New Ideas

Every few months or so, a debate flares up about whether either political party (usually the Democrats) has or needs “new ideas.” The latest round has me pretty convinced that this is mostly an issue of semantics: everyone defines “idea” differently.

For example, Steve Benen argues that the Democrats have plenty of “ideas,” from Iraq to universal health care to foreign policy, and are just “fighting for the power to implement [them].” He also cites Jon Chait’s famous case against new ideas in The New Republic which reminds us how scarily uninformed most voters are and, therefore, how little “ideas” actually have to do with elections.

Ezra Klein agrees with Benen:

As a reporter, I focus on policy ideas. And damn it, I’m drowning. Bai seems to think Democrats need a health care plan, but I could show him no fewer than 20 fully-realized plans and outline the basic areas of consensus — and they’re broad — that outline the Party’s essential orientation on the issue. Same goes for pension planning, trade adjustment plans, or any and every other element of social policy you can think of.

Attempting to counter Ezra, Shadi Hamid writes:

Ezra, I think, is mistaking “good plans” for “big ideas.” They are not the same thing, and that’s precisely the problem we’re facing. We do have a lot of great policy plans that will make a tangible difference in people’s lives. What we don’t have, however, is a narrative, a vision, a framework, a thread, a worldview, even – let’s say it – an ideology (in the non-pejorative sense).

One could easily argue that it’s Hamid that’s making the mistake: he’s mistaking “big ideas” for “a good marketing strategy.” Either way, it seems like everyone’s in agreement. You have (1) a bunch of things you want to accomplish, and (2) you need to sell it to the American people. Whichever step you decide to label the “idea,” the underlying process remains the same.