problem is just the opposite. Liberals have way too many new ideas and don't think seriously enough about prioritizing them. Liberal think tanks have plans for overhauling health care, slashing the deficit, creating progressive savings accounts, beefing up homeland security, and so on. The trouble is that it would be hard to do all these things at once.

Now, one might point out that liberal intellectuals have plenty of new ideas, but Democrats in elected office do not. That, however, isn't true either. In 2004, John Kerry and John Edwards ran on a program that was undeniably substantive. They proposed rolling back a large chunk of Bush's tax cuts and dividing the proceeds between deficit-reduction and a number of spending programs, including a fairly innovative health care plan that involved reimbursing employers for catastrophic costs. Democrats in Congress do spend most of their time reacting to an agenda controlled by Republicans. But they have proposed a higher minimum wage, terrorism risk insurance for private businesses, legalizing the importation of prescription drugs, and reinstituting pay-as-you-go budget rules.

You probably don't remember many of these ideas, if you ever heard of them in the first place. But don't feel guilty. There's a perfectly good reason for ignoring these ideas: They have no chance of being enacted as long as Republicans control the White House and Congress. The truth is that liberal ideas aren't getting any circulation because Democrats are out of power, not vice versa. Not long ago, to take an example almost at random, Senate Democrats held a press conference with James Woolsey to unveil an energy independence agenda. Not a single major newspaper or network covered it. This isn't because reporters harbor a bias against liberals. It's because they harbor a bias against ideas that stand no chance of being enacted. And so, the vast majority of the time, the press will simply ignore ideas put forth by the minority party. Or those ideas will simply be dismissed as impractical. Take this passage from a column last month by Newsweek's Robert Samuelson:

    In floor debate, the Democrats never offered a realistic balanced budget.
    The closest they came was in the House, where they promised balance by

Samuelson is, in a certain sense, correct. Any plan that differs substantially from the Republican agenda is unrealistic, because the Republicans would never even consider it. But to mistake this lack of power for a lack of alternate ideas confuses cause and effect.

Indeed, during the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency, Democrats had all the positive ideas, and Republicans found themselves in a position of reflexive opposition: no health care reform, no deficit reduction, no crime bill. The Washington Post asked at the time, "Why are the Republicans, who generated so many new ideas a decade ago, suddenly reaching backward on economic issues?" Was this because Republicans had run out of ideas? No, it was because they opposed the particular ideas that the party in power had thrust into the national spotlight. Once Republicans won control of Congress on a wave of anti-Clinton anger, it became clear that they had plenty of specific ideas of their own. (At which point the public ran screaming back to Clinton.)

Today, Democrats generally oppose change because "change" means doing things Bush's way. This puts Democrats in the dilemma of either supporting new policies that are almost invariably bad--certainly from a liberal perspective--or appearing wedded to the status quo. Indeed, Bush has shrewdly exploited this dilemma. In 2001, Democrats conceded that the government needed to do something to stimulate economic growth and forestall a recession. What resulted was a Republican plan to shift the tax burden downward and hemorrhage red ink. In 2003, Democrats advocated added prescription-drug coverage to Medicare. Bush used the occasion to hand out hundreds of billions of dollars in giveaways to industry backers.

It's one thing for Democrats to sketch out the sort of alternatives they would prefer if they ran Washington. But, as long as Republicans do run Washington--and certainly as long as Bush sits in the Oval Office--doing nothing is often going to be the best available scenario for liberals. Emphasizing the downside of bad change rather than the upside of positive change reflects political necessity, not intellectual failure.

Some of those who excoriate Democrats and liberals for lacking ideas don't mean, when they say "ideas," specific plans of action. They mean something more abstract--a philosophical schema for governing, which often amounts to a slogan to describe one's ideology. It is certainly true that conservatives enjoy a long-standing edge here. Bush and his supporters have described their policies with simple aphorisms--smaller government, for example, or promoting democracy abroad-that have eluded Democrats. But Republicans often fail to abide by their own ideas. While Karl Rove recently asserted, "We believe in curbing the size of government; they believe in expanding the size of government," government has in fact grown significantly under Bush after shrinking under his Democratic predecessor. In this case, the conservative superiority in "ideas" simply reflects a greater capacity for hypocrisy.

