For Democrats, Raging Incrementalism May Be the Answer

A half-year into their tenure, leaders of our all-Democratic federal government should take a moment to reflect on the nation they seek to change and the lessons to learn from recent U.S. political history.

President Obama and the Democrat-led Congress have reached a defining moment. As lawmakers prepare to begin their month-long summer recess, the fate of Obama’s drive to reform health care appears uncertain. Even more problematic is his effort to address global warming.

Health reform is particularly important because it’s a twofer. Reform presumably would not only bring coverage to many of the 47 million Americans who lack it, it also would address the soaring health care costs that are the main factor behind soaring budget deficits that threaten our economic future.

That Democrats are hitting some legislative speed bumps is hardly surprising. They are trying to do big things, with lots of money, affecting tens of millions of people. They will decide how big our government will be, how much Americans will pay in taxes, and who will pay them for years to come.

Meanwhile, as they struggle among themselves, with liberals battling centrists, Republicans are smelling opportunity, uniting in opposition to Democratic efforts, and seeking to weaken the majority over time.

So the stakes could hardly be higher. As Democrats proceed, here are some realities for them to ponder:

Public fickleness. Our two parties have supposedly “died” many times in recent decades, only to spring back to life in short order.

Republicans died with Barry Goldwater’s wipe-out in 1964, only to gain the presidency four years later, lay the foundation for Ronald Reagan’s triumph in 1980 and launch a generation of mostly GOP control of the White House.

Similarly, Democrats died with George McGovern’s blow-out in 1972, only to capture the presidency in 1976 and then build the intellectual centrism that brought Bill Clinton to power for two terms in the 1990s.

With Congress (or at least one chamber) also changing hands with some frequency, Democrats should ignore happy talk of a long-term political realignment and recognize that if they don’t deliver, Americans will throw them out.

Advice to Democrats: Deliver, but in ways that Americans will support, which leads to the issue of . . .

Political overreach. What they deliver, however, is as important as whether they do so. New majorities can become drunk with power, viewing their newfound power as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realize grandiose visions. When they push too far, the public recoils and hope turns to despair.

Clinton’s efforts to overhaul health care in 1993-94, for instance, collapsed in the face of public opposition, but he and a then-GOP Congress enacted important incremental health care improvements in his second term.

In 2008, Americans clearly voted for “change.” But, in recent decades, they have seemed to want their change in easily digestible bites.

Advice to Democrats: Deliver something understandable and workable, which leads to the issue of . . .

Raging incrementalism. Today’s Americans are not like their predecessors of the 1930s and 1960s.

Earlier generations welcomed dramatic expansions of government with the creation of Social Security in the 1930s, Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, and a major expansion of federal regulation in the 1970s.

Today’s Americans are raging incrementalists. Sobered by past federal failures, such as President Johnson’s promise to end poverty, they grow skeptical when federal policymakers promise to do big things in big ways.

Advice to Democrats: Aim for half a loaf, particularly if it won’t increase the total size of government, which leads to the issue of . . .

Historical tax and spending burdens.  Whether seeking grandiose or incremental solutions, Americans have been remarkably consistent in recent decades in terms of how much government they will accept.

Since the mid-1950s, federal tax burdens have ranged from 17 to 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product, though on occasion they have dipped to 16 percent or risen to 21. Total spending has risen more gradually, hovering from 17 to 20 percent of GDP until the mid-1970s and generally from 19 to 23 percent since then.

Americans have always been rugged individualists, far less likely than, say, Europeans to seek a governmental solution to what ails them. They clearly get nervous when government gets too big. That’s another reason for Democrats to aim for step-by-step, rather than full-scale, solutions to the problems at hand.

As they craft solutions to America’s pressing problems, Democrats should keep the hopes and fears of Americans uppermost in their minds.