Robert L. Borosage
“Had enough?” Abramoff and DeLay, Katrina and Iraq, Schiavo and Halliburton, Big Pharma and Big Oil. Leave it to Newt Gingrich to provide Democrats with their best election year sound bite. [Surely an improvement on “Together, we can do better.”] No doubt Democrats are tempted by Newt’s advice to make 2006 “a referendum, not a choice.” In an off-year election, with Republicans in control of everything, nationalizing the 2006 election inevitably requires making it a referendum on Republican failings and flailing – the equivalent of the 1994 election that brought Republicans to power. But if Democrats are to move toward building a governing majority, then they must use 2006 to begin posing a clear choice to voters – even while beginning the far more serious debate about the party’s posture on the emerging challenges facing this country. Here is a summary of the themes for 2006 – and of the harder questions that Democrats have yet to face.
1994 in 2006
The Gingrich strategy from 1994 should inform the Democratic playbook in 2006. Gingrich began not with the reform ideas of the Contract with America, but with relentless attack on the corruption, arrogance and failures of the Democrats in control. The campaign was nationalized by linking Democratic candidates directly to what was at the time a very unpopular president, with ads morphing the Democratic candidate into Clinton’s face and then back.
The Contract, unveiled late and not well known, provided Republicans with a prop that showed that they stood for change. An entire section was devoted to congressional reform, from term limits to promises of open governance. Others restated popular conservative shibboleths – a balanced budget amendment, missile defense, tax cuts. Divisive social issues, like prayer in the schools or abortion, were excluded. The document was accompanied by a promise of action – a vote on every measure in 100 days – that spoke directly to voters’ frustration that Democrats had failed to deliver.
In 2006, given the breathtaking scope of conservative misrule and the growing dismay of voters, Democrats can follow the same model: relentless attack on the failures of Bush and the Republican Congress, ignoring pundits who complain Democrats have no agenda; morphing Republican candidates scrambling to establish their independence into pictures of Bush and back.
The catastrophic failures and corrosive corruptions of Bush and the Republican Congress also make it relatively easy for Democrats to frame a clear, compelling agenda that make them the party of change. The themes are simple. Had enough? Do you want more of the same – the Bush direction – or a new course? They have failed. They govern for the few – they auctioned off Congress to corporate lobbies and CEOs – and you pay the costs of this corruption. We’ll put government on your side, a policy that works for all. Core elements of the agenda are logical and, not surprisingly, poll well in early snapshots by Democracy Corps, Lake Research and others.
1. Clean out the stables. Voters are not particularly interested in process reforms, but they are looking for change. Democrats should be the party of reform, championing bold, clear reforms to curb the corruptions of the corporate lobbies: block the revolving door, expose all contacts, end the junkets, ban the ear-marks, curb the privileges. Enact a freeze on congressional pay raises until wages are going up for Americans, a position Stanley Greenberg’s polling has revealed to have wide support. Pledge to root out the outrages – particularly the scandalous rip-offs in Iraq by Halliburton and other corporate cronies that not only wasted billions of dollars but contributed directly to the failure of reconstruction. With Democratic incumbents incomprehensibly unable to forge unity on a bold agenda of reform, Democratic challengers should take up the charge and make themselves the outsiders who will clean out the stables.
2. Stand up for people, not special interests. Democrats best demonstrate their values, their character and their courage by fighting against entrenched special interests on basic kitchen table concerns. This isn’t rocket science. It starts by reversing the costs of Republican corruption that Americans pay in higher drug prices, higher college costs, soaring gas prices, and jobs getting shipped abroad. Make health care affordable, starting by taking the Medicare prescription drug plan out of the hands of private insurers and requiring the government to negotiate lower prices. Make college affordable, starting by cutting interest rates on student loans in half, raising grant levels, and providing tax credits towards college tuition. Revoke the tax breaks and loopholes that reward corporations for sending jobs abroad. Raise the minimum wage, require corporations to treat the shop floor like the top floor in benefits, and empower workers to organize to gain a fair share of the profits they help generate. Roll back the subsidies and tax breaks for oil companies, and use that money to champion…
3. A bold concerted drive for energy independence. Champion a plan like that laid out by the Apollo Alliance, generating jobs, capturing new markets, and unleashing American science and technology, all while reducing our reliance on Persian Gulf oil. Democrats should overcome their temerity about big investments – and embrace new energy for America.
The Republican response to this assault – as laid out by Karl Rove – will be to localize elections as much as possible, while framing two national choices. We’re for tax cuts and growth; they’ll raise your taxes. We understand there’s a war on; they don’t get it and want to cut and run. Democrats should relish challenging Republicans on both of these core questions:
4. An Economics that Works for America. To most Americans, Bush sounds out of touch as he touts the great economy. And Democrats should dramatize how these guys don’t get it. Profits are up, CEO salaries are up, but wages are not keeping up with prices. We have record budget deficits, unsustainable trade deficits. Good jobs are moving abroad. The tax cuts have created more jobs in China than here. In fact, the great bulk of jobs created here have come from the growth in state and local government jobs and the military buildup. We would be better off using some of the money Bush handed over to the wealthy to invest in areas like energy independence that are vital to our future, in good schools, in rebuilding New Orleans and in protecting our homeland. That would generate more jobs here and less debt in the future. Democrats should be calling for an economic strategy that empowers workers, and holds CEOs accountable. One that benefits companies that create jobs here, and revokes subsides for those who take jobs abroad. The party should put forth a trade strategy that will support good jobs here – not one that sits idly by while countries like China play by different set of rules.
