Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Winning Formula: Compassion and Toughness

Elections sure do have brutal consequences. From the immoral war in Iraq to economic policies that 19th century robber barons would have loved, our country is reaping the whirlwind of the Democratic Party’s ineptitude. That reality was on display during hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. The Democrats didn’t lay a glove on him while the media opted to focus on Senator Biden’s excessive verbiage and Ms. Alito’s tears instead.

As readers of the Intrepid Liberal Journal know I am tough on the Democrats. At one time the Democrats were renowned for their combination of compassion and toughness. They stood up to fascism under FDR and communism under Truman, Kennedy, and LBJ. Under all four Presidents, a safety net was established, a middle class nurtured, and the circle of opportunity expanded to include minorities. The Democrats were the party of the American Dream and nobody referred to them as the “mommy party.”

As a New York State resident I have to register with a party to participate in the primaries that nominate candidates for local, statewide, and national office. My state does not permit “crossover” voting in the primaries for independents. Since I believe in racial tolerance as well as acceptance of differing sexual orientations I can’t belong to the Republican Party. Indeed, I am offended by so called “moderate” Republicans who protest that they share my values of tolerance but empower fundamentalists, homophobes and bigots as long as they can benefit from economic policies favoring the wealthy. Simply put, knowing what the Republican Party stands for I cannot support them. I believe their leadership, platform, and policies to be indecent.

Yet I have no idea what my Democratic Party stands for other than their willingness to fight for a women’s right to choose, protect Social Security and not say mean things about gays. They say they’re for the little guy but as I wrote in my December 25th post entitled, “Merry Christmas From the Credit Card Industry,” their leader in the Senate Harry Reid supported the bankruptcy legislation, which passed in 2005. There is also little daylight between the front-runner for the Democratic Party’s nominee to be President – Hillary Clinton and George Bush on Iraq. Suppose Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton turn out to be their respective party’s nominees in 2008? Both are on record for supporting more troops in Iraq.

On economic policy the Democrats failed to stand up to President Bush’s first round of insidious tax cuts for the super wealthy in 2001. I remember watching former Senator and Democratic leader Tom Daschle interviewed on the Today show during the ’02 mid-term election campaign. He desperately tried to pivot the discussion from national security to Bush’s economic policies favoring the rich. When Matt Lauer asked Daschle if his fellow Democrats who supported Bush’s policies also favored the wealthy over the middle class, Senator Daschle was flummoxed. In fairness to the man, what could he do? Blast the caucus he supposedly led?

Say what you want about the Republicans and I take a back seat to no one in despising them – they have successfully marketed a brand with appeal to America’s mainstream: traditional values, tough on America’s enemies, and defenders of the American tax payer. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga has written and spoken persuasively about the Republican’s success in “branding” their party while the Democrats haven’t. Yes the Republican’s brand is disingenious but so were 1940s cigarette ads that portrayed their product as glamorous and patriotic.

Much has been written and said by concerned liberals who are desperate for the Democrats to regain their voice. On blogs everywhere we debate and argue incessantly – which is healthy for the cause – but we all seem to agree on one important theme: stop being wimps. The masterminds behind President Clinton’s 1992 victory, James Carville and Paul Begala have postulated in their new book, Take It Back : Our Party, Our Country, Our Future
that left or right is not as important as standing firm. For example, it sickened me to watch our party initially hesitate during the Terry Shiavo controversy. Why did my party require a poll before deciding what to believe about the federal government encroaching on a family matter?

Even standing firm however is not enough. Democrats need to put forward tangible ideas to demonstrate that we value work and service over wealth as well as sharing the values of mainstream Americans. Below are six ideas I’d like to put forward. In future posts I’ll present more policy alternatives in foreign policy as well as domestic issues to shape a more appealing brand for the Democratic Party.

  • Expand Access and Value of 401Ks - The Democrats were right to stop President Bush’s “shock and awe” privatization scheme for Social Security. The Democrats need to follow that up and advocate a plan for young workers, unskilled laborers, and minimum wage earners to generate wealth, promote savings, and facilitate an expansion of the middle class.
I propose that the federal government underwrite profit sharing pension plans for small and medium sized businesses. To put a human face on this, I’m thinking of a wholesale ophthalmic lens company I telemarketed at for several years in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Many of my colleagues were uneducated, unskilled and spent years working long hours for little pay. One former colleague is a real iron horse: lifting heavy boxes, picking hundreds of lens orders daily, and keeping the place clean. Sadly, he’s getting on in years, recently suffered a heart attack, has bad knees and can’t continue at this pace for much longer. But he can’t afford to quit either and isn’t suited for much else. It would be nice if his years of hard labor had some kind of payoff but my former employers never had a pension plan (and didn’t contribute one nickel for health insurance either while I was there). How many others like him are out there? How many unskilled workers with no union to stand up for them, limited ability to save because their paychecks are stretched to the max, and not much hope beyond a hard sweaty grind with limited reward?

