Commenting on the Democratic debacle on election night 2002, James Carville remarked that the Democrats have to understand that people won’t believe you’ll fight for them if you won’t fight for yourself. It’s an insight that Howard Dean, at least, appears to have taken to heart. But is that posture enough to defeat George Bush in 2004? Probably not. It’s not just their greater combativeness that has given Republicans an electoral edge. They have been much more adept than Democrats at articulating neat, clean positions and yoking them to a larger social vision that speaks to people’s hopes and anxieties and that contrasts sharply with the worldviews attributed to their opponents.

Republicans are so bold, in fact, that it doesn’t even matter that the policies they advance to embody those positions do exactly the opposite of what they claim–as in “No Child Left Behind” or Medicare reform to provide prescription drug relief or “middle-class tax cuts.” They can count on the compelling nature of the larger vision they invoke, their disciplined insistence on their message, the reality that most people aren’t policy wonks who will study the fine print, and the complicity of cable news networks to neutralize opposition.

A key part of this strategy is defining wedge issues that divide the electorate in ways that will deliver a voting majority. A good wedge issue works because it can fasten a broad constituency to an apparently simple program that resonates symbolically with widely shared concerns and notions of a properly ordered society.

For decades now, Democrats have generally confined their use of wedge issues in defense of the remnants of the New Deal social contract and the more recent advances of the civil rights and women’s movements. Not since the Medicare debates of the mid-1960s have Democrats attempted to mobilize a national consensus around a new social right that applies to all Americans. It surely is more than a coincidence that during this same time period, the public image of the Democratic Party has shifted from the “party of the people” to the “party of special interests,” the label devised by its opponents. It certainly doesn’t help that the Democratic defense of those battered programs is often pro forma and concessionary.

Republicans have been so successful at this strategy that the term wedge issue naturally evokes their kind of divisive politics. However, building electoral majorities always boils down to distinguishing interests and mobilizing some against others. In fact, one reason the Democrats have lost so much ground to the GOP is their reluctance to draw sharp distinctions in the electorate, to press an us-versus-them agenda that mobilizes the large majority in support of humane public policy against the narrow interests of corporations and the rich. (Remember how Al Gore backed off in 2000 after Republicans whined that his one tepid populist speech was unfairly promoting class warfare?)

This campaign season offers a real wedge issue that has the potential to reverse this trend for any politician bold enough to see its significance: free higher education. Make every public institution of higher education free for all who meet the admissions standards. No means testing, no service or work requirements, no minimum or maximum ages. Just make it free for all.

Free higher education is a simple idea that has a profound resonance with the shared values of the American people. Recent polls have shown that more than 80 percent agree that a college diploma is essential to success. Seventy percent think higher education is being priced beyond the income of the average family.

And the crisis is already upon us. Higher education has been hit with a tremendous squeeze between rapidly rising costs and diminishing funding. Tuition at public colleges and universities (where 83 percent of all students are) has risen 47 percent for the ten-year period ending with the 2003-04 school year. Last year, it went up an average of 14.1 percent for public four-year colleges and 13.8 percent for two-year institutions. Every state in the union raised tuition. Even before this last round of increases, the Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance reported that by the end of this decade as many as 4.4 million qualified high school graduates will be unable to enroll in a four-year college. Staff and services have likewise been severely cut. Although the states’ budget squeezes result largely from economic downturn, the stock-market crash and reluctance to raise taxes, the regressive Bush tax cuts have created a trickle-away effect by justifying reductions in federal aid to the states.

Unlike other needed reforms, such as national health insurance and adequate pensions for all, free higher education does not require a massive redirection of private capital into a publicly administered entitlement. All that is needed to pay the tuition of anyone attending a public institution is the injection of an additional $30 billion to $60 billion of public money. There really is no mystery here. There is no need to create a huge new bureaucracy. The numbers are not complex. Public money already flows into the system from state and local sources. Federal money is committed to Pell Grants, research grants, subsidies, loan programs and a myriad of other programs. If you stir in the cost of several months of Iraqi occupation (or, if you prefer, reinstate the estate tax–rich folks like to endow scholarships anyway) everyone who qualifies goes to college for free!

