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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Can the Democrats Become the Party of Change? (Continued)

4. The new Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future poll makes the strongest case of all the recent polls on the public appetite for change (see yesterday’s post for discussion of the Gallup, Quinnipiac and CBS News polls). In this poll, right direction/wrong track is at 37/55 and, by 55-41, voters say they want the country to “go in a significantly different direction”, rather than continuing in Bush’s direction. The latter sentiment is even more lopsided among independents (66 percent different direction/26 percent Bush’s direction), moderates (66/30) and white mainline Protestants (62/35). And even white rural voters favor a new direction by 49-46.
The figure on white mainline Protestants is worth paying particular attention to. In the 2004 election, according to the 2004 National Survey on Religion and Politics (NSRP), white mainline Protestants moved strongly toward the Democrats, increasing their support of the Democratic presidential candidate by 10 points over 2000. That change brought this group to an even split of their vote between Kerry and Bush, while four years before they had given 60 percent of their two-party to Bush. Further movement in the Democrats’ direction on the part of white mainline Protestants would clearly endander the GOP’s tenuous electoral majority.
On Iraq, the poll finds 57 percent of voters saying the war was not worth the cost in lives and dollars (including 52 percent who strongly endorse that sentiment) abd just 38 percent saying the war was worth those costs. On the economy, by 62-36, voters say the economy is performing poorly for the middle class, rather than doing well. And on Social Security, voters reject Bush’s Social Security plan whether it is simply alluded to (56-34) or explained, including his progressive indexing proposal (58-36).
In addition, by 57-33, voters believe Congress has the wrong priorities and “isn’t working on the issues that matter to me” and, by 55-40, they endorse the idea that Democrats should make sure Bush and the Republicans don’t go too far in pushing their agenda, rather than work in a bipartisan fashion on Bush’s legislative priorities. Voters also favor Democrats over Republicans in next year’s Congressional election by 5 points (48-43), which includes leads of 23 points among independents, 29 points among moderates, 19 points among white mainline Protestants and 9 points in the battleground states.
So: an appetite for change and a clear opening for the Democrats. The problem, as the DCorps report notes, is that voters still cannot bring themselves to be very enthusiastic about the Democrats–their favorability and thermometer ratings differ little from Republicans’ at this point. That’s because, while voters want real and substantial change, they still don’t see the Democrats as being the party of such change.
That’s the problem Democrats need to solve and the sooner the better. I believe the way to tackle the problem, as I argued in “Myths of Democratic Renewal“, is to identify the Democrats with good new ideas that change the way voters look at Democrats.
Let me illustrate this point by flagging another result from the DCorps poll: that the two items of a Democratic agenda that made the most voters say they would be more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate were both items in the education area (early childhood investment and affordable college). Yet Democrats currently have little to say in this area and didn’t appear to benefit much from education issues in the 2004 campaign. What gives?
Center for American Progress fellow Robert Gordon, in an important cover story, “Class Struggle: What Democrats Need to Say About Education“, in this week’s New Republic, makes a convincing case that Democrats have not benefitted more from education issues because they have had little new and exciting to say to voters about these issues. Instead, they have repeated the same old tired refrain (“more money!”), which has just reinforced voter stereotypes about Democrats and certainly hasn’t made make them look like the party of reform and change.
Here are some excerpts from Gordon’s article where he makes his case, but I urge you to read the entire article:

In the only exchange on education during the 2004 presidential debates, John Kerry made one argument: “The president who talks about No Child Left Behind refused to fully fund [it] by 28 billion dollars … he didn’t put in what he promised, and that makes a difference in the lives of our children.” George W. Bush responded acidly: “Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say that a 49 percent increase in funding for education was not enough. We’ve increased funds. But, more importantly, we’ve reformed the system.”
That sums up the education debate in last year’s campaign. Bush championed reform and resources. Although Bob Dole had once wanted to shut down the Department of Education, in his first term, Bush supported standards-based accountability through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). And, though he fell short of his promises on money, Bush did approve more than $30 billion in new K-12 education funding.
While Bush and the Republicans moved to the middle, Kerry and the Democrats retreated from it….The party’s top three education demands were money, money, and money. “You cannot promise to leave no child behind and then leave the money behind,” Kerry often said.
While Democrats reinforced the old idea that they just want to spend, Bush appealed to a public that wants both accountability and funding….
These are vivid memories for me. I was one of Kerry’s education advisers during the general election. I previously worked for–and have since advised–Edwards. The views expressed here are my own, but I bear plenty of responsibility for the developments described. Yet the attitudes of the candidates reflected the attitudes of the party. Top congressional Democrats today say nothing different.
It’s stunning to see Democrats lose their edge on education. That’s because, on education, Democrats don’t need to explain why the United States needs vigorous government; Americans already want effective public schools. Through education, Democrats reach for their own deepest aspiration: a country where birth doesn’t dictate destiny. Nothing offends Democratic ideals more than the fact that a typical poor or African American twelfth-grader reads at the same level as a typical middle-class or white eighth-grader. Nothing is a greater threat to middle-class prosperity than mediocre schools. If Democrats cannot speak powerfully to an issue that speaks so powerfully to them, they cannot expect to prevail on tougher ideological terrain.
To get the politics right, progressives need to act on a policy principle that Americans understand: Money ain’t everything….

