By Paul Sabin | December 22, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH has inspired comparisons with his pre-World War II predecessors Warren Harding, William McKinley, and Herbert Hoover and shown that the great struggles in American history never end. As Bush’s second term approaches, several pre-World War II domestic issues predominate.

Bush’s four signature domestic policy areas — reforming the tax code, privatizing Social Security, rolling back congressional power, and developing energy resources — take up political battles that seemed to be laid to rest for generations. Who thought that the progressive income tax, authorized by constitutional amendment in 1913, would be up for discussion or that the nation was prepared to revisit fundamental aspects of the New Deal’s social compact for retirement security?

Bush’s appointments to the courts similarly return to Roosevelt-era conflicts over Congress’s power to regulate the economy and protect worker or individual rights. And the president’s approach to natural resources and the environment harks back to Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome-era drive to open Western public lands for oil development.

What lies behind this phoenix-like rising of long-dormant political struggles? For Democrats and progressives searching for direction in the wake of their November loss, the Bush policy agenda underscores the urgency of investing in public ideas and leaders.

The liberal consensus on taxes, entitlement programs, the courts, and resource management has become hollow over the past generation, lacking a coherent and vigorously articulated rationale. A generation of progressives who grew up taking these policies for granted have forgotten how to fight for them effectively. While conservatives have mastered how to incubate and promote radical new ideas like flat or consumption taxes, progressives are poorly organized to articulate the fundamental principles of fairness that underlie the progressive income tax: the idea that taxation should be based partly on ability to pay: If you earn more, you pay more.

Similarly the “social” in Social Security has been lost in the drive to create private retirement accounts. Congress created Social Security not only to protect the elderly against poverty, but also to ensure society as a whole against the social challenges of destitute retirees. Leaving individuals to fend for themselves in the market defeats this basic promise.

As important as ideas are standard-bearers — people who carry ideas forward and compel the public and policy makers to respond. The conservative movement has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few decades developing ideas and leaders, including at the state and regional level.

No similar investment has been made on the left. Progressive foundations and organizations have focused principally on narrow issues, a strategy that may be effective in the short term but fails to build a long-term social movement. Some new efforts have begun to make inroads, but this movement-building is still nascent.

As all good coaches know, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. To counter the conservative attack on the progressive income tax, progressives need to promote a patriotic vision of a more efficient, fair, and effective tax system.

Enforcing the law so that wealthy taxpayers don’t evade taxes through dubious partnerships, offshore accounts, and unreported income; simplifying the tax code to make it easier to follow the rules; and expanding the earned income tax credit to further reward work — this sample list shows that it should be easy to present a progressive alternative to eliminating the estate tax and creating a national consumption tax.

Similarly, progressives need to push forward a new approach to land management and property rights. By showing how ecosystems can be protected by carefully mixing development and preservation, progressives can dispose with conservative “jobs versus the environment” slogans.

Americans like to think of themselves as a nation on the ascent through history, leaving slavery, the fight over women’s suffrage, and the dispossession of native peoples in the forgotten past. Yet the Bush presidency is, as Thucydides said, showing that history can be as circular as it is linear. Progressives need to break the current circle open.

Paul Sabin is executive director of the Environmental Leadership Program and a senior research scholar at Yale Law School.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.