A Progressive Agenda

United and on the offensive, [Democrats] should drive home a simple triumvirate of charges: corruption, incompetence, and unresponsiveness to the concerns of the great American middle.

Of course, this will ultimately mean some degree of agreement on a positive alternative—on a shared vision of what America is and what American government should be doing to make America better. — Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, The Washington Monthly

Today I (once again!) ran into a rightie blogger who said “Democrats have no ideas.” This is an article of faith on the Right, which has been dragging around the same few zombie ideas since Goldwater. The fact is that Demcrats, progressives anyway, have multitudes of ideas. No one ever hears about them because no one, including the gutless wonders calling themselves “Democrats” who inhabit Washington, listens to us.

There’s an article by Robert Borosage in the current issue of The Nation, calledA *Real* Contract With America” that presents the following items as a clear platform for change [numbers added]:

[1] Crack Down on Corruption: In contrast to conservative cronyism, shut the revolving door between corporate lobbies and high office. Prohibit legislators, their senior aides and executive branch political appointees from lobbying for two years after leaving office. Require detailed public reporting of all contacts between lobbyists and legislators. Pledge to apply this to all, regardless of party. Take the big money out of politics by pushing for clean elections legislation.

[2] Make America Safe: Commit to an independent investigation of the Department of Homeland Security’s failures in response to Katrina. Detail action on the urgent needs that this Administration has ignored: Improve port security, bolster first responders and public health capacity, and require adequate defense planning by high-risk chemical plants. End the pork-barrel squandering of security funds.

[3] Unleash New Energy for America: In contrast to the Big Oil policies of the Administration that leave us more dependent on foreign supplies, pledge to launch a concerted drive for energy independence like the one called for by the Apollo Alliance. Create new jobs by investing in efficiency and alternative energy sources, helping America capture the growing green industries of the future.

[4] Rebuild America First: Rescind Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and corporations, which create more jobs in China than here, and use that money to put people to work building the infrastructure vital to a high-wage economy. Start with challenging the Administration’s trickle-down plans for the Gulf Coast, which will victimize once more those who suffered the most.

[5] Make Work Pay:
In contrast to the Bush economy, in which profits and CEO salaries soar while workers’ wages stagnate and jobs grow insecure, put government on the side of workers. Raise the minimum wage. Empower workers to join unions by allowing card-check enrollment. Pay the prevailing wage in government contracts. Stop subsidizing the export of jobs abroad.

[6] Make Healthcare Affordable for All: Pledge to fix America’s broken healthcare system, with the goal of moving to universal, affordable healthcare by 2015. Start by reversing the Republican sellout to the pharmaceutical industry by empowering Medicare to bargain down costs and by allowing people to purchase drugs from safe outlets abroad.

[7] Protect Retirement Security: In contrast to Bush’s plan to dismantle Social Security, pledge to strengthen it and to require companies to treat the shop floor like the top floor when it comes to pensions and healthcare.

[8] Keep the Promise of Opportunity:
Instead of Republican plans to cut eligibility for college grants and to limit loans, offer a contract to American students: If they graduate from high school, they will be able to afford the college or higher technical training they have earned. Pay for this by preserving the tax on the wealthiest multimillion-dollar estates in America.

[9] Refocus on Real Security for America:
In contrast with Bush’s pledge to stay in Iraq indefinitely, sapping our military and breeding terrorists, put forth a firm timeline for removing the troops from Iraq. Use the money saved to invest in security at home. Lead an aggressive international alliance to track down stateless terrorists, to get loose nukes under control and to fight nuclear proliferation.

There is nothing in the list above that I and myriad other leftie bloggers haven’t been saying all along. Further, I believe there is nothing on that list that the average, middle-class, middle-of-the-road citizen would find objectionable. In fact, most of these items would be welcomed by the “average middle middle” citizen. I’d make item six a little bolder–national health care!–but otherwise it seems a good agenda to me.

The other day I read that Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders are putting together a Democratic policy platform for next year’s campaigns.

An early draft of the agenda outlines the specific initiatives House Democrats will pledge to enact if given control of the House. Leaders have been working on the document for months, and have already started encouraging Members to unify around it and stick to its themes.

Among the proposals are: “real security” for America through stronger investments in U.S. armed forces and benchmarks for determining when to bring troops home from Iraq; affordable health insurance for all Americans; energy independence in 10 years; an economic package that includes an increase in the minimum wage and budget restrictions to end deficit spending; and universal college education through scholarships and grants as well as funding for the No Child Left Behind act.

Democrats will also promise to return ethical standards to Washington through bipartisan ethics oversight and tighter lobbying restrictions, increase assistance to Katrina disaster victims through Medicaid and housing vouchers, save Social Security from privatization and tighten pension laws.

I think they should just run with the Borosage list. I’m afraid the Washington Dems will come up with mealy-mouthed promises that will end up sounding the like same old same old. I think they should be careful that grand themes (Rebuild America first!) don’t get buried by the policy-wonk stuff (housing vouchers!). But now’s the time to start talking about those grand themes.

