How the Democrats lost their way | Citizen | Indy Week
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How the Democrats lost their way 

The party's fighting spirit extinguished, it's time to rekindle a new progressivism

Halfway through October, it's now clear that most of my grass is dead. Not dormant, dead, following the hot, dry summer. I mourn its loss. Are the Democrats dead, too, from the tea party's hot air?

I'm not talking about Democratic candidates. Many of them are still with us, if only because they're running against Republican opponents who've practiced witchcraft at some point in their personal or political lives.

No, I'm talking about the Democratic Party as clarion of full employment and stalwart for working people and the poor. I'm talking about the party that stood for labor in its battle with capital, for sharing the profits of growth more equally and for expanding the middle class.

Is this ideal of the Democratic Party dead? Or is it just dormant?

This question came to me as I pondered the first debate—and thus far the only debate that was televised statewide—between Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and his Democratic challenger, Elaine Marshall. To my amazement, it was Burr, not Marshall, who declared clearly and without equivocation that the country is headed in the wrong direction. And it was Burr, not Marshall, who clearly identified the cause of the problem: government overspending.

Now, I must say, blaming the Great Recession on government overspending makes about as much sense as blaming the Red Cross for Haiti's earthquake. But merely to say that Burr was wrong misses the point. Right or wrong, Burr understood this much very well: The American people may not know why their economy is crumbling beneath them, but they do understand that it's crumbling—and they're angry about it.

They want their political leaders to be angry too.

And on this score, Marshall's response was scattershot at best. Folks are frustrated, she began, because they see the American Dream slipping away from them. But soon she was offering a rosier view: In North Carolina "we're in great shape" to bounce back, she said, because of our schools, community colleges and universities. "We're very well set" because of our military bases. "They're building our state for us," she beamed.

Did the federal stimulus work? "The jury is still out on that one," Marshall said.

Health care reform? An ugly bill, Marshall said. "But a lot of the ugliness has been worked out."

Afghanistan? Marshall took a deep breath before answering. She said she opposed Obama's troop surge "in the primaries," but now she's decided that the military "should have the ability to conduct their withdrawal as they see best fit (sic)."

Next thing you knew, Marshall was literally throwing up her hands. "Different regions are not going to be all the same," she said. "So—I'm going to rely on the military leaders on that one."

After 30 minutes, I gave up. Burr's answers made no sense. But at least they were answers, delivered with the self-assurance of a former appliance salesman. Whereas Marshall, by her body language and her words, conveyed the message that she doesn't know what to make of the American situation.

I suspect that anyone who tuned in looking for guidance from the Democratic candidate gave up on her before I did.

Again, the point isn't whether Marshall was right or wrong. She was saying that there are no easy answers, that the problems are complicated, and change must be incremental.

True.

But in circling every issue, Marshall allowed Burr to be the one who was alarmed at the country's direction; Burr to be worried that we lack any long-term vision; and Burr to be concerned, finally, "for the millions of Americans that are out of work right now that haven't felt the effects of this stimulus package—it's hard to convince them that [the stimulus] really kept us from going off the cliff."

It got to the point that Burr could even get away with reproving Marshall for her apparent complacency. "For every unemployed American," Burr concluded, turning to lecture her directly, "it's as bad as it gets."

Not for first time this year, I was taken aback by the tea party audacity of the Republicans. How do they keep a straight face as they blame the Democrats for an economic disaster that began while George W. Bush was president and Republicans ran the Congress?

It's the Democrats who should be angry. But they don't seem to be—or they don't show it outside of a closed fundraiser. There just isn't enough fight in them when they come face-to- face with the voters. Lord knows, the tea party put some fight in the Republicans.

It makes me wonder, where is the Democrats' version of the tea party?

No question, Republicans share a vision for how the economy should work. The public sector should be smaller and spend less. Investment decisions should be made by corporations, small businesses, banks and individuals, and not by government. In this set-up, working people will sink or swim according to their talents. But the fear of sinking will be excellent motivation to improve one's skills.

There's also a military aspect to Republican thinking, which goes that the American way of life is so much to be desired in the rest of the world that where we see it absent, we should attempt to impose it through trade and diplomacy; but if they fail, military means "must always be on the table."

I defy you to find a Republican candidate at any level who won't sign on to the above, with some possible caveats about Social Security and Medicare that they don't mean—and they know you know they don't mean them.

Is there a corresponding Democratic vision? I contend there is, and I can state it in a way that most Democrats would support. But as soon as they become Democratic candidates, they either don't support it or they forget to say it. Or what's really infuriating, they do say it but they bury it in such a cloud of Republican-sounding bull that nobody knows what they're talking about.