Suppose we stopped subsidizing welfare for large corporations and giving multinational corporations tax breaks as they set up shop elsewhere? Why not give tax breaks to the small entrepreneurs and make it easier for them to take care of American workers? If they match contributions to their pension plans we should give them even additional breaks. That’s where real wealth can be generated: matching contributions from employers in profit sharing pension plans. Conservatives claim that tax breaks for the wealthy will trickle down to the rest of us. Truthfully the major beneficiaries of Republican tax cuts don’t invest it for the benefit of others but hoard it the way obese people hoard lard. Why not give the small entrepreneur a break instead if it benefits hard working employees such as my former colleagues in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn? Politically such a plan will illustrate that Democrats value work over wealth.

If I were an aspiring Presidential candidate in 2008, I would get on the phone with Gene Sperling, formerly an economic whiz kid in the Clinton Administration and now with the
Center for American Progress and ask him to crunch numbers for me on just such a proposal.

  • Class Based Affirmative Action – This one is going to get me in trouble among my fellow liberals – especially on Martin Luther King Day. Nonetheless, I think we have to consider transitioning affirmative action from a race/gender-based system to one that accounts for class. I fully acknowledge that racism is alive and well in America. The only thing I know for sure about being black in America is that I don’t know what’s it like to be black in America. However, it’s hard to justify a system that rewards an upper middle class black applying for college at the expense of a rural poor white applicant. Furthermore, the percentage of women graduating college today is actually higher than men. Affirmative action does not address the real gender bias that exists in this country: unequal pay for equal work. Finally, we’ve had a multi-ethnic explosion in this country and affirmative action doesn’t address discrimination among a cross spectrum of ethnicities not eligible to benefit from quotas. The one common denominator among all however is class. Class is the one great divide in America today that encompasses all races. Hence, a program that accounts for class will still uplift many minorities but also remove the sting of resentment from affirmative action opponents as it gives a helping hand to poor working class whites. Justice is served and the Democrats will benefit more politically.
  • Level the Education Playing Field – In my home state of New York, Governor George Pataki has shamelessly resisted a court order to provide more resources for public schools in New York City. Indeed, New York is a prime example of wealthy neighborhoods benefiting from the finest textbooks, computers and facilities while libraries in New York City schools still have books entitled, “Some Day We’ll Go to the Moon.” Indeed, the blue state of New York has a segregated public school system: affluent and less affluent. Typically, minorities find themselves in the less affluent districts and are penalized from separate and unequal education. It should not require a court order to mandate that all districts receive proportionate funding for their needs. We need national standards under the law directing how states distribute their education funding. Governor Pataki and others like him should not be able to short change minority youth in urban neighborhoods because their parents don't vote Republican.
New York of course is not alone. Republicans prefer to “starve the beast” in poor neighborhoods everywhere in order to legitimize school voucher programs. Vouchers, understandably is supported by minorities who hope to put their children in better schools. Ultimately, vouchers will only result in the gelding of public schools and society’s ability to provide a credible education regardless of income. However, if we change affirmative action as I proposed above, Democrats will be better equipped to challenge suburban voters about a fairer distribution of resources for public schools in poorer urban and rural communities. This isn’t only a matter of fairness but national security as well. While Republicans prefer to undermine the teaching of evolution, the whole world is leaping past the United States in math, science, engineering and information technology.

