Dems = Fairness, Strength, Inspiriation for the Future

Even though in late June another Bush-Republican lie was found out--that the White House puffed up the stature of recently eliminated terrorist Zarqawi so his death could be labeled a "turning point" in Iraq (actually, it may be making things worse)--it will not greatly help Democrats' chances to take Congress in 2006's midterm elections, though it certainly doesn't hurt their chances. This is because the Zarqawi lie is yet another Bush failure that will be drummed out of the collective mind of the "United States of Amnesia" by Bush-Republican talking points and distractions dutifully echoed by the media.

However, and increasingly, Democratic leaders seem to want to do something about this situation.

They are learning to navigate the reality that most American voters quickly forget all Bush-Republican dishonesties, and instead they are confronting the facts that as Democrats they must--and can--control their own political destiny and that their destiny is not ultimately tied to whatever new lie Bush or the Republicans are or are not called on.

The Democrats are finally countering the GOP agenda with a Democratic agenda truly good for America's future. (And, if they've been prudent, Democrats still have at least one key agenda item in reserve, waiting until closer to the 2006 midterm elections.) Hopefully, the Democratic agenda also will be presented by the right spokespersons. That agenda includes, principally:

1. increase the minimum wage,
2. lower prescription drug costs, and
3. slash interest rates on student loans.

Behind this New Direction that Democrats are offering America are also two smart political strategies they're embracing that stem from a harsh demographic truth: so isolated in a pro-Bush propaganda echo chamber has the GOP Religious Right-influenced base become that nothing short of a Bush murder cover-up (of a baby girl and her puppy) will convince tens of millions of mostly non-urban American voters that the Republican mode of government is a bad, bad idea for America's future.

"Fine," say the Democrats finally, "And here's what we'll do despite the nearly brainwashed state of those Americans who think Bill Clinton and Charlie Rangel are lovers or that Saddam Hussein had a role in 9/11."  We pledge that:
1) no part of the American electoral map will be surrendered--a 50-state plan for Democratic victory will be followed, and
2) the relentless GOP media machine will be countered, however comparatively weakly at present (patience, above all else, patience is needed), with determination and creativity--including by embracing the best of the progressive "blogosphere" and its activities that are merging into more mainstream modes of activism. (An example of that being the just completed YearlyKos convention in Nevada.)

Nonetheless, the Democrats have a lot of work to do if they are going to do well in the midterm elections 4 months away.

First of all, the GOP has its own emerging agenda, which is:

1. ban gay marriage,
2. ban flag-burning,
3. repeal the estate tax.

They've mostly accomplished the #3 point. Bad news for Democrats, since victory breeds momentum usually. Like the Democratic top-three ideas, these are all succinct, inspiring to broad swathes of their their base, either liked by or not objected to by large swathes of Independent voters, and able to be acted on decisively. In fact, with Republican control of all three branches of government, the "actionable" quality of these three ideas is even greater than the Democrats' three.

The Bushite agenda is even more formidable in light of other Republican advantages: a larger war chest (i.e., Big Money), media-savvy operations already in place for getting their message out (e.g., think tank spokespersons), and great "get out the vote" (GOTV) operations in place at the precinct level (in no small part through the use of local churches) and state levels (in no small part through the strong-arm machinations of Republican state officials, as in Ohio in 2004 or as in what's brewing in Georgia).

What is more, the Republicans ostensibly have the philosophical or narrative advantage; this is: many Americans believe that the Republican Party is the party of "smaller government, lower taxes, and military strength," and that sounds good. Conversely, the Democrats lack a single, coherent 1-line narrative about who they are.

To be sure, Bush doesn't follow the smaller government model very purely. This angers some conservatives, in fact. His policies actually have made the scarier parts of government--intelligence and the military--bigger, even as he's cut taxes far too much for those who are already very rich and own or control more of the nation and world all of the time. As a result, he's managed to bankrupt the US badly.

Regardless, the "smaller government and lower taxes" shibboleth remains largely intact.

During the last 30 years, Democrats failed to use internal debate and mechanisms like think tanks (which, to be effective, require paying well for research, writing, and media talent, something progressives seems oddly reluctant to do) in order to nurture liberalism itself and Party strength, like the Republicans did for conservatism and the GOP. In fact, Democrats allowed the Republicans to design Democratic livery for them! (I.e., "Democrats are the party of big government, higher taxes to help lazy people, and a weak military.") This is a persistent complaint in the progressive blogosphere.

While it is true the Democrats' narrative is comparatively ill-formed, it is also true that it is taking shape. What is more, the reckless spending, expensive and ill-planned military adventurism, and excessive tax-cutting of the past decade of Republican-dominated U.S. government offers an anti-Republican narrative ripe for the Democrats to exploit: the Republican party is the party of chaos at home and abroad.

Republicans are for the short-term only, for today's unfair free-for-all brawl, in which the individual can expect to lose against larger forces: the consumer versus the pharmaceutical companies; the parent who wants clean rivers for her children's future enjoyment (or a future America less dependent on oil) versus the big oil companies eager to drill anywhere they choose; the gay teenager set against a massive, corporate-style Christian Right media operation eager to spread lies about homosexuality, limit access to information, and deny freedoms; the middle-class worker who fears he'll never be able to retire, or will go bankrupt from medical bills later in life, versus the corporations and insurance companies.

