by Will Marshall
After stewing in impotent rage for six long years, Democrats at last see their chance to stage a comeback. President Bush’s public approval is in free fall, the GOP-controlled Congress is begrimed by corruption scandals and special interest pig-outs, and conservatives are falling out over basic questions of war, government spending, immigration and environmental health.
Let’s enjoy the moment. But let’s also resist the temptation to see the GOP’s swoon as evidence of an irreversible slide, or of a chastened public finally willing to admit Democrats were right all along. The same voters who are disillusioned with the Bush Republicans consistently tell pollsters they have yet to hear a persuasive case for change from the other side.
Still, the oh-so-slender GOP majority is in trouble because independents and moderates seem ready to defect in droves. If Democrats can make inroads among these voters this year, then pick a 2008 nominee whose themes resonate in red states as well as blue, we could fashion a new progressive majority.
How to seize the opportunity? There are basically two choices. One, favored by many liberals and lefty bloggers, sees partisan belligerence as the key to mobilizing a Democratic majority. The idea is that by intensifying attacks on our opponents, we can galvanize the party faithful while also projecting the strength of conviction that swing voters have supposedly found lacking among Democrats.
But this approach is based more on wishful thinking than rigorous electoral analysis. The party’s core problem is not a pandemic of cowardice among its leaders, it is that there are not enough Democratic voters. Since the late 1990s, Democrats have been stuck at about 48 percent of the vote in national elections. Moreover, polarizing the electorate along ideological lines plays into Karl Rove’s hands because conservatives outnumber liberals three to two. Democrats need to win moderates by large margins, but moderates by definition resist strident partisanship and ideological litmus tests. The politics of polarization repels them.
To successfully raid the political red zone—the South, Mountain West, Great Plains and lower Midwest—Democrats instead need a politics of persuasion. It starts by acknowledging that moderates and independents have substantive reasons for swinging Republican in recent elections, including persistent doubts about Democrats on security, taxes and the role of government, as well as moral questions. Progressives need to meet these doubts head on, marshaling facts, arguments and new ideas to change the way persuadable voters think about Democrats.
For this, the party needs themes and ideas that limit its liabilities with persuadable voters and exploit growing fissures in the GOP coalition, as well as building on traditional Democratic strengths. Party strategists should pay close attention to Democrats who have won and governed effectively in red states. Tim Kaine’s victory in Virginia last year was especially encouraging as he did well in the fast-growing suburbs Bush overwhelming won in 2004. No less than three red-state Democrats, Bill Richardson, Tom Vilsack and Mark Warner, are hoping to parlay their local success into a race for the White House.
Their knowledge of tricky cultural terrain is essential, because building a durable majority requires that Democrats be competitive in every part of the country. We cannot continue to spot the GOP thirty states in national elections and have any chance of recapturing Congress or the White House. But cartography need not be destiny—not if Democrats finally get serious about rolling back the GOP’s red tide in America’s heartland.
To do that, Democrats must craft a creative governing agenda that is credible on national security, consonant with middle-class moral sentiments and economic aspirations, and committed to the radical reform of politics-as-usual in Washington.
Put Security First
Americans should not be complacent about the fact that we have not been hit by another terrorist attack since 9/11. The front in the struggle against Islamist extremism has simply shifted elsewhere: to Europe, Iraq, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia. In fact, the jihadist contagion is spreading, not contracting, as the Bush administration has somehow managed to lose ground in the ideological war against a fanatical creed that exults in barbaric violence against civilians.
This means security will continue to dominate national politics for the foreseeable future. It is axiomatic that the American people are not likely to give power to a party they do not trust to defend their values and keep them safe.
Democrats therefore must close the national security confidence gap that has dogged them since the era of Vietnam protests. This requires reclaiming, not abandoning, the party’s venerable tradition of muscular liberalism—the Truman-Kennedy legacy that helped America win the Cold War. Updated for new threats, it offers the best answer to the challenge of Islamist extremism today.
Specifically, Democrats need to do three things. First, we must put security first—and mean it. No more trying to change the subject to domestic policy, where we feel more comfortable. After World War II, the party’s platforms routinely led with national security, and its leaders consciously linked America’s defense of democratic values abroad to the pursuit of liberal goals at home. It is time for Democrats to be a full-spectrum party again, once more integrating our international and domestic policies in a seamless vision for advancing progressive ideals.
