Today's op-ed  by Jim Wallis in the Times is the latest entry in a debate that rages inside and outside the Beltway about how to revive the Democratic Party—and more broadly, advance a progressive agenda. Do we need a better message or new vision? Wallis argues that the vision precedes message. Other luminaries on the left believe that we've got the vision—we just need to field Democratic candidates who are willing to embrace it. Isn't there a third way? Couldn't it be that 21st century liberals need a mixture of both better messages about tried and true beliefs and new ideas?
In this both/and strategy for reviving a progressive agenda, you would dust off and defend with passion the best of the traditional liberal vision for America—the United States as opportunity society, government as provider of essential services, etc. And you would invest in developing new ideas for the challenges of the 21st century that the traditional liberal vision no longer seems to answer—the global economy and a truly progressive national security agenda.
One of the most popular political theories circulating—and to which I mostly subscribe—posits that Dems are losing elections because they parrot a centrist economic message that fails to distinguish them from Republicans. This in turn allows the GOP's reactionary social agenda to dominate political debate. Proponents of this theory despair that Democrats repeatedly overlook the power of a "working people" economics message to sideline the Republicans' focus on social issues. Tom Frank is one of the theory's highest-profile advocates, but the theory's not original to him. He just had the sense to write about it in such a lively and engaging way that he made the bestseller list  . Frank's compatriot, writer Rick Perlstein , recently urged an audience of Democrats to embrace the Party's discarded image as the party of the "little people" in America:
"When we are not credible defenders of the economic interests of ordinary Americans, we amount to little. When we are, we're a nuclear bomb to the heart of their coalition."
I agree with Perlstein and others. We need more politicians willing to talk about making the economy work for working people. There's enormous potential here for capturing voters' attention by aligning progressives with working and middle-class America. But this positioning alone is not a magic bullet.
Polling expert Ruy Teixeira has been gnawing on this conundrum for a long time: voters are unhappy with the economy, but they don't necessarily see solutions in ideas proffered by Democrats or liberals. Teixeira's latest analysis  of polling data underscores the "extensive level of economic discontent among the public." Teixeira admits that this discontent usually hurts the party in power. Yet, he cautions that Democrats shouldn't conclude that merely hammering the GOP on the economy will give them the edge. Since last year's election, Teixeira has been beating the drum that Dems need to win back voter confidence by becoming the "party of change.  " He believes that voters don't think Democrats have the ability to solve the nation's economic problems any more than they think Republicans do. He repeats this caution:
<!--StartFragment -->"...Democrats have yet to convince the average voter—even if that voter is dissatisfied with the economy and where it seems to be going—that their party has a clear and clearly superior approach to providing economic security and opportunity and ensuring prosperity." [Emphasis added]
Maybe some would say that a more populist economic message from Dems is the solution. I'm not so sure. I think Americans see the challenges of globalization and are stumped by how to defend their jobs against it. Here at TomPaine, we are always looking far and wide for progressive ideas to challenge the principles of the Wal-Mart economy. And beyond defensive measures, they're hard to come by.
A similar conundrum exists around national security issues. Since September 11, it's been tough to find a truly progressive foreign policy agenda that answers the tough questions about how to achieve peace and security. Most progressives have chosen to criticize the Bush administration for its illegal war and for not sufficiently securing the "homeland." But where's the overarching vision? What are the principles that define when and how the United States intervenes abroad?
So, by all means, trumpet long-standing progressive principles we know are shared by most Americans  . Remind Americans why the Great Society programs remain so popular and so necessary. And find the messages on these issues that resonate with voters. But where there are gaps in the progressive agenda, the time to fill them with a new vision is now.