Re­claim­ing ‘a lan­guage of hope’

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DAVID VON DREHLE David.VonDrehle@wash­post.com

As I was run­ning out of space in my col­umn last Sun­day, I sug­gested with­out elab­o­ra­tion that the Democrats need an “hon­est, hope­ful” ap­proach to fu­ture cam­paigns. Some read­ers — quite rea­son­ably — found that glib. But I’m the wrong per­son to sketch a plat­form for Democrats, be­cause, as an in­de­pen­dent, I’m not one. (Ad­mit­tedly, that hasn’t stopped Bernie San­ders.)

Will Mar­shall is a Demo­crat, well known to in­sid­ers for his long, some­times lonely, bat­tle to save his party from its sui­ci­dal left wing. In the 1980s, he joined Al From, Bruce Reed and oth­ers in an ef­fort to drag the party to­ward the cen­ter af­ter three epic de­feats: Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ge­orge H.W. Bush won the elec­toral col­lege by a com­bined 1,440 to 174.

Their New Demo­crat move­ment found its face in Bill Clin­ton, whose up­beat cen­trism made him the first mem­ber of his party to win mul­ti­ple terms since Franklin D. Roo­sevelt. Barack Obama went to school on Clin­ton’s rhetoric of op­ti­mistic prag­ma­tism.

But mem­ory can be short. The fa­mil­iar pull from the left, per­son­i­fied by San­ders and his so­cial­ist surge, has steered Democrats back into the ditch. Since 2009, when Obama took of­fice amid trum­pet blasts of pro­gres­sive glory, the party has lost the White House, Congress and more than 900 seats in state leg­is­la­tures.

On Wed­nes­day, Mar­shall launched his lat­est res­cue project, called New Democ­racy and aimed at mak­ing the party com­pet­i­tive again in the vast coun­try­side be­tween the coasts. Found­ing mem­bers in­clude Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper and for­mer sen­a­tor Mary Lan­drieu (La.), along with may­ors of such cities as Tuc­son, Den­ver, Hous­ton and Pitts­burgh.

Rec­og­niz­ing the deep dys­func­tion in Wash­ing­ton, Mar­shall aims to build from the grass roots on a foun­da­tion of prac­ti­cal prob­lem-solv­ing rather than cul­tural di­vi­sion. And he seeks to plant his party on choice po­lit­i­cal turf aban­doned by ex­tremes in both par­ties: the high ground of op­ti­mism.

It’s shock­ing, re­ally, how darkly pes­simistic our pol­i­tics have be­come. From the pres­i­dent’s “Amer­i­can car­nage” in­au­gu­ral ad­dress to the apoc­a­lyp­tic fevers of the alt-right, the Repub­li­can Party is cap­tive to the sort of rhetoric that drives peo­ple to fill bunkers with freeze-dried goulash and home­made bul­lets. The Democrats, mean­while, are in thrall to a fash­ion­able gloom in which Amer­ica’s past is only a litany of sins, its present a hor­ror of in­jus­tices and its fu­ture an un­in­hab­it­able hot­house.

“The deep pes­simism that hangs like a pall over Amer­ica is an anom­aly,” Mar­shall re­minded me when we spoke about his en­deavor. “It’s not the norm.”

There’s no deny­ing that the United States faces chal­lenges, many of them as new and per­plex­ing as the tech­nol­ogy that drives them. How do we cre­ate broad pros­per­ity in an econ­omy that de­mands, and en­ables, re­lent­less ef­fi­ciency and cost-cut­ting? How do we meet the needs of longer life­spans in a time of shrink­ing birthrates? How do we cre­ate com­mu­nity and shared val­ues when com­mu­ni­ca­tion is rad­i­cally per­son­al­ized and tar­geted? Th­ese ques­tions, and oth­ers like them, are vast and ur­gent — but are best an­swered in­cre­men­tally and ex­per­i­men­tally.

But the United States has al­ways faced prob­lems, and the good news is we still have a knack for meet­ing them. I’ll give you an ex­am­ple. On the left we’re told that only fun­da­men­tal changes to our life­styles and econ­omy can pre­vent an en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter. From the right we hear that cut­ting green­house gas emis­sions will im­pose ru­inous costs. Nei­ther is nec­es­sar­ily true.

A huge share of green­house gas emis­sions — some 40 per­cent in the United States — come from build­ings: our homes, of­fices, fac­to­ries and so on. As re­cently as 2005, gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists pro­jected that emis­sions from this sec­tor would rise more than 50 per­cent by 2016. In­stead, build­ing-sec­tor emis­sions were 16 per­cent lower last year than in 2005, even though new con­struc­tion had added more than 30 bil­lion square feet. Th­ese amaz­ing ef­fi­ciency gains are sav­ing U.S. home­own­ers and busi­nesses hun­dreds of bil­lions in lower en­ergy bills.

Ac­cord­ing to the Cli­mate Trust, Amer­ica’s state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments, along with its world-beat­ing pri­vate sec­tor, can meet the goals of the Paris cli­mate ac­cord re­gard­less of what hap­pens in Wash­ing­ton. In­deed, they may well find their progress ac­cel­er­at­ing. Th­ese are the forces, af­ter all, that have brought us en­ergy in­de­pen­dence, a wide­spread drop in crime rates and sharply falling wa­ter con­sump­tion, to pick just three thorny prob­lems for which Amer­i­cans are find­ing so­lu­tions.

Mar­shall is cor­rect when he says, “There is a huge vac­uum for Democrats to re­claim a lan­guage of hope and progress.” And Repub­li­cans might want to move in the same di­rec­tion. The Amer­i­cans I meet are tired of whin­ing and blame games — and itch­ing to tackle the fu­ture.

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