Second, Democrats must convince the public that we are ready to take over the fight against Islamist extremism. We must offer a comprehensive, long-range strategy that employs all our nation’s might, not just the blunt instrument of military power, to delegitimate the jihadist ideology and patiently nurture the spread of liberal ideas and democratic institutions throughout the greater Middle East.
Third, Democrats must recognize that since 9/11, patriotism has become the most potent values issue in US politics. More than anything else, we need to show the country a party unified behind a progressive patriotism that is determined to defend liberal values against Salafist totalitarians, succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, close a yawning cultural gap between Democrats and the military, and summon a new spirit of national service and shared sacrifice to counter today’s politics of polarization.
Close the Cultural Gap
It is not enough to convince working families that Democrats will make them safer and take America’s side in international conflicts. A winning heartland strategy must also assure them that Democrats share their values.
The perceived erosion of “moral values” has played a key role in GOP successes in this decade, especially with rural voters and women. Although married women voted for Clinton in the 1990s, they preferred George Bush over Al Gore by 15 points in 2000. By 2004, the “marriage gap” had widened to 19 points.
What is it about getting married and having children that inclines parents toward the GOP? Barbara Whitehead calls it “lifestage conservativism,” noting that the transition to parenthood produces a new outlook on culture:
Parents have a beef with the popular culture. As they see it, the culture is getting ever more violent, materialistic, and misogynistic, and they are losing their ability to protect their kids from morally corrosive images and messages. To be credible, Democrats must acknowledge the legitimacy of parents’ beef and make it unmistakably clear that they are on parents’ side.
Whitehead advises Democrats to begin simply by honoring the vital work parents do in teaching their kids right from wrong. We should also equip parents with better tools to shield their kids from the onslaught of the consumer culture and aggressive corporate marketing campaigns. And there is no good reason for progressives to exempt the entertainment industry from the same kind of accountability we demand from corporations in general.
Along with a progressive, pro-family policy, Democrats need to reach out to religious voters. As Bill Galston has written, religious observance is now the most important cultural fault line in U.S. politics. On religion as on other culturally fraught issues, Democrats need to define themselves, lest voters default to GOP caricatures of a militantly secular party that has launched a “war on Christians.”
Democrats should start by affirming the formative role that faith has always played in shaping America’s civic culture. They should engage skeptical religious voters, not to pander to them but to challenge them to look at issues other than abortion and gay rights through the prism of their faith. All major faiths enjoin their adherents to care for the sick and the poor, to work for justice, not just material gain, and to preserve the natural world. Indeed, U.S. evangelical leaders increasingly speak of “creation care”—a religious duty to be responsible stewards of nature—and some have split openly with the Bush administration, which has done nothing to curtail global warming. This opens fascinating possibilities for progressives to forge alliances with evangelicals around a “green gospel” agenda to stop doing irreversible damage to the earth’s climate.
Of course it also helps to pick candidates who can relate genuinely to religious voters. A turning point in the Virginia governor’s race, for instance, came when Kaine’s Republican opponent attacked him for opposing the death penalty. Kaine assured voters he would enforce the state’s capital punishment laws, even though his Catholic faith led him to oppose the death penalty. By affirming the role that religion plays in shaping his moral outlook, Kaine won respect from socially conservative voters without changing his stance on the death penalty.
Champion Middle-Class Aspiration
It is an article of faith among liberals that cultural politics is preventing voters from recognizing that their economic interests lie with Democrats. There are two problems with this thesis: first, in post-industrial America, economic or material concerns don’t play as large a role in shaping voters’ choices as they previously did. Today’s voters do not neatly compartmentalize their pocketbook worries and their moral concerns. Second, as labor economist Stephen Rose shows in a forthcoming Progressive Policy Institute study, middle-class voters do not really see Democrats as champions of their economic interests. Instead, they identify Democrats most with means-tested social programs aimed at poor and working poor families.
In fact, the white working middle class (voters making between $30,000 and $75,000 a year) – once the heart of the New Deal coalition — is now the mainstay of the Republican majority. According to a study by Third Way, Bush beat John Kerry by a whopping 22 points among white middle-class voters.
