Left behind

Posted: Mar 11, 2005 12:00 AM

In the Charlie Brown Christmas special, Lucy says, ?As they say on TV, the mere fact that you realize you need help indicates that you are not too far gone.? So maybe there?s hope yet for the American left.

 On Feb. 28, The New Republic magazine -- house organ of the liberal movement -- celebrated its 90th anniversary with an issue that included a Martin Peretz essay. ?Ask yourself: Who is a truly influential liberal mind in our culture?? he asks. ?There?s no one, really.? Peretz accurately describes modern liberalism as a ?laundry list: The catalogue of programs (some dubious, some not) that Republicans aren?t funding.?

 And that?s exactly the problem on the left today. A lack of ideas.

 Of course, the simple fact that liberals realize they have a problem doesn?t mean they?re actually going to solve it. Like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, this same issue of TNR includes a Jonathan Chait essay that gets reality exactly backward. He argues that conservatives are dogmatic, while liberals are pragmatic. ?Liberalism has no justification other than the belief that liberal policies produce beneficial outcomes,? Chait claims.

 Wrong. Consider education policy.

 Virtually everyone agrees that our current education system isn?t working. For example, noted liberal Bill Gates recently warned lawmakers, ?America?s high schools are obsolete. By obsolete, I don?t just mean . . . broken, flawed and underfunded. . . . I mean that our high schools -- even when they?re working exactly as designed -- cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.?

Conservatives have ideas about how to change the system. We favor the creation of charter schools and school vouchers that will allow children in failing schools to move to successful schools.

Now, this isn?t to claim that vouchers are a cure-all, that they will absolutely, positively work. However, where they?ve been tried they?ve been successful. Parents in Milwaukee and Cleveland, for example, strongly support the use of vouchers. The only reason vouchers haven?t enjoyed wider use is that liberals spent years attempting to block them through the courts.
In his piece, Peretz admits there isn?t a liberal solution. ?Give me a single liberal idea with some currency, even a structural notion, for transforming the elucidation of knowledge and thinking to the young,? he writes. ?You can?t.?

 Liberals, because they?re owned and operated by the teachers unions, insist we can fix education by spending more money. Of course, we?ve been trying this for decades and it hasn?t worked. Professor Eric Hanushek of the University of Rochester looked at some 400 studies of student achievement and found that when family inputs are accounted for, there?s no consistent relationship between student performance and school resources. More spending isn?t an idea -- it?s the symptom of the lack of liberal ideas.

 How about Social Security? The right favors personal retirement accounts. Conservatives want to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into personal accounts they would own and control. It?s a way of using the free market to solve a looming long-term problem, while also expanding the American ownership society.

 Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid says such a plan ?isn?t really Social Security reform. It?s more like Social Security roulette.? Liberals want to fix Social Security, he insists, but not by allowing personal accounts or by cutting benefits.

 Liberal strategist Harold Ickes admits the problems with that approach. ?If the Democratic position is we can?t have private accounts but also can?t have an increase in the cap or the retirement age, that may be a difficult position to sustain,? he told The Washington Post. Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville are even more blunt. Because liberals haven?t laid out a plan for reform, they ?appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose,? the pair wrote recently.

 Indeed, they lack all those traits. Because they lack ideas.

Today?s liberals are no longer intellectuals. If anything, they?re post-intellectuals. They no longer seem to think it?s necessary to float ideas and propose solutions. They simply oppose the ideas and solutions proposed by the right.

 Our country?s democracy would be healthier if liberals could come up with a real governing philosophy and take it to the voters. As a start, the left ought to present some plans to improve education and fix Social Security.

Conservatives are eager to lead. If the left won?t answer our challenge -- if they won?t lead by developing compelling ideas of their own -- they should at least follow, or get out of the way.