The Coalition Crumbles

Following up this post from Monday on the future (or lack thereof) of the conservative coalition, and yesterday’s post on The Tanking of the PresidentKevin Drum has some thoughts I’d like to discuss–

The basic thesis of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Off Center is that the Republican party has been taken over by its ultraconservative activist base, and this in turn has pulled the party far away from the center of the American electorate. Normally this would spell doom for a political party, but a variety of institutional controls have converged that are likely to keep Republicans in power for a long time despite their increasing distance from the mainstream. …

…the activist base of the Republican party is pretty far distant from the middle of American politics, and George Bush recognized this in his first term, mostly steering a center-right course. However, in his second term it’s all falling apart, just the way conventional political science suggests it should. The more that Bush panders to the Republican base (Social Security, Terri Schiavo), the more he loses the support of Middle America. At the same time, the more he tries to tack to the center (Katrina, Harriet Miers), the angrier his base gets. Centripetal forces are tearing the Republican coalition apart, and suddenly Beltway buzz suggests that Republicans might actually lose Congress in 2006.

This suggests two possibilities to me. The first is that conventional political science still has it right. It took a few years, but the radicalism of the Republican base is finally putting a stake through the heart of the party, just as you’d expect. The second possibility is that we wouldn’t even be talking about this if it weren’t for 9/11: Bush would have long ago lost control of his coalition and would have gotten clobbered in 2004. What we’re seeing today really is a special case, not a permanent realignment.

Then Kevin poses a question–is Bush going through a second-term slump that could blow over, or is the normal order of things finally reasserting itself?

First off, I think you have to separate Bush from the Republican Party and from the coalition. Both the party and the coalition have been forces in national politics long before Little Georgie decided to get into the family business. And they’ll still be around even if Little Georgie were to be abducted by space aliens and never seen again. It’s true they’ve been married to him for a while, but now they’re squabbling and heading for a nasty breakup. Even if they decide to stay married for the sake of politics, the marriage will never be what it was, and I doubt the Right will continue to rubber stamp Georgie’s every whim. I sincerely believe the Bush Era is over.

Now, what of the ultraconservative activist base? You might recall that, back in the 1970s, the Democratic Party for a brief time (notably the 1972 Democratic National Convention) was hijacked by what might be called an ultraliberal activist base. But the leftie activists never had any real power, and I can’t recall any of them being elected to Congress, never mind setting the agenda for the nation. The ultraconservatives have managed somehow to not only take over Congress and the White House, they press forward with their agenda as if a majority of Americans backed their agenda. Which, as was argued here, they don’t.

The ultrarighties have been able to do this because they have something the ultralefties did not–backing by a behind-the-scenes elite with considerable wealth and power. And with the backing of wealth and power the ultraconservatives have turned much of mass media into their own private echo chamber. Mass media genuflects to the ultraright agenda and treats it as if it were mainstream, whereas the ultraleft agenda has ever been greeted with jeers and scorn.

This, and the fact that most Americans, most of the time, do not pay much attention to what’s going on in Washington, enable the ultraright to treat Washington as its private playground. As long as the bulk of middle-class Americans are feeling secure and complacent, news from Washington is just so much elevator music.

However–and this is where we crank up the seeds-of-their-own-destruction theme–the ultraright agenda is a horrible blueprint for governing, and sooner or later the damage done will cause most middle-class Americans to feel a whole lot less secure and a whole lot less complacent. I believe that’s about where we are now.

It is possible, barring further scandals or disaster, the Bush-GOP-ultraright axis will hold together and keep Dems shut out of power, and with the help of mass media continue to bamboozle the American public. However, even if they get remarkably lucky, and Iraq becomes pacified, and the price of gas goes down, and Patrick Fitzgerald issues no indictments, the lives of ordinary Americans will continue to get harder and harder. Income will remain stagnant, jobs with decent wages and benefits will be increasingly scarce, states will continue to cut needed services, etc. That can’t change as long as the righties are in charge, because such are the fruits of rightie policy.

And, frankly, I don’t think they’re going to get that lucky.

Prediction: If the crunch comes the first thing the Right will do to save itself is throw George W. Bush overboard. We on the Left need to realize that the Right could survive a Bush denouement and maintain its grip on political power. In other words, we could utterly defeat the Bush-Cheney administration, even force them out of office, and still lose the war with the Right. We lefties need to be careful about that.

If Bush goes down the Right would have to find a new figurehead real fast, though, and it’s not clear to me who that might be. And if enough of their leadership (e.g., Frist, DeLay) is compromised and/or under investigation or indictment, it’s going to be very difficult for the Right to remain cohesive.

Unfortunately, the Right’s biggest asset through all this could be the inside-the-beltway Democrats, whom we can pretty much count on to fumble the opportunity. And the moneyed, powerful elite backing the Right and controlling mass media ain’t goin’ away anytime soon.

One more thought: We’d all love to see Bush and Cheney impeached and tossed out of office, but for a moment let’s be contrarian and consider if keeping a seriously lame duck Republican in office where citizens can see him and reflect on what a loser the once mighty Bush turned out to be could work to our advantage in the long run. And giving the GOP an opportunity to build new leadership in the White House before 2008 might work to their advantage. Just a thought.

Anyway, given our leadership vaccuum on the Left, it’s not clear to me how the Right’s crises will fall out. Feel free to make predictions in the comments.