By Ruy Teixeira
In TDS’s premiere issue, I observed that “[t]he old debates between ‘populists’ and ‘New Democrats’ have clearly run out of gas” and that the contributors to our initial issue had, refreshingly, “focused their attention on providing concrete suggestions on where and how the party can focus its energies to be more effective”, instead of re-fighting those old battles. I thought it would be interesting to revisit these suggestions–which struck me as potential points of unity among Democrats–and see how they look in the aftermath of this election.
Here are the seven points of unity from my initial article and how they look today.
- Make Elections Fair and Clean. Who could argue with this? While the 2006 elections were not without their flaws (e.g., Florida-13), it seems fair to say that, by and large, these elections were reasonably clean. It also seems fair to say that Democratic vigilance helped make this happen and more of the same is in order in future elections.
- Support and Promote Unions. Always a good idea, it seems an even better one for Democrats after an election in which union household voters supported Democratic House candidates by a very wide 64-34 margin (68-30 among actual union members) and represented nearly a quarter (23 percent) of all voters. Time to really pump up the pressure for EFCA (the Employee Free Choice Act), which would allow “card-check” recognition of unions and make it a great deal easier for workers to join them. This reform is now supported throughout the Democratic Party, including by many, like Al From of the DLC, who have clashed in the past with the union wing of the Party.
- Catch the Demographic Wave. And it looks like the Democrats are catching it. In my earlier article, I noted that a surge toward Democrats among Hispanics appeared likely given their disenchantment with Bush and the Iraq war, as well as the GOP’s anti-immigrant politics, and I cited a poll showing Democrats running 40 points ahead of Republicans among Hispanics in the generic congressional ballot. Pretty close! According to the exit polls, Hispanics favored Democrats by a 39-point margin (69-30). No one in the Democratic Party can reasonably dispute anymore that effort put into mobilizing Hispanics is effort well-spent.
- Get Back to Competence and Reforming Government. This point looks even better now. In the 2006 election, 41 percent of voters cited corruption/ethics as “extremely important” to their vote, and these voters supported Democrats by a 59-39 margin. In addition, the issue figured prominently in the Montana Senate race and may have actually been decisive in quite a few House races. As I remarked in the earlier article, “Voters are looking for change and Democrats must provide it…. Over the longer term, the ability of Democrats to promote the kind of programs they believe in, even if they are electorally successful, very much depends on building the belief among voters that government can, in fact, be competent and work well. Otherwise, voters will fear that, even with the best intentions, Democrats will wind up wasting their money.”
- Change the Map. It certainly seems like this point has been vindicated by the 2006 election results. Looking outside the obvious blue and purple target states–where the Democrats did very well indeed–they also took Senate seats in Montana and Virginia, governorships in Arkansas and Colorado, and House seats in Arizona (2), Colorado, Indiana (3), Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas. And, in the process of gaining 321 state legislative seats nationwide and complete control of 24 state legislatures (vs. only 16 for the GOP; the rest are split), the Democrats made significant gains in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming (where Democrats came extremely close to also capturing that state’s lone seat in the US House). Clearly, the map has shifted in the Democrats’ favor, and the idea that Democrats should “put more and more of the country in play and allow for the building of substantial Democratic majorities, rather than razor-thin victories based on swinging a few battleground states” seems an eminently viable one.
- Go After Moderate and Independent Voters. Check again. In the earlier article, I observed that “[a] serious Democratic majority–barring radical changes in turnout by partisanship and/or ideology–needs a 5-10 point margin among independents and a 15-25 point margin among moderates.” I was, if anything, too modest in my goals! In the 2006 election, independents favored Democrats by 18 points (57-39), while moderates voted Democratic by 22 points (60-38).
- Give Voters Clear and Big Choices. Here is where one might argue that there is general agreement, but not necessarily much progress. While it was unfair to accuse the Democrats of having no ideas in this campaign, those they had did not really qualify as “clear and big choices” for voters–besides which the election was inevitably more a referendum on the Bush Administration’s record (especially on Iraq, but also on the economy, corruption, health care, etc.) than anything else.
So the quest for big or “swing” ideas (as Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny put it in our first issue), and for a compelling public philosophy to undergird them, continues. I have already offered my nomination for such a public philosophy, focused around the concept of the common good, in my paper with John Halpin “The Politics of Definition” (see also Michael Tomasky’s path-breaking article in The American Prospect, “A Party in Search of a Notion“). Now let me offer my nomination for a swing idea that would provide a clear and big choice to voters.
This idea is outlined in an article Jacob Hacker and I just published in The American Prospect on the role of the economy in the 2006 election and how Democrats might generate even larger advantages on that issue in the future. Here’s an excerpt from our article that summarizes the idea:
[D]emocrats need to refashion the theme of security for the 21st century, putting forth a set of simple ideas and arguments for providing Americans with the secure financial foundation they need to reach for the American dream.
The starting point for this vision is a simple but forgotten truth: Economic security is a cornerstone of economic opportunity. When Democrats talk about social insurance they tend to focus on how programs like Social Security and Medicare help prevent financial disaster. But there is another, more positive way to talk about insurance: as a way for families to get ahead. Just as businesses and entrepreneurs are encouraged by basic protections against financial risk to invest in economic growth, so adequate security encourages families to invest in their own future — something many now find quite difficult. It’s not easy to invest in the future, after all, when a sudden drop in income or rise in expenses could completely blow away your family budget. That sense of insecurity will make a person less likely to invest in specialized training, cultivate new career paths, aggressively change jobs — the very things that are likely to allow that person to get ahead.
There is a huge void in American politics just waiting to be filled by public leaders who can speak convincingly about the need to provide economic security to expand opportunity. Efforts to increase health coverage and contain health-care costs (including the cost of prescription drugs), to improve the quality and availability of child care, to defend and extend guaranteed retirement benefits (including Social Security), to provide middle-class families with strong incentives to save and build wealth, and to make college and specialized training available to all are the subjects of countless and competing policy prescriptions. But the important thing is that these policies should be put in the context of helping Americans get ahead. These are measures to allow the typical American family to raise its head from the day-to-day struggle of an insecure world and concentrate on its most heartfelt wish: to achieve the American Dream.
With this approach, the democrats’ mantra can be simple and repeated endlessly: providing security to expand opportunity. The Republicans, in contrast, provide nothing, leaving hardworking American families without the secure base they need to get ahead. That’s the wrong message in this day and age and Democrats can make Republicans own it, if they play their cards right.
Over the next two years, Democrats should use their newfound power over the agenda to set goals and formulate ideas that force Republicans to take a stand on the domestic issue of our day: the economic insecurity of the American middle class. No 50-point programs. No triangulating targeted measures. Just one powerful vision, backed up by bold ideas on health care, retirement and job security, and family finances.
That’s our idea and we think it’s a good one. There will be other nominations for swing ideas, of course, and that’s fine. Let the debate be vigorous and, as we always emphasize here at TDS, as fact-based as possible. But let’s keep at it until we really do have some swing ideas that American voters can embrace with enthusiasm. Running against the failures of the Bush Administration worked very well in 2006, but for 2008 we will need stronger medicine–the kind that can only be supplied by such ideas.
Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation. He is the author of five books – including The Emerging Democratic Majority (with John Judis) — and over 100 articles — including the recent series, “The Politics of Definition”, with John Halpin.