Dionne is a Washington Post syndicated columnist and the author of They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era.
Q: How has conservative ideology influenced the way this Congress does business?
A: In the Republican Congress you’ve had a very close link between the ideology that the party was espousing, the legislation it was writing, and interest groups who were supporting the party. Politically, this hurt them. They did fundraising and legislation-writing in the most old-fashioned way possible — having the lobbyists in the room — to which Perot voters objected very strongly. Republicans interpreted the Perot vote as an anti-deficit vote and vastly underplayed the importance of reform.
Q: How could they have overlooked the mandate for reform?
A: If you believe the right thing to do is to deregulate the economy, and you know that the groups that have done the most work on deregulating are business groups, then turning to them for help seems like simply asking for help in doing God’s work. People like Tom DeLay were very open about describing this process; they weren’t ashamed of it. And they under-estimated how badly this resonated with voters.
The polls in ’95 suggested that The Republicans weren’t changing things fast enough. Many of the conservatives interpreted this as, “We’re not cutting government fast enough to satisfy the voters” — when, in fact, the same polls could have been interpreted as saying they hadn’t changed the way Washington works fast enough. Conservatives were viewing the results through an ideological lens.
Q: Are Americans really as anti-government as the GOP believes?
A: There has been a massive loss of faith in government. But if people do not fully trust the government, neither do they fully trust the unregulated market — and they would like to think government could protect them from the worst aspects of the unregulated market.
In ’94, the Republicans made a much better case about mistrust of government than Democrats made about what government can do to regulate the market. Democrats weren’t willing to defend government’s legitimate capacities. A less defensive Democratic Party would be willing to defend those aspects of government that worked, without pretending that there was no need for reform.
Q: Are people growing more concerned about the dangers of an unregulated marketplace?
A: Pat Buchanan got everybody’s attention. Unlike Buchanan, Democrats would never use a term like “corporate butchers.” They’d be scared of being called socialists.
Q: What’s the relationship between Newt Gingrich’s love of technology and his belief in the private sector?
A: He sees the two as linked. He believes the market is naturally inventive. So the most rapid innovation will come through the market, not through government. My critique of Gingrich — especially if he’s right about our making a rapid transition into a new era — is that people are actually looking for (a) rules to make sense of the new era, and (b) protections against rapid change, which can do a lot of people in.
Q: How did the Democrats lose support for government programs?
A: People began to perceive them as promoting dependency. “Welfare” is unpopular, but social insurance and social protections remain very popular.
Progressives have been most successful when they are seen as using government to provide opportunity — things like the GI Bill and student loans and education spending, which promoted upward mobility. The Republicans tend to view government simply as a barrier to opportunities. If voters are given a choice between a dependency state and a party that will tear down barriers, they might choose to tear down barriers. But if given a choice between tearing down government and supporting a government that is seen as actively promoting opportunity, they tend to vote for the pro-government party. The Democrats have misplayed their hand on this in the past, but the Republicans are really misplaying their hand now.
Q: Where is the “family values” debate headed?
A: Parents feel they are losing control over their kids to television, lousy schools, and crime. Democrats and the left have been reluctant to take this moral unease seriously.
The problem for Republicans is that families sense a lot of their problems arise because parents aren’t around enough, because they’re working too much in order to make ends meet. If the plant that provides most of the employment in your town closes, it’s hard to maintain community and feed your family. Slowly, starting in ’92, Democrats began to realize they could talk about family issues and push the Republicans to face up to the economic problems. Civil society needs protection from both government and the market. That view is part of the common sense of most people.