The party of Wal-Mart

Posted: Nov 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Standard, off-the-rack Democratic disdain for the free market landed the party in a heap of trouble this year. Democrats tend to associate the free market -- that glorious, loose-jointed economic construct -- with Greed, Selfishness and other manifestations of original sin. What they usually forget is that the free market has political no less than economic implications. It involves voters' registering their representational preferences. If a political candidate wants votes the way a merchant wants dollars, he contrives to figure out what solid merchandise or services would best serve that purpose. Older styles of politics put the voters' wishes below the wisdom of their representatives. You can forget about these styles in the age of universal suffrage. When it comes to political theory, the Democrats have become the reactionaries. You expect their spokesmen to peek out -- it would be from hiding these days -- clad in cloth caps and high-button shoes. The Democrats seem not to understand that ridicule of your opponents doesn't do the job; neither does smugness, nor tricks. Consumers want satisfaction. How come Wal-Mart has that down but not the nation's senior political party? The typical Democratic campaign this season resembled a jack-o'-lantern: jagged grin framed by internal glow and, at the core, melted wax and mush. It was not about how we Democrats were going to solve problems attributable to Republican indifference or bungling. Essentially, the Democratic line was: Down with those bums! It was like Wal-Mart dispensing, rather than bargains and service, a blitz of contempt for K mart. The Democrats had no ideas for restoring and maintaining prosperity, encouraging economic growth, salvaging Social Security, and -- most of all this year -- protecting the lives and liberties of Americans. Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, whenever he sought to address the party's priorities, was so obnoxious, the temptation was to throw a sofa pillow at the TV screen. The gentleman was selling -- what exactly? Solutions or scorn? It was hard to tell. Thus to the larger question: Why such widespread Democratic failure to see the 2002 election in free-market terms? Force of habit, most likely. To think in free-market terms, it helps if you have the routine down. The party of government regulation doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time lauding free choice. The party of government regulation tends, if less rapturously than 20 years ago, to posit a body of sages and experts (e.g., Congress, the courts, the bureaucracy) beautifully endowed to make better choices than mere voters seem capable of making. A retrograde tax code that distorts economic decision-making and a retirement system predicated on the ability to raise taxes world without end -- such are the consequences. As between the two major parties, the Republicans seem the likelier to ask: How do voters see their own needs? And how can we address those needs constructively -- not with sham merchandise (which can cause customers to take their custom elsewhere) but with quality goods? Theirs is the Wal-Mart frame of mind, the Southwest Airlines mentality -- give a guy value for his money, and back he will come. In any decent company, when sales fall sharply, heads roll, and managers suddenly discover the pleasures of "spending more time with the family." So in the House of Representatives, where Rep. Nancy Pelosi is set to take over Dick Gephardt's majority leader job. Republicans are gloating, and well, you can't blame them, because Pelosi is a high-flying, big-government liberal -- of the species that Jeane Kirkpatrick, in 1984, denominated "the San Francisco Democrats." Still, the lady has a defined and recognizable product. Let's see what it looks like. Spread it in every store window; let it spill into the aisles. Salesmanship, customer cultivation -- that would be a different approach for today's Democrats. Might it actually enhance their appreciation of free-market ideals and practices? Stranger things have happened -- though I can't right now think of any.