That slogan, along with “ideas have consequences,” is frequently and rather lazily invoked by conservatives. Jonathan Chait subjects it to some useful scrutiny in the New Republic. He is arguing against the view that what ails liberals is the lack of new ideas. He says that they have plenty of ideas. “The truth is that liberal ideas aren’t getting any circulation because Democrats are out of power, not vice versa.”
He argues, further, that ideas are not what ultimately drive politics. Voters are more likely to make decisions based on looks than on candidates’ policy positions (if they even know what they are). Good ideas will not be enough for Democrats to regain power. He argues, as well, that the valorization of ideas reflects the self-importance of intellectuals (and also, I would add, their desire for power).
In thinking this through, I’m going to set aside some of Chait’s supporting points–I disagree with his comments about Social Security reform, but we can rehash that some other time.
I agree that making too much of the power of ideas is a hazard of the trade for think tankers, journalists, etc. Ideas matter, but so do other things–including campaign money, attractive candidates, etc.
But I think that Chait is discounting ideas too heavily. He takes the view that the Republicans of 1993 and 1994 had no ideas and succeeded only by obstruction. (Many liberals have taken that view this year, since it helps rationalize their strategic choices, especially with regard to Social Security.) That view takes account of the Republican opposition to the Clinton health-care plan–an opposition that made a strategic choice not to propose an alternative comprehensive plan–but does not take account of the Contract with America. Liberals may have thought the ideas underlying the contract to be gimmicky and foolish, but they did play a (complicated) role in the Republican victory that year.
Which leads me to another point: Chait’s model of voter behavior seems flawed. Advocates of expanded entitlements have not been failing in recent decades because they have suddenly gotten less handsome than conservatives. Ideas have indirect consequences. If a party has a reputation for being forward-looking, having ideas, being positive, etc., that’s a real political asset. Now the reputation for having ideas may not perfectly correspond to the actual having of ideas–still less to those ideas’ being good. But I suspect that there is some correlation.
There may be some good reasons for Democrats to adopt a strategy and campaign message that is almost entirely about obstruction. There may be good reasons for Democrats to borrow Republican ideas of the past on budget balancing and foreign-policy realism. But there are downsides too. The Democrats look reactive, carping, and idea-less, and that’s not just a consequence of their being in the minority: it’s also a consequence of strategic choices they have made.