Gordon illustrates the approach progressives need to use by referring to the issue of teacher quality–an issue which consistently tops the public’s list of concerns about the public schools:

The tougher challenge for progressives is not to fix NCLB, but to stop talking about it all the time–and instead offer an educational vision of their own. Bush isn’t vulnerable for supporting standards; he is vulnerable for believing standards are enough. Tests measure progress but don’t teach children.
Progressives should tackle a challenge all but ignored by Bush: strengthening the quality of teachers. As the Education Trust notes, good teachers are the single most important factor in good schools–affecting student achievement more than race, poverty, or parental education. Three years of good teachers can lift students’ scores by 50 percentile points compared with three years of lousy teachers, according to researcher William Sanders. But, as talented women have moved on to other professions, teacher quality has declined. Education majors score below national averages on standardized tests. Most schools do little to draw or keep more talented teachers: Onerous hiring procedures discourage able candidates, while the lockstep pay scale rewards seniority and accumulated degrees, not success. Schools offer $80,000 salaries to middle-aged and mediocre gym teachers while losing bright young chemistry teachers who make only $40,000. Today, a middling performer can get a routine grant of tenure after three years, then become virtually impossible to remove for three decades. One North Carolina study showed that school superintendents would have liked to remove about one in 25 tenured teachers per year, but actually removed fewer than one in 600. Teacher quality is lowest in the poorest schools, where good teachers are needed most. Students at high-poverty schools are nearly twice as likely to be taught by teachers who lack even a minor in the relevant subject.
Strengthening teaching requires changes to the pay system and school culture that abet mediocrity. Standing alone, the usual liberal solution–across-the-board pay hikes–perpetuates the maldistribution of good teachers and reinforces the irrelevance of achievement. High-poverty schools need to attract more teachers with bonuses, and all schools need to attract better teachers with the promise of higher earnings for better results. Teachers reasonably worry about arbitrary merit bonuses, but performance pay need not be arbitrary. Sanders and others are developing methods to measure each teacher’s contribution, accounting for students’ starting points and their expected progress. Together with peer and principal reviews, these methods promise at least as rich a basis for evaluation as those available in other professions where performance pay is the norm.
While schools need better pay to attract good teachers, they also need better systems to remove bad ones. Today dismissal can take years, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and require proof of outrageous conduct. That is unfair to students and good teachers who want peers who work as hard as they do. Faculty deserve protection against dismissals based on politics or personal animus, but schools should extend the periods needed to get tenure and streamline procedures so dismissals are fair but fast. Finally, talented young people seeking to enter teaching should not be required to get education degrees with no proven link to classroom performance.
Although still in their infancy, reforms along these lines have shown promise. When Chattanooga’s lowest-performing schools offered teachers $5,000 bonuses, free graduate-school tuition, and mortgage assistance, vacancies dropped by 90 percent. The Milken Family Foundation’s Teacher Advancement Program offers bonuses up to $5,000 based on a combination of evaluations and test scores. Most schools in the program are outperforming similar schools outside it. According to a recent evaluation, Teach for America’s talented novices, lacking traditional training, outperform typical teachers in math instruction and equal them in reading.
A sound national plan would put big money on the table for school districts that adopt real reforms in pay, tenure, and licensing for teachers. To see what works best, schools should be encouraged to try different–and ambitious–approaches. With federal help, a city might offer a promising new math teacher in a poor school district $60,000 instead of $40,000; after excelling in the classroom for two years, that teacher might earn $80,000. Raises averaging $20,000 for one-third of the teachers at 10 percent of schools would cost $2 billion annually in a system spending over $400 billion, but could show the way to transform teaching.
Progressive leaders should couple these reforms with a sustained call for Americans to teach in troubled schools. Twelve percent of Yale seniors applied to Teach for America this year. How many more talented Americans, young and old, would teach if their country called?
….Al Gore and John Kerry both offered agendas along these lines for teacher quality. But, after giving speeches and garnering media accolades, both candidates barely mentioned their ideas again. Nor have congressional Democrats stepped up to promote them.

That shameful reticence has to stop. Americans will only come to regard the Democrats as the party of change if they sound like they’re willing to shake up the system, instead of issuing the same old call for more money. That means, while voters are ready for change, Democrats are going to have to do some changing of their own to capture that voter sentiment. We shall see if they’re up to it.