5. A Real Security Plan for America. Democratic strategists all intone the mantra that the party has to be “strong on security”. But the overwhelming base of Democratic voters opposes the war in Iraq, and has no desire to police the world. This often leaves Democrats tongue-tied or divided. And that is why, despite growing public disenchantment with the Iraq debacle, the White House will make it a centerpiece of the fall elections: “They want to cut and run; that will hand al Qaeda a victory and provide them with a base for terror.”
Many Democrats would prefer to duck: It’s the president’s problem; he should present us with a plan to win. No one really expects a legislator to provide the solution. But ducking is only likely to make Democrats look weak and irresponsible, playing politics with a basic security issue. Nor are the mock-tough postures once in vogue on the right of the party – urging more troops for Iraq or smarter tactics – likely to ring true given the growing civil stifle in Iraq.
Democratic candidates would be well-advised to level with Americans about the reality. There are no good choices. Withdrawing could leave a divided Iraq enmeshed in bloody civil strife. But staying only involves our soldiers in that strife. And it weakens America. It isolates us from our allies, provides al Qaeda with a training ground and a recruiting boon, rouses suspicion and hatred across the Moslem world, and distracts us from the real war on terror. We freed Iraqis of a brutal dictator, now we need to put Iraqis on notice that it is time for them to take responsibility and for our troops to come home over the course of the next year. By committing to keep them there until 2009, the president gives the Iraqis no incentive to step up. Accompany this with a real security agenda reviving collective alliances to hunt down the fanatics dedicated to global terrorism; common-sense measures to protect America, including inspecting all containers coming into our ports and demanding security plans for dangerous chemical and biological factories; and a pledge to appoint competent leaders to critical posts, not callow cronies who are not up to the task. A position stated with conviction will do much better than one that looks like it is poll driven.
Towards A Governing Majority
Democratic gains this fall in the wake of the conservative collapse should not mask how far the party is from consolidating a governing reform majority. As Karl Rove has discovered, this requires not simply skilled messaging and expert politics. Consolidating a governing majority requires a strategy that successfully addresses the fundamental challenges we face. Democrats have sensibly been unified in the face of the extreme project posed by Bush and the Republican Congress. But unity in opposition has come at the expense of defining clarity around proposition. We now witness the collapse of the conservative consensus that has dominated American politics over the last twenty-five years. Large challenges must be addressed, for example:
American strategy in the global economy. The conservative strategy of the last twenty-five years has left America the world’s largest debtor, borrowing from foreign creditors while shipping jobs, not goods, abroad. The Chinese are lending us the money to buy the goods they make with the jobs and technology our companies ship over to them. This year we will run a $1 trillion current account deficit. Everyone agrees this is not sustainable. Free trade nostrums provide no answer. Are Democrats the party of Main Street and providing American jobs, or the party of Wall Street and wage insurance for those who lose their jobs?
Globocop or neo-realist? Both parties have exulted America as the “indispensable nation”, vital to policing the globe. But this role is both unpopular and increasingly unaffordable. Are Democrats for sustaining the costs of America as the global policeman or, mugged by reality, are they prepared to argue for collective security and reduced military commitments while championing human rights and democracy with soft power, not bombs?
Growing inequality and the insecurity of the American middle class. Conservative economic policies have produced unprecedented inequality. Globalization, deregulation, privatization, corporate assaults on unions, and a decline in the social wage have put workers in a box, working longer and still falling behind. Are Democrats the party of the board room or the shop floor? The party of worker empowerment and corporate accountability or the party of deregulation?
Stark public investment and budget deficits. The turn under Bush from budget surpluses to record deficits has received extensive coverage. Less visible but more telling is the growing public investment deficit in areas vital to our future – modern communications, mass transit, basic infrastructure, affordable college, adequately paid teachers, affordable housing, and basic nutrition and health care to lift children from poverty. Core investments were slashed under Reagan, deferred under Bush and Clinton and now are coming under the knife again. Do Democrats prioritize investment or fiscal probity?
Higher walls or rising tides? Immigration will be a core issue by 2008. Democrats are the party of opportunity and inclusion. Will they be for building walls on the border to keep people out or opportunity across the border, so they will not want to come – or both? The former is more popular but less effective, and more likely to feed xenophobia and racism. The latter requires courage and creativity, but could be very costly politically. Do Democrats dare pose good sense against the furies?
These are only indicative of large choices that Democrats have to face if they are to build a ruling majority. Of course, Democrats have to win an election before we start worrying about governing. We have to stop the right from digging us deeper into the hole, while arguing about how we get out. But these and other fundamental questions will be answered – one way or another – before Democrats can hope to build a governing majority.
Robert L. Borosage