Until recently, I would have summarized the partisan debate in the United States as follows.
On domestic policy, the Democratic coalition encompassed many factions, but the dominant one was led by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin. Their priorities were: balancing the budget (as a means of supporting aggregate economic growth), followed by spending on education, welfare, and health, followed by tax cuts for lower-income families. The public recognized these priorities: Democrats were trusted on fiscal policy, overall economic policy, and health and welfare. Whether or not “Rubinomics” was adequate or desirable, it coincided with prosperity and it matched majority preferences. Once the Democrats settled on it as their dominant position after 1994, they made at least incremental progress in most elections that emphasized economic issues.
In contrast, the Republicans officially stood for tax cuts, followed by spending cuts to balance budgets. But they had decreasing credibility on these issues. In any case, the public did not put tax cuts first.
On social issues, the country had moved far in the direction of libertarianism, so that the live issues of the day (such as gay marriage) would have seemed very radical a generation before. However, on those live issues, the Republican position was more popular than the Democratic one. Hence, in elections that emphasized “values,” Republicans usually prevailed.
On foreign policy, the Republicans stood for putting America first. They appeared more willing to use military force, but only in America’s economic or security interests. This was a clear position–not one that I favor, but one that had pretty strong popular support. In contrast, the Democrats seemed highly conflicted, unable to resolve debates left over from the Vietnam era that pitted elements of isolationism, nationalism, human-rights idealism, pacifism, and Realpolitik. The public did not know where the Party stood, and that hurt Democrats when foreign affairs rose on the national agenda after 9/11. Kerry?s statement that he had voted for the war before voting against it epitomized the Democrats? reputation on foreign policy. To be fair, many individual Democrats held consistent positions, but the Party had not worked out its debates, which is partly why Kerry emerged as the nominee.
The last two years have changed much of this. Republicans are now associated with foolish unilateral adventurism and a careless disregard for American national interests. Internal debates have erupted on their side. That is clearly one reason that the Democrats won the 2006 election. But they still lack a coherent philosophy in foreign affairs.
We could now enter a creative period in which new alternatives are developed, some enjoying bipartisan or “strange-bedfellow” support. Serious alternatives would combine broad philosophical positions with specific policy proposals.
However, we could also enter a period in which Democrats expect to coast while Republicans continue to suffer (deservedly) from the Iraq debacle. That period would last two years at the most, by which time the Republicans would find new leadership and the Democrats would be expected to hold persuasive positions on foreign affairs. Thus the Party should begin a robust and divisive internal debate right now, so that a winning faction may prevail before 2008.