Republicans want Americans to have the freedom to lose in life; you're on your own.

Democrats want Americans to have the freedom to win in life; government should do what it can to help make life a fair fight.

Whatever the contest the average American finds himself or herself in, to the Republican mind that contest is not about fairness; rather, it's about might making right; it's about the promotion of the golden rule--he who has the gold makes the rules...and you should just shut-up and be happy about it. For the Republican, no underdog deserves to have his or her rights protected; no individual deserves a leg-up in life, especially from the government. It's social Darwinism all of the way, with government having little to do with justice: it mostly exists to award contracts.

But the popular Democratic spirit that may be emerging offers a respite from such a Republican "life is chaos so why try to change it" philosophy.One person who is working on articulating the nature of this spirit is George Lakoff. But, he needs to be joined by others also working on on the same problem, including those who disagree with some of his conclusions.

For Lakoff, "social welfare, universal health care, improved public education, fair trade, labor unionization and a less warlike foreign policy can be articulated as forms of freedom" and good Democratic, American values. For Lakoff, the crux of the Democratic spirit is about freedomfor all, and not just freedom for only those who can afford it by coming out on top of a nasty, self-oriented, grab-what-you-can Republican style of government and thinking.

For Lakoff,

Progressives could demand that the wealthy pay their 'fair share' to enjoy the 'freedoms' guaranteed by such government-funded infrastructure as the highway system, the Internet, the court system, the banking system and so on. (Lakoff points out that the rich tend to use more of these resources than others do.) Instead of allowing themselves to be portrayed as anti-business, progressives [can] say that they want to protect citizens from the sway of big corporations -- like HMOs and oil companies -- which, unlike an elected government, have no accountability to the public.

For Lakoff, even taxes and government regulations exist as ways to improve the common good and ensure greater freedom for a greater number of Americans.

As Lakoff explains, taxes are not "a restriction on a person's economic freedom," but rather are, as progressives understand, "each citizen's contribution to a commonwealth that provides more freedoms than most of us could afford on our own." Similarly,

Government regulations don't limit the freedom of business, they free citizens from threats to the commonwealth like pollution or defective products. They liberate citizens from unfair discrimination that would otherwise prevent them from freely realizing their dreams and potential.

There more to Lakoff's thinking, however, than how Demcratic values resonnate with the concept of freedom. He also rightly reminds Democrats that whether the Democratic narrative has to do with freedom or other virtues, in order to get it to stick in people's minds and influence their voting, it must be associated with the right style of candidate in each election, too . . . because people are not purely rational creatures voting solely on policy ideas and lofty principles. Lakoff insists that Republicans "know that American voters prefer to select candidates . . . on the basis of how they feel about them as people. 'It is not that positions on issues don't matter,' Lakoff writes. 'They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves.'"

This leads me to two lingering issues: Iraq and 2008 Democratic presidential candidates.

Iraq as an issue will loom large in 2006. Frankly, neither the Democratic or Republican position on Iraq is coherent, but the Republicans are doing a better job for framing their non-position, which they do by endlessly saying that they oppose "cutting and running," which implies that Democrats are in favor of cutting and running, and which deflects attention from the fact that remaining closely-bound to Iraq and lingering there is a recipe for yet more terrorism globally, more U.S. casualties in Iraq, huge continuing expense, and other very negative outcomes.

The Democrats need to work on a better plan for Iraq, but at least they are basing their current ideas--however incompletely formed--on reality, on a commonsensical recognition that the longer we stay in Iraq the worse things seem to get, the more isolated we become as a nation, and the more our occupation inspires terrorists.

A Democratic plan for Iraq should almost certainly call for a set of benchmarks that would trigger stages of a withdrawal, and an estimated time line for when the benchmarks would be reached. Such a time line could motivate the international community (possibly even UN peacekeepers from neighboring nations?), numerous agencies, and of course the Iraqi government and armed forces to begin to see a post-US future in Iraq as an inevitable reality, and to work to make it happen, and to better prepare for the reality afterward.

If Democrats can do this, I will be relieved. They are making steps in the right direction; but, an Iraq policy and compelling message for that policy are not easy things to craft given the tangled mess the Bush administration has created in that beleaguered nation.

Then there is the issue of 2008 Democratic presidential candidates. Operating on the optimistic presumption that a strong Democratic agenda and agenda frame ("message," "pitch," "presentation") is crafted, it needs the right carrier in 2008. Actually, describing the problem that way presents a false dichotomy, for the carrier--the candidate--needs to be a part of the frame itself. Is there a candidate out there for the Democrats that represents the narrative of fairness, a better future, and freedom, who is strong and likable, honorable and fresh, proven but progressive? Is it Wes Clark? Russ Feingold? Mark Warner? Hillary Clinton? Barak Obama? Even Eliot Spitzer? It is far too early to know who that candidate is. Perhaps it will be someone not yet known, but who will so embody--so skillfully help craft--a successful and as-of-yet still-emerging Democratic message that many Americans--including many non-Democrats--will see him or her not only as a Democrat, but chiefly as the right President for the right time, and re-establish in peoples' minds the association of true leadership with the Democratic Party.

It can't happen too soon.

Tags: agenda, bullet points, Democrats, Framing, messaging, talking points (all tags)

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