Some Night Thoughts on
What Happened November 5th

by Robert Reich


I. Handwringing

What happened November 5th was awful. But I can't stand all this typical Democratic post-election hand-wringing and moon-howling. We went through this in 1980, then again in 1988, then again in 1994. And it's always the same crap: Should Democrats move rightward to the Republican-Lite center, or move back to FDR? You and I and every other Democrat activist we know attend endless-blather conferences about "The Future of The Democratic Party." And then everyone goes off and does whatever they were doing before.

Criticisms of the Democratic Party presuppose the existence of a national Democratic Party. But the fact is, as Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, there's no there there. Millions of people call themselves Democrats and several hundred thousand show up at Democratic state and national conventions. A Democratic National Committee raises money. But there's no real national Democratic Party. At least nothing like what the Republicans have. They have a network of conservative think-tanks, a boatload of money to market the ideas that emerge from them, and spokespeople to sell them. They recruit and train prospective candidates. And they have discipline. My god do they have discipline. They decide on a Party line and stick with it. They even have oligarchs -- the Republican Powerful who gathered together in 1996 and decided George W. Bush was going to be their candidate in 2000. What do Democrats have? Conferences on "The Future of the Democratic Party."

The only time there's even a semblance of a national Democratic Party is when Democrats come up with a Presidential candidate, but if you look closely you'll see that Democrats don't actually come up with a Presidential candidate. Instead, several dozen men who call themselves Democrats come up with themselves. Thirty months before Election Day they let it be known that they're considering running. Each then starts endless rounds of visits to New Hampshire and Iowa, talks to all the interest groups you identify (trial lawyers, unions, teachers, AARP, Washington environmentalists, identity organizations), chats with Washington-based columnists, meetings with prospective donors in Hollywood, Massachusetts, and other bastions of Democratic money. Twenty months before Election Day, a half-dozen such entrepreneurs are still running. At this point, the same old Washington-based Democratic political consultants, pollsters, and marketers decide who they want to place their bets on. And the race is on. Meanwhile you and I are still sitting in some "The Future of the Democratic Party" conference.

So the first thing we need is a real national Democratic Party. Something with grass roots, with the capacity to think new ideas and market them. We need a movement that embraces all the people who have been left out, who have been screwed both by big corporations and big government -- people who are working their asses off but aren't earning much more than they did a dozen years ago, who have grown cynical about every institution in American society but still love America with all their hearts.

But we can't have a movement unless we also have conviction and courage. Democrats used to have these things. Republicans have no monopoly on being tough against tyranny or hard-headed when it comes to domestic policy. For almost a century it was Democrats who waged war (Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson) and it was mostly the kids of Democrats who fought in and got killed in wars. And for sixty years it's been Democrats who have managed the economy well -- spending more than revenues and cutting taxes when the nation needed these things done to prevent the economy from sinking, and cutting deficits when they get out of control, as in 1993.

It takes no conviction and no courage to move to the Center. You want to be a typical candidate, you campaign from the Center. But if you want to be a true leader, you define the Center. You don't rely on pollsters to tell you where the Center is, because you can't lead people to where they already are.

If I hear another pundit say 40 percent of Americans vote Democrat and 40 percent Republican so the real action is with the 20 percent "swing" in the middle I'm going to puke. Most Americans who are eligible to vote don't even bother, most of the time. The party of non-voters is larger than either Republican or Democrat. And even those who do vote have no strong party loyalty. They watch three months of attack ads on television and on Election Day end up voting for the person they despise the least. In this last campaign season, Republicans outspent Democrats three-to-one. So it's not surprising Republican candidates seemed marginally less despicable.

The big differences in American politics today are between those with courage and those without it, those who can inspire and who can't. Among the former are the late Paul Wellstone and John McCain -- politicians with deeply-held views, and who are passionate about what they believe. They don't care too much about the polls, they love this country, and they have a fair degree of contempt for Americans who are powerful but who don't really give a damn about America or about most other Americans. On the other side is a large group of hard-boiled poll-watchers and ass-kissers who spend most of their time raising money from people and groups with a lot of it.

