In Congressional elections this fall, Republicans hope voters’ decisions will be made strictly on local issues. But Democratic strategists increasingly realize that their hopes for victory hinge on their ability to make the fall election a national referendum on Bush, Congressional Republicans and whatever alternative Democrats choose to present.
The reasons are clear: Nationally, the Republicans are tied to Bush, whose approval ratings are tanking on everything from Iraq to the economy. This even extends to his political trump card: Half of Americans now disapprove of his handling of terrorism. And according to a mid-March national poll, on a “generic” congressional ballot, voters prefer Democrats to Republicans, 55 percent to 39 percent – the largest lead Democrats have enjoyed in such polls since the 1982 midterm election. Republicans are losing ground even among former Bush supporters and in traditionally “red” regions, such as the South. As polling analyst Ruy Teixeira writes, “views about Bush are nationalizing the election in the Democrats’ favor.”
And yet, while public sentiment may be favoring the Democrats, race-by-race analyses of the open ‘06 seats show Republicans maintaining control of the House and, to a lesser degree, the Senate. These incongruous predictions reflect the power of incumbency and the ways in which Republicans have created a lopsided lock on federal government.
Despite the odds, Democrats can win. But it won’t be enough simply to capitalize on a growing public sense that Bush is “incompetent,” as polls suggest and Democratic leaders have reiterated with relentless joy. As Michael Dukakis pathetically demonstrated in his 1988 presidential race against Bush’s father, Democrats can’t win simply by claiming greater competence.
The beginnings of a plan
The problem with the Bush administration is not incompetence, but core policies and strategies. The Iraq invasion failed because it was a flawed strategy, not because of incompetent execution. The immediate post-invasion administration failed in large part because the Bush administration imposed a fundamentally misguided, ideological program of neoliberal privatization.
Democrats need an alternative vision. They’ve been reluctant to produce it, excusing this inaction by arguing that Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, which gave Republicans national coherence and a landslide victory in 1994, debuted late in the campaign. In late March however, they made a start towards defining their alternative with a national security plan dubbed “Real Security.”
“Real Security,” however, is a cautious, unsatisfying compromise between political expediency and serious strategy, hampered by real divisions among Democrats. The plan does include worthy initiatives: accelerated control over “loose nuclear materials;” energy independence (focused on efficiency and renewable fuels, not nuclear power); better homeland security (fully implementing the 9⁄11 Commission proposals); better support for soldiers, veterans and domestic first responders; and more use of international alliances to eliminate conditions that foster terrorism.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, concluded that “the strategy includes concrete proposals that would make the country safer and go far beyond what the Bush administration has been willing to do.”
But Democrats, anxious to show themselves as tough (but smart), haven’t broken with Bush’s military strategy for national security. Rather than call for a complete revamping of the military budget, including deep cuts in irrelevant cold war weapons, nuclear bombs and missile defense – as the Center for Defense Information, a military reform advocacy group, has advocated – the Democrats are arguing for an expanded military. And “Real Security” continues to emphasize the idea that the United States must be willing to “project” military power – that is, to intervene or threaten to intervene in other countries. In short, the plan fails to offer a new global political and economic strategy that provides real power and real security.
“Most high-ranking Democratic officials continue to believe that a ‘muscular’ approach to national security is their best bet for returning to power,” writes William D. Hartung, a fellow of the World Policy Institute at the New School in New York. “But trying to beat the Republicans at their own game – fear-mongering in the service of ever-higher military budgets – is a losing proposition.”
Most glaringly, other than calling Bush to account for manipulating pre-war intelligence, the Democratic strategy offers no alternative on Iraq. With Bush saying that he intends to keep troops in Iraq at least until the end of his term, Democrats need to call for a timetable for complete withdrawal, with, at most, a residual armed force temporarily remaining in Kuwait. In early April even Sen. John Kerry joined ranks with Democrats like Rep. John Murtha in calling for timetables: immediate withdrawal if Iraqis do not form a government by May 15, and withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq by year’s end if they do.
