Jonathan Chait’s excellent cover article in The New Republic, “The Case Against New Ideas,” dissects the “Democrats lost because they have no new ideas,” but takes a far less confrontational approach than Joshua Holland did. Chait examines the GOP’s aggressive posturing as a party of ideas, while using its media mouthpieces to denigrate the Democrats as uninspired obstructionists. After a section about media complicity in ignoring minority party ideas, he notes:
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. […] 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 2012.
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.
Chait addresses the common – and misleading - charge of “obstructionism” this way:
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. […] Emphasizing the downside of bad change rather than the upside of positive change reflects political necessity, not intellectual failure.
The GOP program of slogans and soundbites has been quite successful – at least in the propaganda realm – as Chait laments:
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.
The entire history of the current administration has amply demonstrated the difference between message and meaning; the rhetoric and reality of American politics have perhaps never been quite so far apart. Bush’s desire to “reform” Social Security illustrates this very well, as Chait elaborates:
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.
As with the post-election blizzard of conservatives’ “advice” to liberals, much right-wing talk about “ideas” is essentially a demand that Democrats continue moving to the right. Given the choice between a real conservative and a faux one, however, the electorate will choose the GOP candidate every time; the last two presidential elections have certainly proven that.