Conservatives recognize the administration's failures to abide by its professed principles, especially on the growth of government, but this recognition seems not to temper their ideological triumphalism. They seem to spend half their time complaining about Bush's ideological infidelity and the other half celebrating their unambiguous victory in the war of ideas. An example of the latter can be found in a long, self congratulatory essay in the May issue of Commentary, in which former Olin Foundation Director James Piereson asserts, "[N]ot only has conservatism risen to prominence in the electoral sphere, but conservative thought has seized the initiative in the world of ideas as well."

The conservatives' celebration of their intellectual triumph is further complicated by their oft-professed hostility toward intellectuals. They attempt to square this circle by portraying conservative intellectuals as merely channeling the authentic popular will. Irving Kristol famously said the role of conservatives was "to show the American people that they are right and the intellectuals are wrong." One imagines Kristol, Piereson, and other conservative elites relaxing in working-class bars; listening to the denizens demand the privatization of Social Security or complain about the burdens of the estate tax; and then discovering, to their surprise and glee, that there were indeed corporations and wealthy individuals willing to fund the expression of such ideas.

While it has been fashionable to call Republicans the party of ideas for the last 25 years or so, it is all the more so now. The best case that can be made for this label is on foreign policy, where Bush has busily set out to expand democracy across the globe while Democrats carp. Yet, even here, there is far less than meets the eye.

The idea of spreading democracy may be a powerful one, but we shouldn't forget that it's an ad hoc rationale for the Iraq war--hastily put forward after Bush's primary justification, weapons of mass destruction, fell apart. If Bush believed in democracy-promotion as a central goal of the war, he didn't trust the public enough to make that argument (rather than the scary prospect of Saddam giving weapons to terrorists) anything more than a footnote to his prewar case. And, when it comes to those places that pose the greatest long-term danger, Iran and North Korea, even conservatives admit the administration is bereft of ideas.

Most important, the president (and his party) always dominate foreign policy thinking. The tools of statecraft lie in the hands of the executive branch. Nearly every modern president, however inept his foreign policy, manages to have a doctrine named after him. (Remember the Carter Doctrine?) Again, a comparison with the Clinton years is instructive. Democrats in the White House talked about a new era of humanitarian intervention, while Republicans grumbled sullenly. ("We should not send our troops to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide outside of our national strategic interests," insisted George W. Bush.) That Bush is the one promoting powerful ideas, with Democrats largely on the sidelines, simply shows the degree to which control of the White House determines which party holds the initiative on foreign policy ideas.

What other examples exist to support the notion that conservatives have built an awesome ideas machine? The one most often invoked is privatizing Social Security. And, on the surface, it seems like a potent case. Conservative think tanks have spent years nurturing the idea of transforming Social Security, partially or entirely, into a system of individual accounts. Certainly, the history of privatization attests to the right's ability to take hold of an idea hopelessly out of the mainstream and inexorably drive it into the center of the national debate.

Yet privatization isn't a good idea. By this, I don't mean that I disagree with the concept of privatizing Social Security, although I do. What I mean is that the idea itself is half-baked. After Bush declared his intention to focus on privatization this year, it soon became clear that conservatives hadn't thought through a number of enormous obstacles to their idea's implementation. For instance, they seem not to have considered that their optimistic assumptions about the long-term return to stocks are nearly impossible to square with their pessimistic assumptions about the long-term finances of Social Security. Nor did they figure out how to offset the costs of new accounts, which caused the administration to propose clawbacks that could lead to such awkward scenarios as a worker dying and his dependents owing money to the federal government. (Don't ask.) And, as Brookings economist Martin Mayer has noted, mandatory annuities proposed by Bush would make retirees enormously sensitive to any changes the Federal Reserve makes to interest rates just before they retire. The list of similar problems is distressingly long. The more policy aficionados study Bush's idea, the more it looks like something cooked up by a throng of idealistic Ayn Rand-reading undergraduates fresh from Econ 101.

