THE REPUBLICAN commercial from the 1980 campaign made the point well; a Tip O'Neill look alike sitting in an oversized limousine munched on a fat cigar. While the fellow in the next seat cried out one plaintive warning after another. O'Neill sat in a happy oblivion. And the car, like the country his party had led for so long, sputtered to a halt stranded in a desert. The election results gave unequivocal testimony to the effectiveness of the advertisement. After half a century as America's party of ideas, the Democrats seemed unable to deal with the realities of life in the Age of Scarcity.
Today, however, with Reaganomics foundering, Democratic electoral prospects are brighter than anyone believed possible just a few months ago. Yet their national campaign effort is virtually nonexistent. The men with the ignition keys to the party machinery, the Kennedys, the Mondales and their ilk continue to pour forth the great platitudes of the old party line.
More Democrats may be elected to office in 1982 than in 1980, but such success will come from the default of the opposition, not from any bold, well-articulated alternatives to current Administration policies. Tip O'Neill still mumbles and munches.
Not every important Democrat, though, is afflicted with intellectual paralysis. A growing consensus of Congressional Democrats, journalists, and scholars are uniting around comprehensive policy proposals pragmatically tailored to the demands of the times. Celebrated in a recent Esquire article as "the neoliberals," they take as their manifesto Sen. Paul Tsongas's The Road From Here and point to Sen. Gary Hart as a possible standard-bearer in the 1984 presidential race. These two youthful and appealing gentlemen, joined by junior senators such as New Jersey's Bill Bradley, representatives like Colorado's Timothy Wirth and Missouri's Richard Gephardt, and heavy weights from academe and high finance--MIT economist Lester Thurow and New York investment banker Felix Rohatyn for example--are beginning to exert a strong influence on the thinking of the Democratic party.
These party moderates, though by no means a bloc of dogmatists, agree on a range of proposals that, taken together, constitute a bold departure from any of the conventional political wisdoms currently holding away. Gary Hart shed his radical image left over from his days as George McGovern's presidential campaign manager to emerge as a careful, skeptical, concerned student of America's defense needs. He contends that the American armed forces rely far too much on expensive, impractical high-technology weaponry too complicated to operate and obsolete before it can come into general use. His solution avoids the naive polemics and wishful thinking regarding Soviet intentions of the disarmament lobby, and emphasizes instead smaller, less expensive weaponry. Drawing on examples like the army's success with the old M-60 tank and the unreliability of its high-tech successor, the extravagantly costly M-1, and on the strategic folly of basing the country's naval defense on 13 huge and vulnerable aircraft carriers. Hart's criticism has become a focal point in the sea of criticism of the military.
Several of Hart's allies have turned with similar zeal to the mishandling of America's economic problems. Bradley and Wirth, for example, are in the forefront of the move toward targeted tax cuts--as opposed to President Reagan's across-the-board reduction, which they view as inflationary and fiscally irresponsible. Selective cuts, they argue convincingly, will benefit ailing industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest by encouraging the development of software, communications, and energy businesses.
Other neoliberal proposals represent critical divergences from Democratic tradition. One, advocated by a group of economists including Lester Thurow proposes the revamping of anti-trust laws to remove bars on the expansion of successful American businesses, and to allow floundering ones, like the automobile industry, to pool information and share research and development costs. Not exactly trust busting but it will, they say, enhance American industry's ability to complete with Japan and Germany. Even more controversial is another Thurow suggestion, seconded by Felix Rohatyn, that the Federal government create a sort of central economic planning agency. This would allow the government to invest in concerns that have great potential, but because of their risky nature might have trouble attracting private funding--companies, for example, formed to investigate and produce alternate energy sources.
Another concern for the up and coming Democrats is a broad-based welfare reform. Here they follow the lead of a prototypical neoliberal, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. From his days in the early 1970s as a domestic affairs aide to Nixon, Moynihan has proposed that the chaotic assortment of public assistance programs be replaced with a guaranteed annual income--a "negative income tax" payment according to need.
MUCH OF THE neoliberal program, of course, is not new. It traces its roots to the Great Society and New Deal proposals that defined an historical mission for the Democratic party--and which, carried to wasteful extremes, cost the Democrats their grip on the national government in 1980. But in the hands of the Harts and Bradleys and Wirths, the concepts have a new vitality and pragmatism. Indeed, the young Democrats combine a calm, rational approach to America's needs and fears, with the compassion and concern for equality of opportunity that have long been the province of their party.
Plenty of questions about the neoliberal program will be forthcoming. Not a few Americans doubt the value of centralized economic planning. Others see alarming implications in the proposals for compulsory national service heard from many of these young moderates. But as the edifice of Reaganism totters on the verge of intellectual collapse, and Democratic party elders continue to spew out the old rhetoric, the neoliberals offer the single serious alternative. The Administration's economic policies may be sufficient to give victories to Democrats in 1982. But if the Democrats fall back on New Dealcum-Edward M. Kennedy-business-as-usual, election gains will yield just another chapter in the four-year cycle of policy failure followed by a cry to throw the rascals out. Hart and his colleagues have between them a blueprint for the future of America, a cogent, coherent plan for governing this country in a difficult age. And that is more than anyone else on the scene has to offer.