Philosophy 101

Here in Washington, “progressives” -- the preferred term of art these days -- have been feeling pretty good lately. George W. Bush's Social Security privatization plan is still stuck in neutral, if not reverse. Tom DeLay, perhaps this town's most important Repub-lican on an emotional level, is under fire. Poll after poll shows that the priorities of the Republican-controlled Congress -- from passing the Terri Schiavo legislation to trying to block filibusters on judicial nominees -- are quite unpopular.

Yet, those polls show something else, too: Public approval is not, as it turns out, a zero-sum game. While Bush and the Republicans have dropped in esteem and popularity, there has been no corresponding increase for Democrats. One reason seems to be that Washington Democrats aren't wildly popular among, well, Democrats; according to a Pew survey from March, just 56 percent of rank-and-file Democrats liked their leaders.

So what gives? To answer the question with statistical authority would require some information that apparently doesn't exist yet -- namely, are the Democrats withholding their approval centrists who think the party is too far left, or liberals who think it's too namby-pamby? That discussion is best left to the statistically obsessed. Meanwhile, just as you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, you don't need a poll to confirm what your nose already smells.

A few weeks back, I was in my hometown (Morgantown, West Virginia) having some beers with three of my oldest friends. I worked up the gumption, eventually, to ask them how they voted. One voted straight Republican, but he was born and raised that way. The other two, I knew, were raised in Democratic or mixed households; both voted for Bush and the Democratic candidate for governor. When I asked them if they'd considered voting for John Kerry, they said sure. They didn't think he hated America or despised God or cost us Vietnam. They just had no firm idea of what exactly he stood for.

OK, too much can possibly be read into one red-state encounter. But I go there enough to have a sense of how things have changed in my once laughably Democratic home county (which Bush carried last November), and the results of this encounter track too closely with what we know to be true. And the problem is not limited to Kerry.

We're halfway through the first session of the current Congress. Increasingly, Democrats have become an effective Party of No. They've retained the upper hand on the Social Security debate. They put up a strong fight on the John Bolton nomination, and even if Bolton is approved as United Nations ambassador by the full Senate, he'll now have a very hard time pushing his “reform.” They -- specifically, Representative Alan Mollohan, the Democratic leader on the House Ethics Committee, who happens to represent my three friends -- made the gop buckle on the ethics fight. And, while the question of the “nuclear option” wasn't settled at press time, it's abundantly clear that Democrats will fight hard against extremist judges.

All well and good. But “no” usually isn't enough. There needs to be a “yes” in there somewhere, and the “yes” needs to be bigger than a health-care proposal or an education plan.

As it happens, the experts are working on the question. A number of studies are being conducted right now, reportedly to be completed over the course of the fall, in which pollsters and demographers are trying to take voters' emotional temperatures to help their Democratic clients speak to the souls of the unimpressed rank and file (and my two old pals). The purpose is to think big, to be visionary, to match the right passion for passion, and present a Democratic Party to America in 2006 that knows what it stands for and isn't afraid to say it.

It's a great goal -- and it will be extremely hard to achieve. For one thing, the Democratic Party is too ideologically diverse; lots of Democrats want the party to “stand for something,” but some of them want the party to stand for blaming things on Hollywood or gay people.

But more importantly, Democrats are too much in the habit of thinking of politics as a battle of policy choices rather than a battle of philosophies. Obviously, policy differences are important. On the other hand, John Kerry had a terrific health-care proposal, and nobody much cared. And why should they have? He had no public philosophy to wrap it in. And without an overarching public philosophy as context, a policy, or a bushel and a peck of them, amounts to nothing. Which is why that 44 percent of people in the Pew survey are yawning.

Experts: The philosophy gap is yours to close!

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's executive editor.