Privatization also points to another weakness in the conservative idea machine: its inability to address the problems of the day. The concept of privatization has slowly ground forward over 25 years or more, propelled by an endless stream of conferences, papers, and articles from conservative think tanks and magazines. And Bush has sold it as a response to a looming fiscal disaster. By any objective measure, though, Social Security is not a major fiscal problem compared with the deficit or health care. Health care, in fact, is rapidly bankrupting both the government and the private sector.

Here the comparison between right and left is instructive. Liberals are brimming with ideas about reforming health care and taming the deficit. Conservatives have little to say about either of these problems. On the deficit, they are theologically opposed to raising taxes, and they have learned from Newt Gingrich that massive spending cuts are political poison. On health care, controlling costs means controlling waste, yet much of that waste is income for interest groups closely aligned with the Republican Party, such as pharmaceuticals, HMOs, and insurance companies. The GOP, then, may be the party of ideas in the sense that its ideas have slowly and inexorably ground forward over a long period of time like glaciers over the Ice Age landscape. But, if this process leaves them unable to confront the actual problems facing the country, you have to wonder why this is something liberals ought to emulate.

The point here is not that conservatives want for new ideas. It's that the question of which ideas hold sway is a function of which party holds power and what priorities it has. It is certainly true that conservatives have devoted more energy to the question of fundamentally reshaping Social Security. But this difference has nothing to do with who has more or better ideas and everything to do with priorities. Liberals like Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs have devoted lots of energy to devising plans to end world poverty. Liberals have devoted enormous attention to the problem of global warming, while the Bush administration insists it will kill any action on the topic.

Is this because conservatives have no ideas, or are committed to (as Bush recently described Democrats) "the philosophy of the stop sign, the agenda of the roadblock"? No, it's because conservatives philosophically disagree with those ends. These aren't contests of which side has more or better ideas. These are ideological battles over resource allocation. When Democrats regain power, their ideas will again control the agenda, and Republicans will again find themselves devoted primarily to the task of resisting change.

Given all this, why does everybody say the right has won the war of ideas? To answer the question, you must first understand that different people mean completely different things when they say that Democrats have no new ideas. And some of those who call for Democrats to come up with new ideas don't actually mean that at all.

One meaning has surfaced from Republicans with particular frequency during the Social Security debate. "[T]he only idea offered by Democrats is that [Bush] abandon his plans to reform Social Security altogether," lamented Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes last month. "George Bush has been willing to address a long-term, politically thorny problem," observed David Brooks in the Times. "But his Democratic counterparts are behaving like alienated junior professors. No productive ideas. No sense of leadership." In reality, Democrats have explicitly stated their willingness to address Social Security's future deficit as long as privatization is off the table. So, when conservatives decry Democrats' lack of ideas, they mean a refusal to adopt conservative ideas.

Liberal pundits also like to flay Democrats for lacking positive ideas, but they mean something else entirely. "If the Democrats had a brain, they'd ..."is a familiar mainstay of the op-ed pages and the chat shows. For instance, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius argued two months ago, "A sensible Democratic leadership would gather this very weekend to begin formulating a plan to address America's looming economic crises. These party leaders would develop specific proposals to reduce the trade and budget deficits that are spooking the financial markets. ... They would reject Bush's half-baked plan for private accounts, but at the same time they would give the president political cover to do what's necessary to begin matching future benefits to future revenue."

Just last month, another Post columnist, Steven Pearlstein, chimed in, "Having railed against them in vain for the past five years, you'd think Democrats might try to reframe the issue on tax fairness." In a recent Times column, Thomas L. Friedman wrote, "Democrats [are] so clearly out of ideas." Friedman's ideas? Promoting alternative fuels, "a new New Deal to address the insecurities of the age of globalization," stem-cell research, and action on global warming.

