Getting On Message

Dear Joe,

Democrats with too much discipline? Give me a break. There was no national Democratic message precisely because Democrats couldn’t agree on squat. You say they decided not to talk about the Bush tax cut. Wrong. Every one of them talked about it, but they canceled each other out because they said opposite things. Six Senate Dems up for re-election trumpeted their support for it; Max Baucus ran around Montana insisting it should be made permanent. Most other Dems campaigned against it—some, like Charlie Stenholm and other Blue Dogs because it will break the budget; others, like Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy (not up for re-election but making a lot of speeches) because it’s unfair.

You’re also wrong about Iraq: They weren’t mute. Almost all Dems talked about it. But here again, no message broke through because Dems were all over the map. Most supported the president. A few did so wholeheartedly (Max Cleland, Dick Gephardt). Some said we should go into Iraq only after Saddam rejects a Security Council resolution. A notable few (Kennedy, Wellstone, Gore, about 30 Democratic House incumbents) didn’t want to give the president blanket authority to go to war in Iraq and offered quite eloquent testimony why—some of the most nuanced and thoughtful foreign-policy statements I’ve heard in many years. None fit into a 20-second TV commercial though, which may be why they didn’t break through.

Of course Dems did their usual fulminating about Social Security, but it was nothing like a unified campaign. Some wanted partial privatization (let the Social Security Trust Fund diversify into stocks), most rejected privatization, some said the Bush tax cut threatened Social Security, a few resurrected Clinton’s idea of a new layer of private “USA accounts” on top of Social Security with government matching private savings on a sliding scale depending on family income.

You get my point. No national message, no national Democratic campaign, no Party.

As I’ve said, maybe Dems did everything they could. W. is hugely popular, the country is still traumatized by terrorism, most of the free TV air time before Election Day went to Iraq and then the sniper, most of the paid air time went to Republicans, who outspent Dems 3 to 1.

But still, Dems missed a big opportunity to stake out some clear positions and a few big ideas. And if the emerging presidential candidates don’t, you can kiss the Dems goodbye in ‘04.

So, what are the ideas and where are they? If you want to stick with your “middle of the spectrum” rhetorical nonsense, that’s your business. I’d prefer to talk about boldness and conviction.

First off, Democrats have to be willing to tell Americans what’s happened to jobs and incomes over the last two decades. It’s a national scandal that threatens to pull our society apart. At the least, Democrats should demand repeal of the portion of the Bush tax cut going to the top 2 percent. Use the savings to finance a two-year moratorium on payroll taxes on the first $15,000 to $20,000 of income. Eighty percent of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes. Make the choice clear: Republicans want a giant tax cut for the rich. Democrats want one for average working families.

Turn the old Republican blather about revenue-sharing on its head. Agree that the states are where the action is. But point out most states are now broke, with the result that school budgets are being slashed and social services whacked. Demand that the Feds do a $100 billion revenue-share each of the next two years.

Consolidate all federal and state employee health-care plans into a single large national plan which, because of its size, is able to negotiate terrific deals with health-care providers and pharmaceutical companies. Then let any citizen opt into it. Premiums will become so low that it will become the equivalent of a single-payer plan. Yet, because it’s voluntary, it won’t fuel the political opposition a single-payer plan would.

Expand the Earned-Income Tax Credit to become an all-purpose system for financing everything low-income people need, and get rid of all the complicated categorical programs with all their different eligibility criteria and bureaucratic bumbling.

On foreign policy, create a new global version of NATO designed to root out terrorists anywhere. Create the best and most elaborate global intelligence operation money can buy. But also recognize that if more and more people out there are willing to kill themselves in order to kill us, we’ve got to give the poor and cynical of the world something positive to believe in. Debt-forgiveness, foreign aid, economic development, literacy, immunization, and low-cost drugs for the Third World have to be understood as part of a new global effort to fight terror with hope.

Enough? Of course not. We need to flesh out details, explain why these things are important. Also come up with more ways young people can serve their country. And put strict limits on campaign contributions.

But it’s got to be a movement, Joe. It’s got to be sold at the grass roots, and the grass roots have to be able to develop and amend and build upon these sorts of ideas. Democrats will get nowhere with a lot of “position papers” going to presidential hopefuls who will promptly and appropriately chuck them.

All best,