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Are Democrats out of new ideas?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The last few years has been a period of policy ferment on the right in a way it hasn't been on the left. The Republican Party is thick with ambitious young politicians arguing over big ideas. Rep. Paul Ryan's budgets have taken over the GOP. Sen. Rand Paul has begun a war with the neoconservatives. Sen. Mike Lee has been fighting to move Republicans beyond supply-side tax reforms.

There is less energy in the Democratic coalition. The Obama administration has been a factory of policy ideas but now its agenda is stalled — and it's not clear what comes next. "For Democrats, the election should in part be a warning about their overwhelming intellectual exhaustion," wrote Yuval Levin, a leader among conservative reformers, in a triumphalist, but sharp, post-election analysis.

On Wednesday, the Center for American Progress, which is the most influential of the liberal think tanks, is holding its annual policy meeting (you can stream it here). The line-up is a who's who of ambitious Democratic comers: Julian Castro, the newly minted Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, gives the morning keynote; Kamala Harris, the attorney general of California, gives the midday keynote; John Hickenlooper, the narrowly reelected governor of Colorado, gives an afternoon keynote; and Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, gives a second afternoon keynote.

(If you think that's a lot of keynotes for one day, well, welcome to Washington.)

I asked Neera Tanden, the CAP's president, and a former policy staffer for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whether Democrats were intellectually exhausted. No, she said, but the thinking on the left had become too small; as a side-effect of being in power, Democrats had become too obsessed with ideas that could plausibly pass. "The difficulty for progressives in the last few years has been that trying to think up ideas that can make it through the House Republicans has limited the debate."

But now, she continued, "we'll have to think beyond the Obama era, beyond the congress of today, to what we should be doing in the long term."

The middle-class squeeze

cap rising costs falling wages

Center for American Progress

"We did this report," Tanden says, "that showed that if you look at the prototypical family — double earner, two kids — their wages have stood still since roughly 2000, but their cost of living has gone up by about $10,000 because of things like child care and health care. We have had tax policy that has ameliorated that challenge by about $5,000. But they still have $5,000 less than they did before. So you can see why they're getting kind of irritated."

Tanden argues that thid is the key issue going forward: the vise of stagnating wages and rising costs. And on it, "Republicans have heretofore put forward ideas that are counterproductive. But Democrats have put forward ideas that are insufficient."

A possible venue for intellectual renewal is the 2016 primary. And you can count me among the doubters that Hillary Clinton's path to the nomination will be the smooth coronation some expect, but still: the anti-Hillarys in the field are limited in their appeal, and Clinton's dominance is likely to make it unusually difficult for more marginal candidates — who are often the most intellectually exciting participants in primaries — to be heard.

But Tanden doesn't buy the premise that primaries are an engine of policy renewal. Look back to 2008, she says. "While there were some disagreements, they were on the margins. These were character-led debates. At the end of the day, the three top contenders had broad agreement on policy issues."

The Democrats' problem in the states

The real innovation for Democrats, she argued, is happening at the state level. She ticked off New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio's support of universal pre-kindergarten as an example, and Harris's efforts to create new coalitions around criminal-justice policy, and Hickenlooper's work on educational equity.

But that speaks to Democrats' problems. After the 2014 election, Democrats control the state legislatures in only 11 states, while Republicans control 30 (the remainder have one chamber held by Democrats and another by Republicans). Similarly, Republicans hold 31 governorships to the Democrats' 18. Democrats don't have enough traction in the states for it to be a powerful engine of policy innovation. Their bench is weak.

The other difficulty for Democrats is that the media likes ideas to be, or to seem, "new". But the Obama administration has, at one time or another, pushed most of the policies in the liberal playbook. They've proposed universal pre-k, for instance, and they've backed a raft of ideas to cut inequality. They've also passed versions of some of the big ideas that animated the Democratic coalition, like health reform. The result is that even if Obamacare is imperfect and universal pre-k didn't pass, it's going to be hard for Democrats to offer an agenda that looks new — much of what they propose will be dismissed as Obama-era retreads, even if the underlying idea is sound.

It's possible that Democrats don't need much in the way of a new vision to win in 2016. It might be enough for Hillary Clinton to simply unify the Democrats' larger presidential coalition against the Republicans. But historically, it's rare for parties to win a third consecutive term in the White House, and it's particularly rare for it to happen at a moment when the public is deeply unhappy about the direction of the country.

The Clinton team knows this, and so too do the Democratic Party's top strategists and thinkers. The question is whether they know how to fix it.

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