What could be simpler or easier? What issue could possibly be closer to the consensus view of the American dream? And there are real-world models of successful programs. You don’t even have to go to Canada or any other of the twenty-one out of twenty-four OECD countries in 2000 with predominantly public-funded higher education. Millions of Americans fondly recall the time when huge public institutions like the City University system in New York City and the California state system were virtually free for all who met the admissions standards. An even more potent model is the post-World War II GI Bill of Rights, widely regarded as one of the most successful social programs in US history. Its generous benefits (free tuition at public or private college plus a living stipend) returned nearly $7 to the economy and to government coffers for every $1 spent on GIs’ higher education.

The Democratic candidates, astute politicians that they are, realize that this is an important issue to the American people. Buried in many of their programs are promises to fulfill the dream of access to higher education for all Americans coupled with a variety of subtle and discrete policy proposals. But nearly all succumb to overly complicating the issue. Only Dennis Kucinich, whose campaign has been declared a nonstarter by the news media and punditry and who therefore can’t be heard, has the right idea–free college for all who qualify, period.

John Kerry has an ambitious program to “make four years of college affordable for all Americans.” He proposes a tax credit of up to $4,000 for “each and every year of college,” a “Service for College” initiative that will pay four years of public college tuition in exchange for two years of service, and a restoration of $50 billion, over two years, of the $90 billion in state budget deficits brought on by the Bush economic policies.

True to his neoliberal roots, Joe Lieberman’s “College Opportunity Plan” coupled the carrot with the stick. He would have increased Pell Grants to $7,760 by 2008 and continued to provide “tax relief for middle- and low-income families.” The plan would also “focus on results to ensure that students are equipped to get and keep the new jobs of the future” and “demand college report cards.” This plan came with a long and somewhat ambiguous time line (“by the year 2020, at least 90 percent of the students with a high school degree go on to the military, college or vocational school”), well beyond any putative Lieberman second term.

John Edwards’s “College for Everyone” proposal seems at first glance to have the virtue of simplicity. He calls for one year of free tuition to public universities and community colleges. However, “in return,” students will be required to work or serve their communities for an average of ten hours per week. This requirement to work approximately 500 hours per year to cover the average of $4,694 in state tuition and fees for a public four-year institution amounts to an hourly “wage” of $9.39. While this may be a couple of dollars an hour higher than the salaries of most students working themselves through college, it fails to take into account the additional hours they must work to cover their living expenses, transportation and other college costs.

Most perplexing of all is the convoluted and curious proposal laid out by Howard Dean. The “Take Back the Democratic Party” candidate includes the obligatory national service requirements. His tax credit proposals also reflect his concern for public service. Once employed, those paying back student loans can take a tax credit equal to the amount paid back each year in excess of 10 percent of their personal income; people employed as nurses, teachers, firefighters and similar public service professionals would have their tax credit kick in at 7 percent of their salary. In addition, eighth-grade students who agree to “prepare for, and apply to college” would be guaranteed access to at least $10,000 per year of federal and state grants and loans.

What unites all of these proposals is their wonkishness, which makes them all but incomprehensible to the American people. How, for example, did the Lieberman campaign determine that the maximum Pell Grant must be exactly $7,760 in 2008? Why not $8,120 or $7,611? Is this a firm, principled number (“7760 or fight!”)? Or a soft number subject to the vagaries of budget negotiations (“The amount was downward-adjusted based on revised negative resource implications of adjusted deficit figures”)?