  • Guns – In 2004, I phone banked regularly to help elect John Kerry over President Bush. I knew we were in trouble after speaking to a voter in the heartland who had lost a good union job but planned to vote for Bush because he feared that, “Kerry wants to take away my gun.” At the time, the ban on assault weapons was about to expire and Kerry publicly excoriated Bush for his poor leadership on the issue. That scared this gentleman. I challenged him and asked if anyone tried to take away his gun while Bill Clinton was in the White House. He conceded that no one tried to take away his gun under President Clinton. When I followed up and asked how he could vote for Bush when he lost the job and benefits he had under Clinton, the gentleman responded, “Well, I think Kerry is a pussy.” So, I challenged him further and asked, “Kerry served in Vietnam and Bush flew airplanes for the Texas National Guard. Who’s the pussy and who isn’t?” He responded, “I’ll vote for who I Goddamn want too!” and slammed the phone. I realized afterwards that this gentleman was culturally locked. The gun issue massively contributed to his blinders on other issues. If the Democrats ever hope to be a majority party again it is imperative that we neutralize the gun issue. Personally, I think guns are an abomination. I would never want one in my own home. For much of the country however, guns are as much a part of life as breathing. I would rather let these people have their guns and retain their support for progressive issues such as jobs, education, and health care. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has written persuasively on this subject and concluded that Democrats should instead promote gun safety with technology such as trigger locks. That will save lives, garner the support of gun owners, and give the Democrats a fighting chance.
  • Modernize the GI Bill – Perhaps the most successful progressive legislation ever enacted was the GI Bill under FDR. Soldiers returning from World War Two were rewarded for their service with a helping hand from the federal government to pay for education and buy homes. Conservatives at that time protested that the law was a foolish waste of money the treasury could never support. Instead the national treasury was flooded with revenue thanks to the expanding middle class this bill helped create. With the benefits of the GI Bill, America’s “finest generation” became entrepreneurs and generated jobs from coast to coast. Today, Republicans criticize liberals for not supporting our troops while they can’t even supply them with body armor in the field and reduce their benefits at home. I propose that we reward every soldier risking his or her lives in Iraq and Afghanistan with a 21st Century GI Bill. Conservatives will no doubt complain about the cost. Too bad. Let them give up some of their precious tax cuts. This is a sacrifice we should all be willing to make.
  • Crack Down on Drugs – We have a jail industrial complex in this country that incarcerates recreational drug users for ridiculously long sentences while more violent criminals are released after shorter stays. Here in New York, Governor Pataki has failed to keep his promise about reforming the “Rockefeller Drug Laws” while our prisons are filled to the max. It’s not working. Instead of continuing with this worthless treadmill I propose the Democrats promote a policy of tough love. How about a nominee in 2008 such as former General Wesley Clark standing before the Democratic Convention and preaching to the youth of America that, “Recreational drug users have blood on their hands.” Affluent youth in suburbia are putting innocent lives in Columbia at risk every time they snort cocaine. The same with young people in urban communities. Adults too. America’s bad habits are financing the brutal trade of international narcotics and contributing to regular homicides in places such as Columbia. So why not make it a moral issue and illustrate that Democrats are not soft on permissive behavior?
I propose that instead of incarcerating recreational users, which accomplishes nothing, let’s put them to work. Let them complete a program of treatment and cleaning parks and public grounds in poorer neighborhoods. As part of the program they will have to be visible, wearing uniforms that lets everyone know why they’re picking up trash on highways. Upon completion of this program of labor and treatment, their record will be completely expunged.

My thinking is that the above proposals will help establish an appealing “brand” for the Democrats. To win the Democratic Party must identify themselves with compassion and toughness as it did a half century ago. That requires taking risks, challenging our orthodoxy, and not cowering underneath our beds whenever the Republican chicken hawks challenge our patriotism. Otherwise, Democrats will remain the minority party in spite of all the Republicans scandals. More justices in the mold of Samuel Alito will sit on the Supreme Court. Crony capitalism will continue unabated. More people will lose jobs and health benefits. And our proud country will go to hell and a hand basket.


pansophia said...

Hey there - I just found your post on Daily Kos and left my comment there!

josephus said...

Rob, I think you're right on -- but, as is so often the case, the right wing may have to cause a real crisis of some sort before people come to their senses and realize they've been had by liars, thieves, and hypocrites. When the ostensible leaders of the Democratic Party are Hillary, Kerry and Dean, the party has a long way to go before it understands what you're saying.

Rob said...

We're in agreement. The Democratic Party needs to be "re-branded." A party is typically identified by their standard bearers. Hillary, Kerry, and Dean (although I do respect Dean) is not the personification that the Democratic Party needs. I'm hoping that retired General Wesley Clark will have his act together in '08.

ira13ping said...

See, and I think the DLC & NDN is working on what you are talking about.

Anonymous said...


I agree with your comments but I am tired of hearing people put our Democratic party down as we "don't know what we stand for".

This happened because the Republicans STOLE our issues and now both parties are alike because they both hawk the same issues; but the Democrats identified them 10 years ago when the Republicans started calling it their issues.

The Republicans took hot button issues and vetted them through a slick marketing campaign, replete with catchy phrases and talking points. It is why they're considered liars, because they say one thing but stand for another.
Just as an example, they stand for small government but we have the largest top heavy government in recent times. They want less government intrusion, but are spying on us.

Go figure.

Rob said...

Respectfully, the Democrats must share the blame for their perception problems. I know the media is terrible and the Republicans have stolen some of their rhetoric as you suggest. Stealing rhetoric is part of politics. Bill Clinton was a master at it. He stole plenty of the Republicans rhetoric too. Remember, "the era of big government is over" line that he delivered during his 1995 State of the Union.

But when the Democrats Senate leader supports the bankruptcy law that passed last year for example, how the hell can you expect the public to differentiate between the two parties? When Hillary Clinton identifies with changing the law on flag burning, how the hell can you expect the public to differentiate between the two parties?

The Democrats need to be re-branded and having a "woes me" attitude about Democrats who believe the party needs to be challenged does not help the cause. Put up some ideas instead because the status quo isn't working. We don't have the White House, Congress, or the majority of the state houses. Obviously the Democratic Party has a problem. Democrats such as myself are determined to administer tough love for the party's own good. And our country's. You're tired of people attacking how the Democrats present themselves? Well I'm tired of being in the minority and watching our country go to hell and a hand basket. Come on. Get in the game.

Jade Lotus said...

Hi! I'll vote for u if u run for presidency in 2008!