How to sustain a Democratic majority

The Thinker by Rodin

About a year ago, I wrote that the Democratic Party needed to put together a new contract with America. How much in the 1994 election the House Republican’s Contract with America succeeded in aiding their rise to power is debatable. What are not debatable are the results. For whatever reason, be it “don’t ask, don’t tell”, Clinton’s health care initiative, or his actually very modest tax hike, American were in a surly mood twelve years ago. The results of the election though were stunning: Republicans picked up forty-four seats in the House of Representatives. The Republicans also took control of the Senate, picking up eight seats. In addition, the Republicans gained twelve governor seats, and won a majority of governor seats. Clearly, 1994 was a very good year for the Republican Party.

2006 offers the potential for Democrats to take back both the House and Senate, as well as claim a majority of the nation’s governorships again. Given that Bush’s poll ratings keep dropping (USA Today/Gallup today shows Bush at 31% approval) it may be that Democrats do not to do much to take back the Congress. You know things have gone from bad to worse when Bush’s support is eroding even among Republicans. Conservatives seem to be abandoning him, perhaps because he has actually vastly expanded federal spending instead of contracting it. Arguably, gas prices merely need to stay above $3 a gallon to seal the Democratic Party’s victory in November. This is certainly likely through Labor Day, since we have yet to hit the peak summer driving season and gas is already $3 a gallon in most of the country.

Democrats may discover that it is much easier being out of power than in power. Right now, they can claim not to be Republicans. That is plenty of incentive for people to vote for them, given the wreckage of the last six years of Republican government. However, that does not mean Democrats have a comprehensive plan to lead the country once they are back in power. It appears that now most Democrats are emulating Republicans, in the sense that they do not offer much in the way of an opposition platform.

Perhaps this characterization is unfair. Nancy Pelosi, currently the Minority Leader in the House, has recently announced plans for a one week blitz if Democrats win back the House. The plan includes raising the minimum wage, rolling back parts of the prescription drug plan for senior citizens, putting in place needed budget controls, and implementing new Homeland Security measures. I have sniffed around various Democratic web sites for the Senate, but Senate Democrats are missing an obvious comprehensive plan. Perhaps they think the odds of winning a Senate majority are too high to bother. There are many press releases from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s office saying what Democrats would do differently. Nevertheless, I can find nothing in the way of a comprehensive plan. If there is one, they do not seem anxious to crow about it.

Over at the Democratic National Committee, my man Howard Dean is on the right track with his plan to take back Congress and the White House. It involves a fifty state strategy and looks toward building Democratic majorities beyond the 2006 elections. He also has something that looks like a comprehensive plan to sell to voters. It includes such points as Keeping America Safe at Home, Affordable Health Care and Civil Rights. The only problem with his plan is that it is mostly an invention of the Democratic National Committee. How much of it will be embraced by Senate and House Democrats remains to be seen. For if Republicans are only recently discovering disunity, Democrats have traditionally embraced it. It would be harder to find two Republican senators as divided philosophically as Russ Feingold and Joe Liebermann. Moreover, many of the Democrats currently in office still have not learned to develop a backbone. A majority still seem to give lip service to winning the war in Iraq, even though a majority of Americans believes the war is unwinnable. Perhaps they think this is leadership. In reality, it looks increasingly foolhardy.

This lack of a plan will not do. What is the point of gaining back power if Democrats have no real plan on how to use their power once they have it? Where is the clear and distinguishing Democratic brand? It is very clear at this point to the vast majority of Americans what has not worked over the last six years. My suggestion for leadership can be summarized as follows: lead pragmatically, and not by ideology.

That is it. It is true that if Democrats were to capture Congress that there might be a clamoring from the left to attack a host of issues dear to them. They might, for example, want to allow gays to serve openly in the military. It is not that I disagree with them; it is just that concentrating on these issues, as Clinton did when he took office, when you are trying to solidify your base is the wrong approach. For a precious time we will have the tentative support of Middle America. If we want to get it back for the long term, it must be earned.

We can do it by acknowledging that the government’s mission has grown, it is not going away, so we need more revenue. Rolling back the tax cuts on the richest 10% of us is an obvious way to bring more money into the treasury with minimal pain to the country. We also need to curb the growth in defense spending which by all measures has reached the theater of the absurd. Our enemies are different now. While we still need to be prepared to fight one conventional war, and probably not two, what we also need is the ability to get better intelligence and have better strategies to handle asymmetric warfare better. Real homeland security, like inspecting all cargo containers coming into our country, is also an obvious thing to do.

We also need new environmental laws that address the reality of global warming. Even conservative Republicans seem to grudgingly acknowledge that global warming is real. Trying to meet targets in the Kyoto Treaty in the short term is unrealistic, but Democrats need to push for big changes in fuel economy standards and emissions for automobiles and trucks, with an emphasis on conservation of natural resources and minimizing the amounts of greenhouse gases that we emit. The energy debate should be reframed: it is not about having as much energy as we need (for we will always want more); it is about finding ways to have our needs satisfied with less energy. In many ways, it is a 1970s redux. It is about solar cells and solar heating. It is about requiring all new cars to integrate hybrid technologies and all trucks to use clean diesel technology. We need to be candid: the days of our wasteful energy use are over. We can never go back. Conservation of resources must be a criterion that directs all our national policy. In the process, we earn real national security, because we are no longer dependent on foreign supplies for our energy.

We also need to acknowledge what Bill Clinton knew early in his term and for which we foolishly pilloried him. We need to comprehensively fix our broken health care system. Our system is collapsing because employers are finding it nearly impossible to provide health insurance and stay in business. We need a tiered national health insurance system. I suggest Basic, Silver and Platinum individual and family plans. A basic plan should be available to all and should cover basic wellness and catastrophic medical costs. It would not cover prescription drugs. It would resemble the Medicaid system. A Silver Plan would look a lot like a HMO. It would offer prescription drug coverage and, yes, it would not cover every conceivable injury or disease. The employer could partially fund its cost. If the costs are fixed such that all employers pay equally, then no employer is disadvantaged. Businesses can get behind this form of national health insurance. Finally, there should be a Platinum Plan for those who can afford it, providing PPO and Blue Cross like coverage, with perhaps additional premiums born by the employee, or by employers who want to use it as a carrot for attracting top talent.

Clearly, both Social Security and Medicare need long term fixes. Medicare’s long-term viability is the larger problem, since it is likely to go broke sooner. Medicare and Medicaid should fold into a multi tier national health insurance system. All health care should morph into one system with three levels: Basic, Silver and Platinum. All need to be actuarially sound and be run by an independent board of governors (like the Federal Reserve) that are empowered to keep it that way.

Perhaps Social Security could also evolve into Basic, Silver and Platinum system. A Basic plan would be similar to what we have now, but with perhaps a later retirement age based on actuarial statistics and which makes it self-funding. A Silver Plan would include defined benefits from a 401-K like plan which would be paid for by contributions from both the employer and the employee. A Platinum Plan would include benefits beyond a silver plan funded wholly by the employee. It could be thought of as an IRA on top of a 401-K.

I could throw out many more ideas, but I think that these are common sense ideas that are likely to be embraced by most Americans. They would demonstrate that government could pragmatically deal with our toughest problems. They would also, coincidentally, keep Democrats in power far into the future.

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