And then there is the tendency to divide the country into those who “play by the rules” and those who don’t. This division between the worthy poor and the idle poor has been with us since the days of the workhouse. It was elevated to a high art in the Clinton years. Unlike the children of the rich, the rest of us must prove our worthiness for education by engaging in national service, displaying academic excellence and committing to years of debt service. This elaborate focus on defining subcategories of the population who would be eligible for different benefits in different ways does just the opposite of appealing to a broad constituency. Once again, it sets the stage for the right to pit one group against another.

By definition, wedge issues must excite the imagination, or fears, of broad sections of the American people. If you need a calculator to determine whether the proposed solution will benefit you, the issue has pretty much lost its “wedginess.” (“Let’s see now. If I become a teacher earning $30,000 per year and my loan payments are $4,000 per year, I’ll get a tax credit of $1,900 per year. But wait! Under Clark’s plan, I would get a $6,000 per year college grant. Ah, but Clark’s plan only applies to the first two years that I’m in college versus the ten years I’ll be paying my loans. By golly, that Howard Dean is really fighting for my interests!”)

The Bushies understand the proper way to use a wedge issue. The Bush campaign won’t claim to be saving the American family from the scourge of same-sex marriage by awarding inflation-adjusted tax credits of $217 per year of marriage to anyone who commits by the eighth grade to pursue exclusively heterosexual relationships. No way! They’ll be speaking with the voice of God, sanctified by 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian civilization.

What causes grown men and women to turn clear and simple public policy proposals into gibberish comprehensible only to pundits inside the Beltway? This failure of nerve can only be explained as a perverse and self-defeating attempt to play the game according to the rules as rewritten by the Republican right. In this game, social rights are bad. They are now called entitlements, and their continued existence will bankrupt the unborn generations. Only property rights are good and must be expanded and enhanced. Taxes are evil no matter whom they are levied upon so that all new policy proposals must be framed in the language of tax credits or spending offsets.

This desperate desire to appear “responsible” in the eyes of the news-show hosts and op-ed writers who appear to control the doors of public discourse is doomed from the start. As any shop steward can tell you, once you start to bargain against yourself you begin the downward spiral of concession after concession. Your opponents perceive you as weak, and your base becomes demoralized and demobilized.

There is nothing particularly profound or prescient about these insights. The national political discourse of the past quarter-century is an open book for all to read. Certainly the American people have read the book and acted accordingly. Great multitudes have dropped out altogether, declaring a plague on both houses. Others have fallen into an idiosyncratic, “values based” politics–voting for, or against, guns, competing religious visions or the personal behavior of the candidates–as if politics were about lifestyle choices rather than the allocation of rights and resources. Many, thankfully, are still in the game, halfheartedly voting every year or two for the lesser of two evils and hoping it makes a difference.

And the growing power of capital is both cause and consequence of these developments. As grassroots, constituency-based politics withers, big money crowds out all other players. This is where the rules of the game really become rigged against us. Once politics becomes more about mobilizing dollars than mobilizing people, then nothing can be done to alienate corporate funders. Thus so many Democrats in recent years have shown more concern for “fiscal responsibility” than defending or advancing the New Deal vision they occasionally invoke.

If there is anything that progressives should have learned by now it is that people don’t go to the barricades for tax credits, however precisely they are spelled out. Progressive politics has to be about more than a set of elaborate policy proposals. We must tie our proposals to a compelling social vision. Our narrative must animate voters and inspire those millions who have written off politics as nothing more than a corrupt rich man’s game.

And there’s another lesson that is of equal importance. History has shown time and again that if progressives don’t find a way to bring out the best in people by articulating their common dreams, then many will turn to the nightmare of reaction, divisiveness, racism and jingoism. This is the ugly dark side of wedge issues. It is a side that Karl Rove and company know only too well.

In its arrogance and its hubris, the Bush regime has overplayed its hand and proved its vulnerability. The 2004 elections provide an extraordinary opportunity to be a referendum on what kind of country we want and what its priorities should be. The call for free higher education as a social right could help frame that debate through election day and beyond.