Look, the internet is a big idea, it's the big infrastructure system of the 21st century, rivaled only by the new energy system we'll need to build in the next thirty years. Protecting the internet through laws like net neutrality and open access is a manifestation of believing in that big idea. Most of us work on behalf of Democrats through the electoral process because we believe in structures like this that promote social justice and creativity, not out of some weird sense of partisan pride or thirst for power.
So when I read things like this about Matt Bai's new book, where progressives are criticized for not believing in ideas, I'm kind of annoyed and kind of amused.
Bai then sets Clinton up with the soft-ball pitch that will make his book. He tells Clinton that "he hears a lot of skepticism in D.C. and online about the power of ideas in politics. Most of the new progressives seemed to think that winning elections is more about machinery and political dexterity." Clinton responds forcefully: "They're not right about that. I still think that ideas matter. We still have to be the party of ideas, because otherwise there is no reason to buy us."
Close read that last sentence. Clinton thinks Democrats have to be 'the party of ideas' or else no one will 'buy us'. What about caring about ideas because ideas are, you know, good things to care about? What about caring about ideas because good ideas can promote justice, tolerance, and a better world? What about caring about ideas because bad ideas promote stupid wars and lots of death and destruction and whatnot? And what about the notion that each party has different ideas, and voters get to choose? Why does one party have to be 'the' party of ideas? Republicans have shitty and crazy ideas, liberal Democrats have good ones.
No, for Bill Clinton, ideas are important because without them no one will buy Clinton. Most people meet Clinton and think he's an amazing charmer. I met him and saw a very detail oriented narcissist file me away in his head for possible later use.
The Clinton years were years of systematic underinvestment in critical infrastructure, where the prosperity came from government research from the 1960s and 1970s. Clinton harvested, but did not plant new seed corn. And that's because he didn't care about anything that couldn't sell Bill Clinton, and that includes 'ideas'. Then again, maybe I'm wrong, and maybe that V-chip and those school uniforms will pay off yet.