Last November, at one of the most perilous moments in U.S. history, Americans gave Barack Obama and the Democrats a mandate to change the direction of the country. They wanted to turn a page from eight years of failure on almost every front.
Majorities favored a strong government hand in healthcare, more investment in infrastructure, aggressive action to combat global warming, tough measures to rein in corporate corruption, stronger enforcement of food and drug laws, protection of workers’ rights, an end to wars of aggression, better race relations and a humane immigration policy.
It was an opportunity for Obama and the Democrats to deliver bold and far-reaching policy changes. Yet the Democrats continue to cede political space to Republicans, even as the GOP teeters on the brink of self-destruction.
This Republican disarray means that the policy debate in Washington is for the Democrats to lose. But first, in order to win, Democrats must acknowledge the root of the problem. For more than 30 years they have failed to defend the state in the face of conservative attacks. This failure has facilitated a dangerous expansion of corporate power and weakened public confidence in government.
First, Democrats need to respond to the GOP’s anti-government message with simple, but passionate, references to day-to-day examples of positive governmental activity – local police and fire protection, Medicare, Social Security, the Veterans Administration, Air Traffic Control and groundbreaking discoveries produced by government-funded research.
Second, Obama should understand that bipartisanship is a means, not an end in itself. The president added unneeded tax cuts to the stimulus bill in the hope of winning Republican votes, but got just three in the Senate and none in the House. The cost-benefit analysis simply does not add up. If the GOP will oppose him anyway, it makes no sense for Obama to offer compromised proposals. Democrats should pursue bold and visionary ideas (like single-payer healthcare) and nominate real progressives to the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary. That would give the country a real debate about real choices.
Third, Democrats must learn that politics is as much about ideas as opportunity. When swine flu hit, Democrats never tried to connect it to healthcare reform. Rather than explain the potential dangers of millions of workers who prepare food in cafeterias, serve in restaurants and care for seniors and children going without health coverage, the president urged people to wash hands frequently and cover their coughs.
Fourth, Blue Dog Democrats must be reined in. They rode the wave of a progressive-leaning Democratic agenda and must not be allowed to frustrate progress. The president should go straight into Blue Dogs’ districts and call them out, loud and clear. Their opposition to healthcare reform, he should point out, is not grounded in some high-minded ideological principle, as they claim, but a straight up quid pro quo. They have been paid by the health and insurance industries to fight against “government healthcare.”
Lastly, labor and progressive movements must mobilize. History tells us, there is no substitute for movement-building to address major crises. The progressive movement must galvanize and force Democrats to deliver what the public voted for. To that end, we should consider a one-million strong march on Washington to demand jobs and healthcare.