Needed: A New Contract with America

The Thinker by Rodin

Is that the earth that I feel moving beneath my feet? Probably not. But those of us with sensitive political ears can feel the political earth beginning to shift. It’s just a faint tremor at the moment. It could be nothing. Or it could be a sign of a coming political earthquake.

Those into reading political tealeaves will find plenty to read lately. They may mean nothing but collectively they suggest a trend. For example last week a handful of Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives came together to sponsor a bill. It requests that the President set a timetable for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq starting in October 2006. This particular resolution will doubtless go nowhere but it may be a harbinger. What is important here is the precedent. It makes it easier for others with similar feelings to voice them.

And these nervy Congressmen are simply echoing the opinions of the majority of the American people, who are queasy about the whole Iraq war in general. The American people have turned against the war. It remains to be seen whether these opinions have sticking power. But it is reasonable to assume that they will. There are no short-term expedients that are likely to change the fundamental situation in Iraq. And the situation will be that Iraq will remain an anarchistic mess, with insurgents having the upper hand controlling the country.

Even Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove will have to feel queasy at some of the latest polls. For example, a recent CBS/New York Times poll shows that Bush’s approval rating at 42%, one point from an all time low. When you look at the numbers for other questions Americans were asked in this poll you can see the bigger cracks in the pavement. 45% of Americans say going into Iraq was the right thing versus 51% who say we should have stayed out. This is the first time in this poll that the public has decisively flipped on the Iraq war.

On Bush in particular the news is not good. 56% of Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of the economy. 51% disapprove of his handling of foreign policy. 59% disapprove of his handling of the War in Iraq. 62% are upset about his attempts to reform Social Security. Democrats are trusted 48% to 31% to come up with a better plan for saving Social Security. Overall 61% of Americans say that Bush does not share their priorities for the country.

So the news is not good for Bush, even though our economy is not in recession. The sole area where Bush gets higher marks is in his overall handling of the campaign against terrorism. Here he gets 52% approval and 40% disapproval. But Congress’s ratings are in the toilet. 71% of Americans say Congress does not share their priorities.

Political prognosticators like myself who are wondering if there is a political earthquake coming in 2006 and 2008 look at two factors. First, is this a transient shift or a permanent trend? It is difficult to say for sure. The American people don’t have much trouble drifting toward apathy as Election Day approaches. When that happens the turnout is depressed. And when that occurs the status quo is likelier to be maintained. Second, can Democrats successfully translate general unhappiness into new political power? That is also problematical. A coherent and widely embraced Democratic message is needed.

But it can be done. Ironically the Democrats have an ideal model to follow: the Newt Gingrich Contract with America. In 1994 the Contract flipped the House of Representatives from Democratic to Republican. With incumbents virtually certain to win reelection in normal years, it takes a mighty effort to convince voters to change the status quo. That is why the time has come for Democrats to organize much the same way that Gingrich organized Republicans for the 1994 elections.

The House of Representatives can be switched back from Republican to Democratic. To succeed it requires only a moderately pissed off public. Fifteen seats need to flip from Republican to Democratic in order for Democrats to regain the majority. Before the 1994 elections Democrats ruled the House: 258 to 176. After the Gingrich revolution Republicans ruled 230 to 204. It was a stunning election. Forty-four seats shifted, over 10% of the total seats in the House! Only fifteen are needed to change things in 2006. This is very doable with the right message and the right organization. The Senate is less likely to flip. Republicans control the Senate 55 to 44. However it only takes one house of government to flip Democratic and to bring back divided government. And that bollixes up much of the neo-conservative agenda. So as Democrats our focus needs to be on the House of Representatives. 2008 of course offers the opportunity for a presidential election and for the Democrats to retake the White House.

So if this broad discontentment against the President and Congress can be maintained and if the Democrats can present a new coherent plan for America that addresses the actual concerns of moderate America then Democrats can at least begin to move back into political power. On the surface this should not prove that hard to do. Republicans have proven themselves no friend of the middle class. Poll after poll shows that the public understands that Republicans are shifting wealth away from them and into the upper classes. And they don’t like it.

What is needed now is leadership. It is heartening to see liberal blog sites like DailyKos.com come up with a progressive vision for America. Such a vision should clearly contrast what the Democrats will do if given power with what we can assume the Republicans will do if they remain in power.

The difficulty will be coming up with a coherent message that will attract moderate and independent voters. Progressives will be gung ho on issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage. These are important and defining issues for Democrats, but they need to be reframed. Kos did a good job of doing it. However in order to gain political power these issues should not be highlighted. The seven plus or minus two rule should be used. This is the number of different ideas we can keep in our mind at one time about a particular area. Democrats need to focus on items that moderate and independent voters care the most about. This is not a time to be shrilling for gay marriage. We should not be against it, but it should not be highlighted. Pragmatism needs to be the order of the day.

If we let him Howard Dean, the current chairman of the Democratic National Committee, can help us focus on what is important for Democrats to win. It’s important to concentrate on a few important factors that will swing independent voters. If I had to name some I would name universal health insurance, living wages, secure borders, respect for international law and environment-friendly policies as some of them. But these issues should be research driven and focus group tested. And once we have positions they should be hammered relentlessly and embraced widely by Democrats. The contrast of the Democratic vision with the Republicans record should be crystal clear.

But the key to winning this election is also attitude. Newt Gingrich had and continues to have plenty of attitude. Howard Dean has attitude too. Although their philosophies are different Gingrich and Dean are really two of a kind. Having an attitude can be a good thing when leveraged at critical moments. Voters pick up the larger context from attitudes that are poorly expressed in words. The context is simply this: Republicans have bungled big time. It is time for people grounded in real life to run the government again. And this is best communicated through attitude and simple slogans. If we are looking for leadership I trust that Howard Dean will be able to distill it for us into a simple message. We need to be wise enough to trust him.

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