Of course, the above describes the Democratic position almost perfectly. It seems odd, but in fact this sort of thing is quite common: One constantly hears impassioned demands that the Democrats do exactly what they are already doing. Often, this confusion simply reflects the Democrats' inability to publicize their ideas--or frustration at their inability to win political victories in GOP-dominated Washington. (I can't tell you how many conversations I've had in which liberal friends ask why the Democratic leaders aren't simply saying that Bush's tax cuts are unaffordable and go to the rich, when in fact they are doing so with stultifying repetitiveness.) Sometimes it's merely a rhetorical device used by pundits to express their own liberal views while appearing nonpartisan.

But the constant invoking of the idea gap isn't entirely, or even mostly, disingenuous. Lots of politicians and analysts earnestly believe it. They believe it because they buy into a set of shared assumptions, usually unstated, about how U.S. politics works. The central assumption is that politics revolves around issues and ideas--rather than things like personality, tactics, and outside circumstances--and that the party that wins is the one that presents a more compelling vision of the future.

Because this interpretation is so widely shared, it is usually offered as a statement of faith, with little or no substantiation. Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby articulated this conviction in a column last year. "Candidates (and especially challengers) win elections by offering compelling visions, and those visions have to be based on real policies," he wrote. "Clinton won in 1992 not just because of Carville's slogan, catchy though it may have been; he won because he was prepared to grapple publicly with thorny issues, from the sources of American competitiveness to the pros and cons of NAFTA." In June of 2000, U.S. News columnist and longtime Washington eminence David Gergen wrote, "There is a good reason why Governor Bush is forging ahead in this race: He is becoming the candidate of fresh ideas."

This sort of interpretation is common among journalists. Up until the day of an election, the energies of the candidates and their observers revolve around which side has the stronger turnout operation, whose ads work more, which candidate hurts himself by putting the wrong kind of cheese on his cheesesteak sandwich, and other minutiae. Immediately after the voting, the locus of analysis switches completely, and the election is retroactively determined to be a referendum on the candidates' platforms.

Alas, this sort of thinking assumes a wildly optimistic level of discernment by voters. Polls consistently show that large swaths of the voting public know very little about the positions taken by candidates. In 2000, the National Annenberg Election Survey found that just 57 percent of voters knew Al Gore was more liberal than Bush, 51 percent knew he was more supportive of gun control, and a mere 46 percent understood that he was more supportive of abortion rights. "The voting behavior literature, which is massive, shows that people are not particularly idea-driven," explains Berkeley political scientist Nelson Polsby. "They don't know what the fashions are, with respect to what ideas go with other ideas."

Political scientists have shown how factors like economic performance and the rally-around-the-flag effect can exert enormous influence over voting behavior. A recent study in Science magazine was even more disturbing to those who believe in the power of ideas. Scientists showed the subjects pairs of photographs, which turned out to be matched candidates in Senate and House races. The subjects had to judge within one second which candidate looked more competent, on the basis of appearance alone. Their choice matched the candidate who won an astounding 71.6 percent of the time in Senate races. If you consider that a decent share of Senate races pit unknown, under funded challengers against popular incumbents in highly partisan states, that is a remarkably high percentage. Faith in the discernment of the public is not based on proof, it's premised on, well, faith.

This idealistic belief in the power of the voters to judge superior policy ideas has deep roots. Alexis de Tocqueville noted how it is customary for Americans to speak flatteringly of the public in the unquestioning way that Europeans speak flatteringly of their monarchs. More to the point, it is often in both sides' interest to think this way. Bill Clinton's 1992 victory has been widely attributed to his bold New Democrat-populist platform, in contrast with George H.W. Bush's tired defense of the status quo.

Democrats accede to this interpretation for the obvious reasons. Republicans accede to it because they see Bush as an ideological apostate and are therefore eager to paint his defeat as a consequence of his infidelity to conservative dogma. But, while Clinton's innovative platform surely helped him seize the political center, other factors--a sluggish economy, a third-party candidate disproportionately hurting Bush, and Clinton's charisma--surely mattered more.

