Retaking the Narrative From the Republicans

Michael Hirsh

Once upon a time, in an era too distant now for many to remember, the Democratic Party’s “narrative” stood astride the national agenda. For a half-century stretching from the New Deal through the 1970s, Democratic thinking on both economics and foreign policy was dominant. The Republicans were a querulous, counterpunching minority, especially when it came to selling Americans on their philosophy. Even a GOP president as personally popular as Dwight Eisenhower had embraced Harry Truman’s Cold War containment doctrine, and he invested heavily in infrastructure, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt had.

But by the late ’70s, the dominant Democratic narrative began to flame out. Vast government spending on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and Vietnam War led to stagflation, while the Democratic foreign-policy consensus fractured over the defeat in Vietnam. By 1980, Ronald Reagan’s “revolution” against big government had begun, and the GOP had gained the high ground on foreign policy, preaching Reaganite “peace through strength.”

And this is pretty much where we still are today. For the past 30 years, it’s the Democrats who have been mostly counterpunching. Now, some leading Democrats who are looking to the post-Obama era in 2016 say it’s long past time to retake the narrative from the Republicans.

"I think since Reagan, they have done a very good job of setting the frame," Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, one of a handful of Democrats some speak of as potential successors to President Obama, told National Journal for an article published in the Sept. 1 edition, "Searching for Tomorrow’s Democrat."

"The enemy is government. The enemy is taxes.… Taxes are things that must be eliminated. And the only good that comes from government is the elimination of taxes. So pervasive is this framework and this fairy tale gone wild that we found ourselves facing sequester, where we’re putting a higher premium on continued tax cuts for billionaires than we do on providing for a common defense.

"Too many of us started trying to adopt their message and repackage it as our own,” O’Malley added. Prominent examples: a “triangulating” Bill Clinton and a deficit-focused Barack Obama. O’Malley, who has just started a PAC of his own, is selling himself as a governor who has a frank policy of raising taxes to make Maryland one of the best-performing states in the country in education. “We’ve fallen so badly into their frame, the Reagan frame that government’s the problem, that even in those instances when we make it work … we’re too reluctant to talk about it,” he said. “Talk about how you improve education, how you get test scores going in the right place, how you create jobs, how you turn around an auto industry.”

O’Malley is more forthright than others, but hardly alone in this Democratic self-criticism. One hears a similar—though more subtle—critique even from Obama, the party’s current leader who has wistfully invoked Reagan since 2008, and one hears from other future would-be Democratic leaders how hard it’s been to kill off the hated “Reagan narrative.”

It’s not that Obama hasn’t tried to create his own. He delivered the biggest social reengineering program since Medicare with his health care plan. He has sought to recapture Democratic self-confidence in national security and defense with his aggressive use of drones and special-operations troops.

But the hard truth is that, on most issues, Obama’s agenda is still largely shaped and defined by the Republicans and charismatic budget-cutters such as GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan rather than the other way around. Can anyone change the conversation? A frank look at the likeliest candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2016 suggests that this current crop—with the possible exception of O’Malley—is unlikely to do much better than Obama has. “For the most part, what our country needs right now is not less; it needs more,” O’Malley said.

There may be a vision—or at least a slogan—in there somewhere.