"I think it is fair to say the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time," Barack Obama recently told a Nevada editorial board. The Senator took some notable, if not quite accurate, grief from Hillary Clinton over that: she said he was expressing support for Republican ideas (clearly, he wasn't). But what did he actually mean? People and not just Republicans have been calling the GOP the party of ideas for nearly 30 years, since Ronald Reagan transformed the mushy, defensive conservatism of his party into a sleek ideological message celebrating individual freedom, military strength and traditional moral values.
It was an easy sell, in part because the political pendulum was swinging rightward from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, but also because the Democrats seemed to have lost confidence in their own ideas. They had lapsed into an intellectually sloppy identity politics, subdividing themselves by race, gender and sexual preference. They fixed on narrow-gauge programs rather than broad themes. All too often they sounded like Ginsu-knife salesmen on late-night cable television: "And if you buy our children's health-care plan, we'll throw in absolutely free! a $4,000 college-tuition tax credit. Plus, this special onetime offer: universal day care!" To be sure, the Republicans had their own special interests and slovenly hypocrisies an avalanche of corporate tax breaks that made Swiss cheese out of the federal code but they could always return to their big, clean public offer: freedom, strength, morality.
There was and is, however, one very big idea lurking at the heart of the Democratic Party, even if its leaders have been loath to unleash it. If Republicans were about individual freedom, Democrats were about national unity. If Ronald Reagan said, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," Democrats can say, "Government is the ultimate expression of our public values including our desire to create a free, fair market system." For decades since Reagan, it has been easy for feckless demagogues to rail against the nation's capital as if it were a deadly virus implanted on the Potomac by space invaders or the French. But that ended abruptly on Sept. 11, 2001, when Karen Hughes changed pronouns at a White House press conference: "Your Federal Government continues to function effectively."