No Last Hurrah


LAST WEEK's funeral for the New Deal was hard to watch, and not simply because of what transpired. The country wanted a tax cut, and on Ronald Reagan's terms. It got it--democracy in action. But what hurt was that the Democrats came to this wake too, and they showed little respect for the dead, who, after all, were their kin.

A thumbnail analysis of the Reagan tax-cut plan is not too difficult. It is designed to appeal to the two groups who gave him their strongest support in the election past--simple folk, who have been told time and time again that government is robbing their money to give it to poor people; and calculating people, most of whom own large economic enterprises. The first group won't be helped much, for the only government officials climbing down from their backs will be the ones who sign social services checks; the second will be helped enormously, for, in the current pariance, the Reagan package is chock full of "goodies" for the truly greedy.

Unfortunately, a precis of the alternative House leadership plan is just as revealing. A tax-cut for the working man, especially if his line of work involves owning oil companies, the Democratic "alternative" was no such thing, crammed with business breaks designed to gain the support of Southern Democrats and skewed to the laboring classes just enough that Daley machine veteran Dan Rostenkowski could mouth some ancient pieties.

After a stinging series of congressional defeats, the Democrats--especially local Congressman Tip O'Neill--wanted a win. As it turned out, they couldn't manage that, even with their look-alike proposal--Reagan is the man of the hour, and from Tacoma to Tallahassee the home folks were wiring their representatives to let them know they like the look of the president's plan. It wasn't even close, the prevailing winds pointing the fingers of sundry Democratic weathervanes toward the White House.

But the Democrats should be damn glad they lost, and ashamed they fought the battle the way they did. They are obviously not going to beat the Republicans this year or next; they've been on the defensive since the beginning of the last presidential campaign, unable to muster support for anything. They backed a plan almost identical to the President's, and failed. It's not the ingredients, it's what's on the label, and if Reagan went on T.V. tomorrow and said an integral part of his plan required Americans to mail ten dollar bills to Exxon's U.S. headquarters, well, the mail sacks would be heavy in Houston the next day.


Instead of humiliating themselves trying to win an unwinnable--and meaningless--game, the Democrats should be starting to build around ideas that will produce real victories a few years down the road when Reagan's policies start to sink the economy. The first task is differentiation; Democrats must start to distinguish themselves from the unsound ideas of the Republicans, enough so that on the next big issue AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland won't be wandering around mumbling "a pox on both your houses." Those ideas must be clear enough so that people who still care about the dreams and simple notions of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Johnson will call Western Union, too.

The shape of a new agenda is not entirely clear, though its vision must be of government as servant, not tyrant. The old programs have finally proved unpalatable to many, a fact that should not be too much mourned, for many things change in 50 years, and even ten. But clearly the answers cannot be the managerial preservation of the status quo offered by Jimmy Carter and John Anderson in the past and Walter Mondale in the future. A new direction for liberalism is on the minds of many--Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) started advocating a low-cal progressivism at the Americans for Democratic Action convention last summer, a process he will continue in a book due out in the fall. Others, too, are trying, and if no popular formulations have yet emerged, it may be testament both to the difficulty of the problem and the difficulty of attracting attention to any ideas save those put forth by Reagan.

Some stances seem obvious. Americans, for instance, don't seem to mind if their tax cut comes at the expense of welfare recipients, but the older among them are going to be hopping mad--and a lot may vote--if it means already puny Social Security checks shrink further still. A few Democrats have already jumped on this bandwagon; more should follow, for it will be the first opportunity to remind Americans just what government austerity means. In no time, the T.V. news will be crowded with old people who eat dog food. Reagan and David Stockman may back off, and if they do, so much the better. But if they don't, then the Democrats should gut it out, fighting Reagan at every turn, and though they may lose in the end, they will be beginning to repair their constituency.

Battles over Social Security, local aid, and defense spending, (which, with its paradoxical enormity, remains Reagan's hardest cross to bear), are safest for the Democrats. After all, as much of FDR's heritage has been made untouchable as has been rejected; people cried "socialism" and "get government off our backs" when Social Security was first suggested, but no American politician would ever advocate an end to the program today. If the Democrats are determined to fight other battles, they should follow the lead of Mo Udall and others on the tax cut vote and make them honorable duels. Instead of trying to win on issues like the tax cut, when it would have been a win in name only, they should have tried to demarcate a liberal alternative as free as possible of concessions to big oil, big business, and big political greed.

The Democrats are going to see very few victories in the next year and a half. Politics being what it is, the sides only really change at election time, and there's not another one of those until the fall of 1982. Fighting for the sake of fighting can only squander whatever energy liberals still have; instead, the paramount task must be finding ways to start all over. There has been a wake, but that doesn't mean there can't be a christening before too long.