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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Reform Imperative

It’s obviously been a busy week at TDS; aside from the site’s “re-launch,” all three of our co-editors have been active as well. I discussed Ruy Teixeira’s revisitation (with John Judis) of the Emerging Democratic Majority hypothesis earlier this week, and later I’ll talk about Bill Galston’s new piece at Democracy. But today I’d like to direct your attention to Stan Greenberg’s segment of The American Prospect’s new cover package, about the stronger-than-ever imperative that progressive embrace change and reform in the operations of government.
Greenberg’s argument is straightforward: the very incompetence and corruption that led to the Democratic conquest of Congress and the devastation of conservatism’s credibility has also undermined the public confidence in government that is essential to the future success of a progressive agenda. Add in the fiscal constraints created by the Bush tax cuts and it’s obvious Bush and company have left a toxic legacy for those who would seek to use government to meet the big national challenges facing America.
It’s not that Americans don’t want a more active government. As Greenberg notes:

People want government to get serious about addressing the challenges we face as a country. Huge majorities want the government to be more involved in a range of issues including national security, health care, energy, and the environment. To tackle global warming, two-thirds of Americans support stronger regulation of business. When it comes to health care, the results are dramatic. By a two-to-one margin, people opt for a universal health care system rather than separate reforms dealing with problems one at a time…. Americans are rightfully angry and impatient with a government they see as having achieved almost nothing for them in years.

From Iraq to New Orleans to the corruption and influence-peddling in Washington, Republicans have deeply damaged their own reputation for honesty and competence. But they have succeeded in spreading the damage to public faith in what Greenberg calls “Americans’ sense of collective capacity:”

The results of a February study we conducted for Democracy Corps that assessed people’s attitudes toward government stunned us. By 57 percent to 29 percent, Americans believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life instead of helping people. Sixty-two percent in a Pew study said they believe elected officials don’t care what people like them think, and the same number believe that whenever something is run by the government it is probably inefficient and wasteful. The Democracy Corps study found that an emphatic 83 percent say that if the government had more money, it would waste it rather than spend it well. The government receives a job approval rating of more than 50 percent on only one issue — national security. On nearly every other issue, a majority of Americans disapprove of government’s performance.

Given this atmosphere of deep distrust in government, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the job approval ratings of the new Democratic-controlled Congress have quickly sunk to levels as poor as those of George W. Bush.
What can Democrats do about all this? Greenberg suggests that we take a page from the early Bill Clinton playbook and once again make government accountability and reform a major counterpart to public-sector activism in the progressive agenda.

To have any chance of getting heard on their agenda, Democrats need to stand up and take on the government — not its size or scope, but its failure to be accountable — and deliver the results that people expect for the tax they pay.

Specifically, Greenberg argues that Democrats should embrace a five-step program to restore public confidence in progressive government: (1) Stand for change and accountability in government, not government itself; (2) Avoid blame-shifting and double-talk; (3) Make real-life performance measurament the touchstone of every public-sector initiative; (4) Embrace a comprehensive agenda to cut waste and end corruption in the daily operations of government; and (5) Get a lot more radical on ethics and lobbying reform.
Some Democrats understandably hope that “Happy Days Are Here Again” in terms of progressive public activism, and many may well think of “accountability in government” as a 1990s gimmick or even as an accomodation of conservative anti-government sentiment. But as Greenberg shows and passionately argues, progressive cannot rescue the country from the Bush disaster unless we first clearly re-establish our own, and government’s, ability to get things done right.

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