Finally, Democrats have to have fun, and do their politics with a sense of humor. All the negativism and anxiety is a bummer. Who wants to join a funeral procession? We need a new generation of happy warriors. The world is not going to hell. In fact, we're far better off than we were twenty years ago, fifty years ago, a hundred years ago -- largely because of reforms Democrats championed. I'd hate to be a Republican because Republicans hate government, and now they run it. Can you imagine being in total control of something you detest? That's a real bummer.

So let's celebrate what we can be: Let's have a tax cut for working families (paid for by repealing that portion of Bush's giant tax cut going to the rich). Also universal, affordable health care. A vigorous environmentalism based on renewable energy. And a call to altruism; college students are already doing way more community service than their parents did in the 1960s. But mostly, we need a real party, the courage of our convictions, and a sense of humor and optimism. What we don't need is another conference about The Future of the Democratic Party.

II. Message

There was no national Democratic message in the months leading up to November 5th because Democrats couldn't agree to squat. Every Democrat running for Congress talked about last year's giant Bush tax cut, but they cancelled each other out because they said opposite things. Six Senate Dems up for reelection trumpeted their support for it; Max Baucus ran around Montana insisting it should be made permanent. Most other Dems campaigned against it -- some, like Charlie Stenholm and other Blue Dogs because it will break the budget; others, like Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy (not up for reelection but making a lot of speeches) because it's unfair.

Almost all Dems running for Congress talked about Iraq. But here again, no message broke through because Dems were all over the map. Most supported the President. A few did so wholeheartedly (Max Cleland, Dick Gephardt). Some said we should go into Iraq only after Saddam rejects a Security Council resolution. A notable few (Kennedy, Wellstone, Gore, about thirty Democratic House incumbents) didn't want to give the President blanket authority to go to war in Iraq and offered quite eloquent testimony why -- some of the most nuanced and thoughtful foreign-policy statements I've heard in many years. None fitted into a 20-second TV commercial though, which may be why they didn't break through.

Of course Dems did their usual fulminating about Social Security but it was nothing like a unified campaign. Some wanted partial privatization (let the Social Security Trust Fund diversify into stocks), most rejected privatization, some said the Bush tax cut threatened Social Security, a few resurrected Clinton's idea of a new layer of private "USA accounts" on top of Social Security with government matching private savings on a sliding scale depending on family income.

You get my point. No national message, no national Democratic campaign, no national Party.

Maybe Democratic candidates for the House and Senate did everything they could. W is hugely popular, the country is still traumatized by terrorism, most of the free TV air time before Election Day went to Iraq and then the sniper, most of the paid air time went to Republicans, who outspent Dems 3-to-1. But still, Dems missed a big opportunity to stake out some clear positions and a few big ideas. And if the emerging presidential candidates don't, you can kiss the Dems good-bye in '04.

So what are the ideas and where are they? Think boldness and conviction.

First off, Democrats have to be willing to tell Americans what's happened to jobs and incomes over the last two decades. The widening gap in income and wealth is a national scandal that threatens to pull our society apart. At the least, Democrats should demand repeal the portion of the Bush tax cut going to the top 2 percent. Use the savings to finance a two-year moratorium on payroll taxes on the first $20,000 of income. Eighty percent of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes. Make the choice clear: Republicans want a giant tax cut for the rich. Democrats want one for average working families.

Second, we should turn the old Republican blather about revenue-sharing on its head. Agree that the states are where the action is. But point out most states are now broke with the result that school budgets are being slashed and social services whacked. Demand that the Feds do a $100 billion revenue-share each of the next two years.

Third, urge that all federal and state employee health care plans be consolidated into a single large national plan which, because of its size, is able to negotiate terrific deals with health-care providers and pharmaceutical companies. Then let any citizen opt into it. Premiums will become so low that it will become the foundation-stone of a single-payer plan. Because it's voluntary, it won't fuel the political opposition a single-payer plan would.

Also expand the Earned-Income Tax Credit to become an all-purpose system for financing everything low-income people need, and get rid of all the complicated categorical programs with all their different eligibility criteria and bureaucratic bumbling.

On foreign policy, create a new global version of NATO designed to root out terrorists anywhere. Create the best and most elaborate global intelligence operation money can buy. But also recognize that if more and more people out there are willing to kill themselves in order to kill us, we've got to give the poor and cynical of the world something positive to believe in. Debt-forgiveness, foreign aid, economic development, literacy, immunization, and low-cost drugs for the third world have to be understood as part of a new global effort to fight terror with hope.

