Notes on the Atrocities
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Tuesday, August 05, 2003  

Incrementalism or the whole kielbasa? These are the choices for progressives--candidates and their supporters. The candidates who have emerged as viable progressives are Dean, Kucinich, and possibly Kerry. Kucinich is the big-vision guy, your whole kielbasa man. I'm growing increasingly convinced about Dean's credentials, but his vision is concrete and incremental. (Kerry's a floater--he's liberal, but I haven't seen any vision from him. This is why he's failed to form a base; aside from a nice voting record, no one knows which direction he's headed.)

Last week, the Times ran a great article that documented Dean's track record. Liberals who are worried about Dean's lefty cred point to a spotty track record:

Over 11 years, he restrained spending growth to turn a large budget deficit into a surplus, cut taxes, forced many on welfare to go to work, abandoned a sweeping approach to health-care reform in favor of more incremental measures, antagonized environmentalists, won the top rating from the National Rifle Association and consistently embraced business interests.


But it conceals a greater coherence to his plan, one that looks pretty good:

He inherited a state budget deficit of about 11 percent, the highest income taxes in the country and the lowest bond rating in New England.

To the dismay of liberals in the Legislature who wanted to expand social and environmental programs, Dr. Dean and his chief economic adviser, Harlan Sylvester, a conservative stockbroker and investment banker, stuck with the Snelling budget-cutting plan. Helped by a booming economy, the state's finances improved sharply. Dr. Dean lowered income tax rates by 30 percent and put away millions in a rainy day fund. Vermont's bond rating became the highest in the Northeast.

In his last term, Dr. Dean won a change in law so that Vermont taxes were not automatically lowered by Mr. Bush's cut in federal income taxes, and Vermont had a comfortable surplus this spring when most other states faced crippling budget shortfalls. On the stump, he blames the federal deficit for the weak economy and derides Mr. Bush for running "a borrow-and-spend credit-card presidency." Mr. Bush's tax cuts, he say, are a gift to "the president's friends like Ken Lay," referring to the former chief executive of Enron....

When he entered office, Dr. Dean was determined to provide health insurance to everyone in the state in one fell swoop. Despite support from liberal lawmakers, his plan failed, along with a similar initiative by the Clinton administration.

So Dr. Dean changed tactics and managed to accomplish much of his goal incrementally. Vermont now offers the nation's most generous health benefits to children, low-income adults and elderly residents of modest means. Almost all children in the state have full medical insurance, and more than a third of Vermont residents on Medicare get state help in paying for prescription drugs.


Then there's Kucinich, who offers one of the most liberal visions we've seen from a national candidate in a long time. He's the eloquent dreamer, the hopeful idealist. He offers an almost evangelical form of liberalism:

I offer these brief remarks today as a prayer for our country, with love of democracy, as a celebration of our country. With love for our country. With hope for our country. With a belief that the light of freedom cannot be extinguished as long as it is inside of us. With a belief that freedom rings resoundingly in a democracy each time we speak freely. With the understanding that freedom stirs the human heart and fear stills it. With the belief that a free people cannot walk in fear and faith at the same time.

With the understanding that there is a deeper truth expressed in the unity of the United States. That implicate in the union of our country is the union of all people. That all people are essentially one. That the world is interconnected not only on the material level of economics, trade, communication, and transportation, but interconnected through human consciousness, through the human heart, through the heart of the world, through the simply expressed impulse and yearning to be and to breathe free.


Say Amen, brothers and sisters!

Which One?
There are strengths and disadvantages to both approaches. Let's assume both candidates are sincere in their vision. The Dean model has the advantage of appearance. Americans are never flustered by pragmatism; I think that's why most identify themselves as essentially "moderate" on the political spectrum. Doc Dean seems like a legitimate candidate. And in terms of passing the agenda, it also seems to make sense that change is easier achieved in small steps.

On the other hand, the incremental approach is a long road. The danger is compromising yourself right out of your vision (many, including me, felt this was Clinton's ultimate legacy). It takes a strong, visionary leader to continue to plod along and make the change.

The big picture candidate is the inspirational candidate. By inspiring people to imagine things larger than they would have considered, a candidate like Kucinich (or FDR or even the current President) can make dramatic changes happen quickly. In fact, this is how dramatic change almost always happens. People on the left always associate this approach with McGovern's failure, forgetting that FDR and JFK both ran on big-vision platforms and inspired a nation to join them. McGovern ran at the end of a long period of liberal dominance; Kucinich is running, like FDR, at the end of a period of conservative dominance.

The disadvantages are obvious with the big picture candidate. It's the hardest road. If the big picture fails--like Clinton's health care plan--where do you turn? Democrats are especially leery about the prospect of high-profile failure. The don't want destroy a nascent return to liberalism.

There are other discussions within the Democratic party. For the liberal wing, though, I think this is the central one. Over the course of the next few months, we'll be talking again and again about how to inspire our moderate friends with our vision. The whole kielbasa or pragmatic baby steps--which will be the winner?

posted by Jeff | 12:01 PM |
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