The Democratic vision begins with the recognition that economic inequality has been growing in the United States since the 1970s and is now at levels unsustainable by a democratic society. In the '70s, for example, the share of the nation's annual income taken by the top 1 percent of earners—the rich—was about 10 percent. Now, it's more than 20 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and is approaching the all-time record of 24 percent set in 1928, just before the Great Depression.

While the rich get richer, they're taxed less: The top 1 percent, those who receive $1 million a year in income or more, paid 29.5 percent of it in federal taxes (including Social Security taxes) in 2007; in 1979, that figure was 37 percent.

Two major causes of this inequality have been globalization and free trade: With capital free to move across national borders, multinational corporations and their financiers can seek the cheapest labor—in economic terms, the most efficient labor—wherever it's found. Often it's found in China.

The effect of free trade with China can be seen in the fact that we imported nearly $300 billion in goods from China in 2009, while China bought less than $70 billion worth of our goods. But it's not just China. The fact that the United States consistently runs enormous trade deficits with all other nations combined means the value of the American dollar is steadily eroding—in effect, cutting the pay of American workers even if their jobs haven't been outsourced.

In addition to free trade, though, there's another set of problems with the American economy that can be summed up in a single word: waste.

We spend about $400 billion a year on imported oil, depending on the per-barrel cost. That's a waste compared with what we could be doing if our transportation systems—automobiles and mass transit—ran on electric power generated by solar, wind and other domestic sources.

We spend an estimated $2.4 trillion annually on a health care system that gives us no better results than many other industrialized nations achieve for one-third, or even one-half, less money per capita. A more efficient health care system could save Americans $1 trillion a year.

We spend more than $700 billion a year on defense, a figure that climbs to $1 trillion-plus when defense-related spending by the intelligence agencies, NASA and the Department of Energy is included. In addition, we've spent nearly $900 billion on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our military spending is estimated to equal the rest of the world's combined. Is it winning us any friends? Or true security? Or are we creating more enemies with every bomb we drop?

Curbing the American appetites for war, imported oil and overpriced health care could easily add up to $2 trillion a year in savings to the American people—some of it in the form of reduced government spending on the military and health care, but a lot of it just from savings on our day-to-day expenses like filling the gas tank with money that ends up either in Saudi Arabia or a BP account in Europe.

Curbing this waste would also dramatically improve the efficiency of the American economy, offsetting lower labor costs in other places while giving us money to invest in such 21st-century must-haves as public transit, education and elder care.

I believe most Democrats would support:

  • a system of universal health care that is a single-payer national plan like most industrialized nations have or is competitive on price with a national plan;

  • a crash program to eliminate the need for imported oil by investing in renewable energy sources and in the domestic workforce to supply them;

  • a peace agenda, including withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign outposts, making the use of military force once again a last resort;

  • fair-trade policies that protect American jobs and the value of the dollar;

  • progressive taxation on sky-high salaries and bonuses, like the $100 million-a-year packages common for Wall Street and multinational corporations;

  • more money for public education from preschool to graduate school, with the goal that every American should understand the world he or she lives in, as well as be ready to compete in it.

None of these is an overnight solution. Nor are they uncontroversial. Peace? Oddly, it's very controversial, so you don't hear about it from very many Democratic candidates this side of Dennis Kucinich.

Still, the fact that this platform, or one like it, does not roll off the lips of every Democratic candidate at every level is why candidates like Marshall struggle when they try to describe a vision for the country.

Which begs the question: Why are Democratic candidates afraid to put their vision out there? And the simplest reason is, because it hasn't been heard since Ronald Reagan was elected, and Democratic candidates learned to win by aping his free-market rhetoric. Three decades later, simple ideas that were once Democratic orthodoxy are so unfamiliar to the electorate that they sound radical, even socialist. Most Democrats also support gay rights, women's rights, labor rights, affirmative action and comprehensive immigration reform.

Yet most white working people do not welcome these positions on "rights," not out of unfairness, but because they want fair economic treatment—and a job—themselves before they can think about what's fair for everybody else.

With unemployment at more than 9 percent and, counting underemployment, close to double that figure, working people aren't going to listen to a lecture about gay rights from a Democratic candidate who can't say, first, how to turn the economy around.

I'm old enough to remember when full employment was the promise not just of every Democrat but also every Democratic candidate, from presidents Kennedy and Johnson down to your local Democratic ward leader. In fact, ward leaders (or "healers") were there to get you a job if you needed one, were sober and you agreed to return the favor with a contribution and your vote at election time.

This was what former House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill referred to as the politics of tax, spend and elect—you taxed the rich, spent their money on schools, roads and public hospitals, and you elected Democrats. It was a can't-miss system, as there were far more people who were working-class than rich. There was also no Fox News to feed a Republican line to the masses, only strong labor unions and the Democratic machine.