The fast-growing suburbs and exurbs are these voters’ natural habitat. Bush won them overwhelmingly. A year later, however, Kaine ran strongly in key Virginia suburbs by avoiding highly partisan attacks, affirming his religious beliefs, and addressing voters’ concerns about growth, congestion and traffic.
Likewise, Democrats need a positive economic message that speaks to these voters’ aspirations, not their fears. Above all, they want to hear ideas that can help them get ahead and realize their ambitions, not alarmist rhetoric about how globalization is crushing their hopes. .
Push More Radical Reforms
For Democrats, there is one and only one benefit of being out of power: the chance to hang the corrupt status quo in Washington around GOP necks for a change and recast themselves as the insurgent party of radical reform. Yet we have flubbed the job so far, because we have been unwilling to embrace political and policy reforms big enough to match the problems before us. Faced with corruption, cronyism and misgovernment on a scale not seen since the “Great Barbecue” of the Grant years, Democrats have shown an unerring instinct for the capillaries rather than the political jugular.
Where are the big ideas that can protect our political system against the machinations of future Delays, Cunninghams and Abramoffs? Gift and travel bans and new disclosure requirements for lobbyists fall risibly short of the systemic changes we need to break up the incumbency self-protection racket, allow non-rich citizens to run for Congress and reduce the power of private money in our democracy.
At a minimum, Democrats ought to insist on replacing Congress’ toothless ethics committees with an independent body that can bring criminal charges against errant lawmakers. They should also back state efforts to create nonpartisan redistricting bodies charged with increasing the number of districts that are truly competitive. That would both undermine the structural underpinnings of today’s polarized politics and boost voter interest in elections. Most important, we should call for some form of public financing for Congressional elections. Nothing short of public funding will truly break the nexus between private cash, legislation and campaigns, or restore public confidence in the basic integrity of our national political system. Although pundits view it as quixotic, public financing may also be the only hope for passing progressive reforms across the spectrum of national needs, since the current system makes it very easy for special interests to block change even if they cannot always order up specific legislative outcomes.
Finally, Democrats need a broader agenda for policy reform, not just political reform. Historians likely will look back on the two Bush terms as the years the locusts ate. Our most pressing national problems—fiscal profligacy, over-consumption and regressive taxation, economic insecurity and inequality, runaway health costs and the vulnerability of uninsured millions, climate change and a debilitating petroleum addiction—have either been aggravated or ignored. Americans are tumbling to the reality that conservatives’ animus toward government makes them lousy at governing.
This should be a boon to Democrats, the natural party of public remedy. But crafting new ways to modernize underperforming public sector systems will bring the party’s unresolved tensions to the surface. Many Democrats, for example, cling to the illusion that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid can be preserved in their 1935 and 1965 incarnations. They reject later retirement as well as progressive indexing or means testing of benefits—both necessary to create a modern retirement system for a rapidly aging society. Some imagine latent public support for a government-dominated health program like Britain’s or Canada’s. Others continue to defend an archaic public education monopoly that is chronically failing poor and minority kids.
It is time for Democrats to abandon their “just say no” stance toward Social Security reform and instead offer a progressive plan for modernizing the system. We should dramatically expand public school choice, by making it possible for every public school to become an independent, self-managed charter school freed from the stifling grip of centralized bureaucracies. We should insist on a national “cap and trade” system for carbon and other greenhouse gases, a step that would also hasten the development of plug-in hybrid cars and other clean energy technologies and fuels. We should offer a tough plan to reimpose fiscal discipline, reduce the Bush budget deficits and make America’s tax code fair and progressive again. Following the example of Massachusetts, we should propose a decentralized path to universal health care, using a mix of public subsidies, access to purchasing pools similar to the one Members of Congress use and individual mandates to make sure that young and healthy people do not get a “free ride” on the system. And more.
Democrats face a big strategic choice. We can continue to be the default party, defining ourselves chiefly by partisan combativeness. Or we can become the reform party, offering compelling ideas for solving national problems. In theory we could do both but in practice it is a lot easier to unite the party around antipathy to conservatives than a new vision for governing. That is the well-worn path of least resistance, but Democrats today should play for higher stakes.