Looking Back, Looking Forward | The Nation


Looking Back, Looking Forward

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The defeat of John Kerry, combined with the Republican advances in the House and Senate, has unleashed waves of dismay and perplexity within liberal and progressive circles. What happened? Why did so many voters embrace a President whose Iraq policy was paved with lies and deceptions, who has shown contempt for science, the rule of law and many of the principles of the Enlightenment, and whose economic policies favor the rich at the expense of the vast majority of Americans? What lessons do we draw from Kerry's failure to win over the electorate in spite of the Bush Administration's conspicuous failures? Are the Democrats crippled, or merely wounded, and is the party really out of touch with "mainstream" values? Finally, what should the priorities of the progressive movement be in this era of Republican dominance, and what is the best formula for future electoral success? The Nation asked some of the country's leading political activists and intellectuals for their thoughts on one or more of these questions. Their brief essays follow.   --The Editors

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DEMOCRATS LOST BADLY IN 2004, especially in the Senate, but they should not spend a huge amount of time on recriminations. The presidential race was quite close, and nothing to be ashamed about. Sitting Presidents are hard to unseat in wartime, and President Bush clearly succeeded in using the post-9/11 worries about security to his advantage all across the nation and in many voter segments (especially among women). Ironically, the very fact that Bush has made a mess of Iraq probably helped him, because it kept security and war-related issues at the forefront of public discussion throughout the campaign. Democrats, moreover, never succeeded in offering a clear vision of the future at home or abroad.

Now Democrats are a minority party, with no center of national leadership. They need to get some visible spokespersons in place quickly, and begin a continuing campaign of organization and argument around carefully selected policy battles. The Republicans are going to use their across-the-board government powers very aggressively. There will be too many things to fight, and the Democrats should pick one big battle at a time to use as a vehicle for framing a countervision of national well-being and attacking Republican extremism. I do not think the battles should be over Iraq. That will play out as it will, probably badly, and Bush and the Republicans should be left holding the bag without a lot of Democratic input along the way.

In domestic politics, I worry that the Democrats will wander off into a series of battles over Supreme Court appointments focused on worries about what might happen, some day, with Roe v. Wade and abortion rights. That is not the way to go to inspire and build a national majority. Instead, Democrats should start right now to focus on aggressive defense of the Social Security system. They should not wait for specific policy proposals from Republicans--as we learned in the Medicare prescription drug battle, those specifics will be hidden until the last minute--but should paint a picture of Republican plans and attack it today, tomorrow, the next day, unremittingly. There should be a coordinated campaign among officeholders and Democratic-leaning groups.

Paint Republican privatization plans not as an attack on the elderly alone, but as an attack on all working Americans. "They are going to take the taxes everyone has contributed for years and use them to pay fees for Wall Street brokers." "They are going to let richer people opt out of paying their fair share into Social Security--and make the system go broke very soon." "They are going to break the promises long ago made to all of us who contribute to Social Security, take away the benefits we have built for our own retirement, as well as to take care of our parents and grandparents." "Social Security works as a savings system for all of us together. We save efficiently that way. It leaves each of us free to save more if we can. But no one should have to give up their promised benefits so Republicans can pay off their rich friends." Etc. Use rhetoric that is both hard-hitting and invokes a countervision of the benefits of social cooperation. Stop worrying about policy details--or engaging in expert policy-speak, or trying to be precisely "fair" to the opposition. Arouse a sense of profound threat based on a picture of what Republicans almost certainly will have to do in any privatization move.

Democrats, in short, need to use the politics of defense to their benefit over the next two years. Seize the opportunity to reframe debate and demonize Republican radicals, especially on issues that have both bread-and-butter and moral implications for ordinary working Americans, as Social Security does. We should worry less about candidates for elections in 2006 or 2008 (stop talking about Hillary!) and choose our battles now to speak in vivid, morally powerful terms to potential majorities of American working people.

Theda Skocpol teaches political science at Harvard University. Her recent books include The Missing Middle: Working Families and the Future of American Social Policy (Norton) and Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Oklahoma).

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