So it was discouraging to read on Sunday in The New York Times Magazine ("Education of a President") that President Obama thinks his problems stem from looking too much like "the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat." In addition to which, the Times reported: "Most of all, [Obama] has learned that, for all his anti-Washington rhetoric, he has to play by Washington rules if he wants to win in Washington."

I thought he was playing by Washington rules.

Looking back, my first inkling that Obama was headed for trouble came early in the battle for health care reform, when he was still saying he wanted a public option. But he'd already neutered the one organization that might've helped him get a public option: the army of 10 million campaign volunteers called Obama for America.

Instead of preserving OFA as an independent fighting force, however, Obama turned it into a toothless appendage of the Democratic National Committee. So by mid-2009, when a real OFA would surely have been hitting the streets for the public option, the faux OFA—now called Organizing for America—was limited to a vague set of health care principles that brought few volunteers forward and excited none of them.

It turns out, of course, that Obama was cutting a deal with Big Pharma, the hospitals and the health insurers to ditch the public option, a move that both cost him his army and eliminated any serious effort to contain health care spending in the final reform law.

My take on Obama: Yes, he looks to many like a "tax-and-spend liberal," because every Republican in Congress seems to have signed an oath to call him one as often as possible—and every "balanced" news story repeats the charge.

But to Democrats, he looks like anything but the "tax, spend and elect" Democrat that Tip O'Neill described. Instead, he looks like a president who naively believed his own rhetoric about bipartisanship and hasn't yet realized that in Washington, the chance of bipartisan cooperation on any aspect of the Democratic agenda is zero.

Like Marshall, Obama's a victim of the self-fulfilling prophecy that because no Democrat can survive if he's labeled a tax-and-spend liberal and no Democrat can express the tax-and-spend vision that is the soul of the Democratic Party and its only answer to our continuing economic slide.

Which brings me back to the subject of the tea party.

I'm also old enough to remember when the Republicans almost always lost to the Democrats because they sounded so much like milquetoast imitations of the real thing. The only exceptions were war heroes (Eisenhower), rich liberals (Nelson Rockefeller)—and moderate Republicans when the Democrats got caught stealing from the public till.

But then Barry Goldwater famously declared that extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice. Ever since, Republican candidates have taken extreme positions and repeated them so often—aided by campaign contributions from their wealthy patrons—that their falsehoods have come to sound commonplace. Tax cuts for the rich will bring us private-sector jobs, they say. Really? Won't those private-sector jobs end up in Asia?

And if any GOP candidate strayed from the party line, he was sure to be called out as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and be challenged by a "true" conservative in the next Republican primary.

By such means, the Republican Party has eliminated virtually every liberal and moderate from the ranks of its elected officials, assuring that from Congress to the statehouses to the county commissions and city halls, there are no Republicans willing to cut deals with Democrats.

The tea party is just the latest manifestation of this purge process. Instead of a moderate former governor, Delaware Republicans nominated a wackjob conservative, Christine O'Donnell, for U.S. Senate knowing full well that she'd lose the election and the moderate, Mike Castle, would win it.

This is the mentality of a party that considers itself permanently in the minority—and remember, it is permanently in the minority at least until the rich outnumber the rest of us—even on those occasions when it actually wins a majority in a legislative body or in Congress.

But it's a party that doesn't need to control Congress, as long as the Democrats who are in control go along with Wall Street, free trade, globalization, tax cuts for the rich and the rest of the Republican agenda.

Meanwhile, Democratic officeholders continue to view themselves as part of the governing majority even when the Democratic Party is in the minority. Why is this? It's because holding the office is what counts, with the chance to influence policy around the edges, even though the Republicans may be in power.

Since 1970, presidents have come and gone, and control of Congress has shifted back and forth, but for most of the time Democrats have either controlled both houses of Congress or been very close to it. From the standpoint of those Democratic officeholders, then, things have been going along well enough—even though the middle class is shrinking, blue-collar workers are an endangered species and the gap between rich and poor has widened to levels never seen outside of Third World countries.

This makes me angry, I can tell you that.

And to be clear, I know that it makes Elaine Marshall angry too; she just doesn't have the language at her disposal to express anger, because the language of working-class politics has fallen into such disuse.

Here's my thought. We need a Democratic tea party to bring it back. Democratic challengers who'll run in their party primaries and make the progressive agenda as commonplace for voters to hear as the ideology of the right-wing Republicans has become.

No, they won't win—or not any time soon. Barry Goldwater was crushed when he ran.

But until they try, "serious" Democratic candidates will keep forgetting to say why they're Democrats, and the Democratic ideal will be not just dormant, but as dead as my formerly flourishing grass.

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