Enough? Of course not. We need to flesh out details, explain why these things are important. Also come up with more ways young people can serve their country. And put strict limits on campaign contributions.

But it's got to be a movement. It's got to be sold at the grass roots, and the grass roots have to be able to develop and amend and build upon these sorts of ideas. Democrats will get nowhere with a lot of "position papers" going to presidential hopefuls who will promptly and appropriately chuck them.

III. Constituency

And where's the Democratic constituency? Not just among the elderly, even though the only thing Democrats say in unison is Republicans can't be trusted on Social Security or prescription drugs. We need to be careful about our reliance on the elderly. Over the next two decades, the Greatest Generation's elderly will be replaced by old boomers, who'll be the largest, noisiest, and most demanding political constituency in American history. Tens of millions of boomer bodies will all be corroding simultaneously. If you think prescription drug coverage is a big deal now, wait until medical science promises boomers we can look young, have sex like rabbits, and party until we drop. Across the land there'll be outcroppings of "Med-Meds" for boomer geezers -- think of Club Meds combined with medical facilities. Snorkeling all morning, extra oxygen in the afternoon. Worse yet, most boomers haven't saved a dime for retirement. All the equity's in their homes. And home prices will take a dive when the boomers all go to sell.

In other words, brace yourself. We'll be lucky if the Dems (as well as Republicans) don't sell out completely to aging boomers. Increasingly, a fault line in American politics will generational. Who will represent the young? Who'll inspire them? Enable them to feel the joy of politics? I haven't seen a Democrat among the current crop who comes close.

As to organized labor, my betting is on the SEIU -- the service employees. It's the most diverse union in the AFL-CIO. Its ranks are full of Latinos and blacks. Its leadership is young. It's organizing like mad. It's recruiting and training a lot of young people. It's representing just those who are most marginalized in the emerging economy -- hotel workers, hospital workers, workers in large retail stores, janitors. And it's succeeding, with some huge victories over the last few years. The SEIU is the closest we have to a "movement" union. If it can keep growing and show some more political muscle, it could have a major role in transforming the Democratic Party.

Here's the most hopeful news, and I learned it directly when I ran for Governor. Idealism isn't dead. It's just waiting to be ignited (among young people, minorities, the poor) or reignited (among the middle-aged jaded). Millions of people are yearning to get involved and change the way politics is practiced. It doesn't matter whether they call themselves Progressives, Greens, Democrats, Independents. They want they system cleaned up. They want government to work better and for more people. They yearn for political leaders who are authentic, who'll stand up for what they believe in, who aren't afraid to take on sacred cows and tell it like it is, who have new ideas that are common-sensical. They're deeply worried about where the Bushies are taking the country.

All it will take is a match.

This is bigger and more important than the future of the Democratic Party. It's really about the future of democracy. Our democracy is in terrible trouble right now. Power is in the hands of a tiny group of people who are using the threat of terrorism to impose their crimped vision of a corporate commonwealth. Large corporate entities are more politically potent than they've been at any time in living memory. In fact, we're back to the era of William McKinley.

Parties are means, not ends. I'm a lifelong Democrat and have devoted a huge chunk of my life to the Party, but if the Party is comatose I'm not going to throw myself onto the tracks to keep it barely alive. The question is: Can Dems turn themselves into a national movement to take back our democracy? Can they give voice to those without a voice? Can they regain their passion, courage, soul?

I hope we've learned something from this election. To me, the clearest lesson is that Republicans know exactly what they stand for and who they stand for. Democrats don't. And when you know what you believe and for whom you exist, you've got a better chance of winning. It's Democrats like Max Cleland and Jean Carnahan who won't survive. Both voted for Bush's tax cuts and for going to war in Iraq. Both were booted out.

If I'm right, and we're back in the era of William McKinley, then we're on the cusp of just the movement I'm talking about. It happened in 1901. It was called Progressivism. Teddy Roosevelt gave it force and legitimacy but it was already bubbling up: Women's suffrage, a progressive income tax, health and safety protections, worker rights, antitrust, and so on. It formed the foundation for much of the progressive legislation of the last century.


Robert Reich

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