Setting such deadlines makes sense both domestically and as foreign policy. Even though only 30 percent of people polled in a March NBC/Wall Street Journal survey favored immediate withdrawal, 61 percent disapproved of Bush’s handling of Iraq and 50 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate favoring withdrawing all troops in the next 12 months. But congressional Democrats are divided on which of the flawed alternatives to the current Iraq quagmire is the best. Many are worried about appearing “weak” on defense. And overall, they prefer to argue that Iraq has been a dangerous distraction from the real tasks of homeland security.
Creating real security
Ultimately, however, Democrats’ success will also depend on how they expand the notion of “real security” to include the growing economic insecurity of working-class and middle-class Americans. This was a major theme of a March conference organized by former Sen. John Edwards at the University of North Carolina, and it is the thesis of a forthcoming book, The Great Risk Shift, by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker.
According to Hacker and Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School, both of whom took part in Edwards’ conference, American families, from the poor to middle-class, face increased exposure to economic risk. Employers and government have compounded their problems by shifting responsibility for dealing with those risks to individual families. This massive transfer of risk has become, Hacker said, “the defining feature of American political economy.”
The result has been catastrophic: personal bankruptcies have gone up fivefold in the last 25 years. Rates of job loss are up and security of job tenure down. As individual incomes have stagnated, especially for men, families have relied more on both women’s earnings and on skyrocketing personal debt. Despite higher household earnings, these families have less discretionary income because the fixed costs of living, such as mortgages, childcare and medical care, have gone up so rapidly.
During the same period the risks of disruptions to family incomes from events such as layoffs have also tripled, Warren reports, then doubled again as both husband and wife face the risk. Family and workplace conflicts have become more economically threatening, as reported in a study from the University of California Hastings College of the Law titled “One Sick Child Away From Being Fired.”
Health-related costs are a major part of the great risk shift. Growing numbers of families lack health insurance: Over a two-year period, one third of non-elderly families go without insurance for some period of time. The out-of-pocket expenses are rising even for those with insurance. And since insurance is largely tied to employment, it often provides little help for the most seriously ill. In recent years, half of all personal bankruptcies have resulted from medical expenses, and in three-fourths of those cases, the families had health insurance.
By now, everyone recognizes that in the past quarter century the rich have indeed gotten much richer at the expense of everyone else. And the chances for people to move up economically have declined. But Hacker found that the chance that family incomes will fluctuate sharply from year to year has increased even faster than income inequality. This rising insecurity afflicts middle-class, white, two-earner families, but it takes a greater toll on women, minorities, single-parent families and low-wage workers.
If Democrats want to provide the “real security” that matters to most Americans, they must offer protection against these growing risks. That means providing better social insurance: universal health insurance, wage insurance, improved unemployment insurance and expanded public pension programs. It means guaranteeing free college education or equivalent technical training for everyone. And it means advancing a new strategy to regulate the global economy, a strategy that involves not only helping people adjust to global economic changes but ensuring that the benefits of globalization flow primarily to working people in all countries.
No doubt congressional Democrats will fail to embrace programs on the scale that Americans really need, especially when many of them voted for a Republican bill that punishes people who fall into personal bankruptcy. But consensus is growing among Democrats that global economic agreements must include labor and environmental protections. And new legislation in Massachusetts to provide health insurance for everyone in the state, while far from ideal, means it’s plausible that national Democrats will talk about universal health coverage. Promises of a higher minimum wage, better unemployment insurance, protection of social security and more college and pre-school educational aid should be easy winners for Democrats, especially if they couple paying for them with repealing tax breaks for the very rich.
Republicans still tout their “ownership society.” But most Americans want a sense of security in their lives – security that ironically will give them a chance to take creative risks. Hacker reports that a survey last year found that 29 percent of Americans valued the opportunity to make money over stability, while 62 percent favored economic security. Clearly this is what the vast majority of Americans want, even if they’re not always sure their government can deliver it. It’s the Democrats’ opportunity to make the case that they can deliver “real security” in all its meanings.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.