Democratic Dos and Donts

Rep. Jan Schakowsky

The Bush Administration and Republican Congressional leaders have plenty of reason to be worried. Large majorities of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, that Bush doesn’t share their priorities, that the war in Iraq wasn’t worth it, and that the President can’t be trusted. Most people can’t think of anything Congress has done except for intruding in the Terri Schiavo case, and almost everyone disapproved of that. Democrats in Congress, while still not earning high ratings, are ahead of the Republicans by the largest margin in recent times. And I haven’t heard anyone raving about what a genius Karl Rove is lately.

The turf is favorable, but we’ve been there before – in 2000 and 2004. What should progressives do as we approach the 2006 elections to capitalize on Americans’ sense of unease and discontent?

I suggest two Don’ts” and three Dos.” First, progressives and Democrats don’t need an extreme makeover. Far from it. We do not need to rethink our values and principles, rewrite our agenda or move to the center.” Polls taken the day before the 2004 election as well as the day after tell us clearly that the Democrats are already where most Americans are on the issues and also on values. The post-election Zogby poll asked respondents to name the moral values most important to them. Two to one, they named greed and materialism” and poverty and economic justice” over abortion” and same sex marriage.” They share our values. We do, in fact, represent the aspirations of the majority of Americans. 

Don’t” number two is our tendency to talk about our beliefs in terms of programs and policies. I have a ten-point health care plan. I have a housing policy. The right-wingers talk in terms of right and wrong.” Right and wrong trumps programs and policies every time. 

My three Dos”: First, do what your mother said – or at least what my mother said – stand up straight. What people like least about progressives and Democrats is that they think we’re squishy. They think Bush is tough, knows what he believes and is willing to fight for it. Americans like tough, even when they don’t entirely agree with the substance. Voters like tough; voters don’t like tentative.

Standing up straight requires staying on the offensive. If we are playing defense, we are losing. The Republicans are providing us with a wealth of opportunities – unlimited examples of abuse of power, multiple examples of plain old corruption and greed, predatory economic policies, the quagmire in Iraq, threats to our Constitutional rights and devastating environmental policies. 

Nothing should stop progressives from proudly and aggressively standing up in opposition to conservatives’ assault on fundamental, mainstream American values and sensibilities. Most Americans agree that it’s just plain wrong to give millionaires a $140,000 annual tax break, or eliminate the estate tax for 52,000 U.S. families at a cost of nearly $1 trillion over ten years, or reward companies that exchange good jobs at home for slave-wage jobs overseas, and at the same time starve education, Medicaid, veterans’ health care, and even homeland security. Most Americans resent being lied to about going to war and about outing undercover CIA agents. So many offenses, so little time.

The second Do” – say it again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Steve Chapman, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune observed that in math, 1000 = 0. In politics, you say something a hundred times and it adds up to something. Consider the repeal of the estate tax, which is nothing more than a giveaway to (as my mother would say) the filthy rich.” The President calls it the death tax. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and right-wing talk radio call it the death tax. The Washington Times writes about the death tax. And before you know it, the New York Times writes about the death tax, and since everybody dies, the public starts asking for relief from the death tax. Republican repetition of the same talking points may irritate you, but it represents the level of discipline that we need if we ever expect average Americans to hear what we stand for and be able to articulate it in one declarative sentence.

For the final Do,” I borrow from Nike’s successful corporate slogan Just Do It.” Quite frankly, I am sick of conversations about how disadvantaged we are because they control so much of the media or how the right-wing has been building its infrastructure for decades – even if it is true. If I had a dollar for every time a progressive whined about this, there would be enough money to balance the federal budget and fix Social Security for another 70 years.

Actually, the campaign to save Social Security is a perfect example of progressives just doing it,” as well as standing up straight, and saying the same thing again and again. In my decades as an organizer, I have never participated in such an intentional and effective collaboration among diverse organizations and members of Congress. All the stakeholders have been brought to the table to craft a strategy that maximizes the strength of each. The President has not made a single stop on his journey to privatize and ultimately destroy Social Security that has not been greeted by an enthusiastic, disciplined and, often, huge group of protesters. Republicans are scrambling for cover, afraid to hold town meetings of their own. While it’s not over til it’s over, we are winning the battle to protect and preserve Social Security.

I am optimistic; history is on our side. Rather than the beginning of a right-wing shift, I believe we are enduring its last gasp. This is a moment of opportunity for progressives; change is in the air. The 2006 Congressional elections are just around the corner, and we can’t waste a minute. Stand up straight, say it again and just do it!

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) gave this speech at the Campaign for America’s Future conference in Washington on June 42003.
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