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If Democrats are serious about developing new domestic ideas, they need look no farther than the Bush White House. There, a promising new wrinkle in social policy is being mangled to death by mastiffs on the policy staff. Anxious Democrats ought to grab this idea and run with it before the GOP sniffs out its full potential.

The idea, known by the buzzword "empowerment," is to find ways by which the disadvantaged can be encouraged to help themselves. I gather it is the flip side of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" vision, which imagined a benevolent government shoveling out enough resources to knock poverty on its keister.An empowerment approach appeals to some Republicans, since it tilts toward less government intervention (and government cash) rather than more. If government provides the proper incentives, this idea suggests, local initiatives will take root to help inner-city families develop decent housing and job opportunities on their own.

Predictably, Democrats tend to scorn this approach as a callous writing off of America's neediest by an icy-hearted GOP. In this lofty dismissal, they are borne out by the Republicans' track record, which is not conspicuous for its dedication to the problems of America's poor.

But if the Democrats dismiss talk of empowerment as nothing more than a conservative cop-out, they are missing what could be a rare chance to seize a fresh idea and reshape it to their own ends. Here's why.

- The Democrats, if they ever hope to regain national dominance, desperately need to offer fresh perspectives on dealing with the nation's aggravated domestic ills. Those ills - drugs, violent crime, entrenched poverty, numbingly bad housing, miserable schools - are concentrated in big cities, which also remain the Democrats' favored bastion of reliable votes.

- Unless the Democrats can present credible ideas for making a dent in this grim pathology, they risk losing even more of their traditional voter base, and being dismissed by middle-class voters as unrealistic and irrelevant. By contrast, if they can develop and convey such ideas convincingly, Democrats may be able to present themselves as a party set free from its faded liberalism of a generation ago.

- At least for the near term, Washington will have little money for new spending initiatives, regardless of any merit they might hold. In any case, political support for such new spending is modest indeed.

- Republicans seem sharply divided over whether to develop policies based on the "empowerment" concept.

But by grabbing the concept, dressing it up in new verbiage and pushing it forward as their own, Democrats could wake up their traditional constituencies and show the country they're not a moribund party, after all. They could do this most effectively, I suspect, by trying to develop a modest inner-city experiment that would bring together, for tryouts in a few selected urban neighborhoods, some low-cost, locally directed strategies that are working elsewhere.

The keys would be local autonomy, local governance, freedom from bureaucracy and flexibility, in this experimental program, to at least shake off some oppressive regulation.

It could even turn out to be (excuse the term) good politics.