My Turn: Question for Democrats is how to stay relevant

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2003

I think the Democrats have either topped out politically, or are on their way to a higher leadership. Howard Dean is close to a secure Democratic nomination. The liberal authors and satirists such as Molly Ivins and Al Franken are finally matching the right-wingers on the bestseller lists. Criticism of President Bush is becoming more pointed and hitting home, although the improving economy is bringing back Bush's characteristic hubris.

In Alaska, Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat, bullied out of closed Republican caucus doors, is riding the liberal anger wave by ballot initiatives and snappy lines to the press. Alaska's Democrats, it seems, are on their way to at least a few more seats in the state House and Senate, if not the big prize, the U.S. Senate seat now held by Lisa Murkowski.

There are two mistakes, I believe, the Democrats can make. One is shrillness: Croft telling the press that he wants to ensure his grandchildren always receive a Permanent Fund Dividend, without prudent budget considerations, is almost the same closed-mindedness we see out of Gov. Murkowski when he says he won't consider an income tax. Another mistake is what might be called all-political-thumbs, a sort of impassioned but stumbling style of political organization. The arguments during last year's session - such as the claim of the Longevity Bonus as a great economic boon, or the Democrat's refusal to make any commitment to a fiscal plan but universally disagreement with any proposal - I believe were easy to counter and telegraph, and shrug off.

I've been fighting in my mind for a while now whether the Longevity Bonus cut was a good idea or not. Surely, I thought, Murkowski's cut couldn't have meant he hates seniors and some seniors probably did depend on the extra cash. What struck me, though, was the degree of entitlement we see in the spokespeople on the senior's side. There was no willingness to compromise, to pay only the needy seniors. This seemed to discount the argument that some seniors needed it and that it was essential. Also, there was grumbling that the cut meant that Murkowski was bent on only serving "special interests." What's missing from that argument, I believe, is that seniors are among the largest "special interest" in the nation.

There has long been talk about the upcoming retirement wave of Baby Boomers, and the subsequent lump the economy and government would take, with heavy Social Security and health care payouts. Indeed, seniors are a huge share of government subsidy, with growth booming in even the neo-conservative Bush presidency after the passage of the prescription drug benefit in Medicare.

These payouts are social experiments that, for the most part, have been helpful. But I believe government payout should not discount prudent retirement savings, family care and fiscal responsibility. Before and, still now, families would take care of their own. Can a lonely government check ever match the graciousness of family?

It's been said that every American generation passes a better life to the next generation. Is this still possible with a huge debt load, limited post-college options and other fiscal obstacles now facing our young people?

Maybe I am terribly ignorant in some areas. But I admit it: I vote mostly Democratic. As a Democrat I want to think independently, yet find a community to share dialogue and tackle hard questions. In the upcoming legislative session we must ask hard questions, the least of which is: How can the Democratic party stay relevant?

• Ishmael Hope is a student from Juneau.

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