Sounds simple enough. Democrats run a national campaign centered
on expanding Medicare to the entire population. Roused from somnambulance,
nonvoters head for the polls in droves, sweeping Democrats into
Congress and the White House on a progressive platform and fundamentally
altering the nation's direction. All Democratic leaders have to
do is shun their myopic political consultants, follow the instincts
that led them to become Democrats in the first place, and tap "a
deep well spring in this country of progressivism," former Labor
Secretary Robert Reich told a simpatico crowd in Los Angeles in
Universal health care, universal child care, increased and equitable
education spending, meaningful campaign finance reform, protection
of the environment and other elements of a progressive agenda enjoy
widespread support nationwide, Reich claimed, even among people
who may not think of themselves as progressives. They're not really
issues of the left, right or center, he contended. They're just
things that people care about, people like the growing number of
folks whose all-consuming efforts to stay afloat have prompted the
latest pop sociology categorization, DINS or double income, no sex.
Reich's audience ate it up--which is part of the problem.
Reich was speaking to a session optimistically titled "Wake Up
Back the Country" co-sponsored by the Southern California Americans
for Democratic Action, the Campaign for America's Future and the Progressive
Caucus. Hundreds showed up to take back the country, one presumes,
and to listen to politicians, activists, authors and others who are
well known within the progressive community, but almost never invited
to appear with Sam and Cokie on This Week. As Reich himself
complained, he was at the wrong place. Instead of speaking to people
who would spend a Saturday in June listening to, well, people like
him, progressives need to be speaking to those "who are doubtful about
what you are saying."
Jessie Jackson Jr. gives
Democrats a wake-up call.
CHRIS MARTINEZ/LA OPINION
That would be mainstream Democrats, as far as Jesse
Jackson Jr. is concerned. In the course of suspecting a centrist
Democratic Party will blow the opportunity posed by the "accidental
majority" in the Senate, the Illinois congressman spoke almost enviously
of right-wing fervor. Republicans organize elections around the
right to own a gun, the desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, or
calls to protect the flag. Republicans, Jackson said, "are fighting
for rights they believe are fundamental to who they are." Democrats,
by contrast, "fight for incremental legislation that even our base
doesn't take seriously." Democrats, too, need to run campaigns based
on rights, Jackson said. For instance, he backs a constitutional
amendment establishing health care for all.
Neither Jackson's championship of principle nor Reich's conceptual
unearthing of a progressive majority is likely to be embraced by
current Democratic congressional leaders--a point not lost on those
attending the conference. After all, the breakfast session featured
a menu of muffins, fruit and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt,
who stressed the importance of fiscal responsibility.
Hence the Achilles heel of a clear progressive agenda that will
rally voters--who's actually going to tell the voters? The Campaign
for America's Future, in league with the Progressive
Caucus, is raising money to funnel to progressive Democratic
candidates for the all-important early stages of campaigns, explained
CAF co-director Robert Borosage.
Reich floated another idea, calling for a midterm National Democratic
Convention in 2002 to force party leaders to address activists in
the ranks. Such a convention could not only publicize a clear progressive
agenda, but help persuade politicians that such an agenda would
tap the latent electoral force of the group that vastly outnumbers
consultant-treasured swing voters: nonvoters. Constituting more
than 50 percent of eligible voters in the country, Reich noted that
nonvoters tend to be low-income, urban, working-class, often single
mothers--folks who stand to benefit most from the implementation
of progressive policies.
But if nonvoters identify with progressives on policies, they personally
identify with conservative politicians. It's one of the main reasons
why they don't vote. When Republicans blast government, and by extension
politics, Reich noted, it merely reinforces the skepticism and disaffection
nonvoters already feel. Conservatives keep nonvoters sidelined with
a message that has been pounded so vigorously for so long it has
earned almost tacit acceptance. And it's quite simple: Government
Progressives may have to respond with comparable simplicity, if
considerably more provocation, by saying government is good--and
would be even better if it were paying for your family's health
care. But saying that at a conference full of enthusiastic listeners
doesn't necessarily mean that anyone else will hear it. There is
no groundswell of support among Democrats for Reich's call for a
midterm convention. Jackson's case for social change by constitutional
amendment has generated the media and political equivalent of a
vacant stare, even within his own party. And nobody in the general
public has ever heard of the Progressive Caucus.
If it accomplished anything, the conference may have reinforced
a growing willingness to take a break from making fun of Republicans,
and to learn from the strategies that seem to have worked so well
for the GOP over the past several years. Warren Beatty went so far
as to suggest a "Democratic Contract With America" short and simple
enough to crack "the short attention span of the channel surfer
But it isn't that simple. Republicans didn't win control of Congress
in 1994 with a message alone. Newt and his pocket-sized revolution
succeeded because conservatives were building on decades of local
activism. As a rule, progressive activists have yet to energetically
scour their communities searching for School Board candidates.
That type of grassroots organizing and energizing is the long-haul
solution. In the meantime--2002, 2004--the best progressives might
hope for is summed up by arguably the least progressive person attending
the conference. Gephardt contended that nonvoters will get energized
about increased education spending, incremental movement toward
"health care for everybody who's an American citizen" and other
policies that constitute the more ambitious components of what passes
for today's Democratic agenda. "We can get millions of people to
vote who haven't voted," Gephardt said, "if we can get it across
and they believe it's authentic."
But even if that top-down strategy will work, it comes with a catch.
Nonvoters aren't likely to believe a progressive agenda is authentic,
unless it is.