This idealism retreated somewhat after the 2000 elections. (Given that his opponent received more votes, it was awkward to paint Bush's triumph as a consequence of his ideas.) But it has returned in full force after the 2004 elections. There is plenty of evidence that the rise in Bush's stature after September 11, as well as John Kerry's ineptitude as a candidate, played a decisive role. But both sides have emphasized instead the role of ideas.

If elections themselves don't hinge on competing ideas, then at least ideas can shape the long-term ideological terrain, right? That's the story both right and left have been telling. In his Commentary essay, Piereson wrote that, in the immediate postwar years, American businessmen "did not understand the link between ideas and political movements, and therefore did not see the need to mount a sustained intellectual defense of their own interests." Piereson does not explain what persuaded them to abandon their lack of interest and aggressively fund conservative think tanks and foundations. Liberals--who have developed a fascination with corporations and the rise of conservative institutions--have an explanation of their own. They invest enormous importance in a memo written by Lewis Powell in 1971, making the case that corporate America must aggressively defend its interests.

My colleague John B. Judis, though, has a far more convincing explanation than a memo that changed the world. In February, he wrote in these pages that businesses adopted a more aggressive and self-interested stance because the U.S. economy changed. In the 25 years after World War II, U.S. business enjoyed a dominant and cushioned position. Therefore business leaders could afford to accommodate unions and reasonable regulations. But, as the rest of the world eventually caught up, profit margins shrank and businesses began fighting unions and looking to Washington to cut their taxes, eliminate regulations, and institute other changes geared toward their bottom line. The cultivation of conservative ideas certainly played a role. But the great shift in U.S. politics resulted not from the persuasive powers of conservative intellectuals but dramatic changes in underlying material conditions.

A related assumption is that new ideas are better than old ones. This meme has gained particular currency during the Social Security debate. For instance, conservative privatization advocate Peter Ferrara dismissed liberal foe Robert Ball as a "well-meaning gentleman who hasn't had a new idea in 40 years." The accusation resonates with many liberals. The Democrats' economic policy, as labor leader Andrew Stern told Matt Bai of The New York Times Magazine, "is basically being opposed to Republicans and protecting the New Deal. It makes me realize how vibrant the Republicans are in creating twenty-first-century ideas, and how sad it is that we're defending 60-year-old ideas."

The elevation of new over old is one of those beliefs that can only survive as a background assumption, without any critical scrutiny. Nobody tries to explain why new is inherently better, because the notion is obviously ridiculous. Take Social Security, for instance. Whatever you think of the general virtues of privatization, the program has actually grown more, not less, suited to the character of the U.S. economy over the last several decades. Social Security is designed to safeguard individuals from various risks. As the economy has grown significantly riskier, the need for a program that offers people a risk-free financial bedrock has grown stronger, and the case for subjecting the program itself to more market risk has grown more dubious.

The final cause of the idea-centric view of U.S. politics is that ideas are sexy. Wealthy donors seem to be particularly prone to ideophilia. Bai recounts how Democratic operative Rob Stein showed a now semi-famous slide presentation detailing the $300-million-per-year conservative message machine to venture capitalist Andy Rappaport. "Man," Rappaport replied, "that's all it took to buy the country?" Both conservatives and liberals talk about the "battle of ideas" as though political success were simply a matter of having one thousand policy entrepreneurs chained to one thousand keyboards.

This conception of U.S. politics is especially compelling to intellectuals. It is a vision of a noble landscape in which philosopher kings hold sway. Each side has its visionaries, wonks, and pamphleteers, beavering away to see whose ideological manifestos, new syntheses, and ten-point plans will prove decisive in the next election. Writers and thinkers enjoy a heroic central role in shaping history: We--not grubby factors like attack ads or the state of the economy or the candidates' ease before the cameras--hold the future in our hands. Twenty years ago, Tom Wolfe appeared before a gathering of conservatives in Washington and declared that Marxism's appeal lay in its "implicit secret promise ... of handing power over to the intellectuals." The promise is not confined to Marxism. It seems to have seduced everybody.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.