The bleakest picture of Democrats' prospects comes from two usually optimistic analysts, Stanley Greenberg and James Carville. In their latest Democracy Corps memo, they lament that, despite what they see as Republican stumbling on Social Security, voters don't think Democrats have new ideas for addressing the country's problems. By denying that Social Security has problems, "Democrats seem stuck in concrete."
In the New Republic, John Judis takes a longer view. Since the 1970s, he notes, Democrats have had little success expanding government. He blames this on international competition, the decline of private-sector unions and stronger business lobbyists. A revival of liberalism, he writes, "would probably require a national upheaval similar to what happened in the '30s and '60s. That could happen, but doesn't appear imminent."
The Democrats' problem is that they have proceeded for years with a goal of moving America some distance toward a Western European welfare state. Just how far, they have not had to decide. But Judis looks at Europe and sees a failing model: high unemployment, stalled economies and the welfare state in retreat. Nor is raising taxes on the rich a sound strategy: Democrats did that in 1993, and Republicans won control of Congress in 1994.
Democrats in power can make small, quiet moves toward redistribution, like the expansion of the earned income tax credit in the Clinton administration. Out of power, they can focus on policies for which arguments can be made by vivid anecdotes, like prescription drugs for seniors. Or they can obstruct change and wait for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to gobble up larger shares of the economy. But that will take time.
For now, Democrats are facing the fact that general arguments for a larger welfare state just doesn't seem attractive to most voters.