"Pray take away this pudding," Winston Churchill commanded one night at dinner. "It has no theme." Our two political parties, facing the first election in 80 years in which neither the incumbent president nor the incumbent vice president is running, are similarly bereft of themes. Or, to put it more precisely, neither has a convincing narrative of where we are in history and where we should be headed next.
Successful political parties usually have such narratives. Theodore Roosevelt's Republicans believed in respecting but also regulating private property and in conducting a muscular and assertive foreign policy. This seemed appropriate in a nation that had grown from 5 million to nearly 90 million in the preceding century, that had built the world's largest economy and that had a huge but untapped potential for international power.
Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats believed in government intervention in the economy and a federal safety net, and in using military power to advance freedom and democracy in the world. This seemed appropriate in a nation that had seen its economy collapse but still had the resources to oppose tyranny around the world.
Today's parties lack such narratives. The Democratic Party is all about, well, listen to its rhetoric. It's all about opposing George W. Bush and all his works. But where to go from there?
Domestically, Democrats seem to be reviving the FDR narrative: Expand government to help the little guy. Some thoughtful Democratic strategists argue that although this view was discredited by the stagflation and gas lines of the 1970s, voters are once again ready for more government, and they can cite some poll results in support of that proposition. And it's true that the median-age voter in 2008 will have no vivid memories of the 1970s.
But it's interesting that in resuscitating the FDR narrative, these Democrats -- even Hillary Clinton -- are setting aside the lessons of their party's only successful president of the past 40 years. Bill Clinton was careful to agree that the FDR narrative was obsolete, by backing welfare reform and a balanced budget, and making only incremental progressive changes, like expanding the earned income tax credit. We don't hear such talk today.