Turning Up the Heat on Bush
Bush's drive to privatize Social Security, the centerpiece of his agenda, will expose the right and put Republicans at risk. Bush touts a fraudulent immediate crisis in a program that's in relatively good shape to rationalize deep cuts in benefits while borrowing $2 trillion so Wall Street can feed on the savings of citizens. Progressives will use the fight over privatization to contrast the benefits of shared security with the risks of the right's policies, which leave citizens on their own in a global economy of accelerating instability. Opposition will enable progressives to forge a broad coalition ranging from the Catholic Conference to the AARP and the AFL-CIO. This fight to defend America's most successful retirement and antipoverty program can and must be won.
Bush's new budget will call for extending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans while cutting investment in education and healthcare. This offends the common sense of most Americans and offers progressives the opportunity to challenge the President's perverted priorities while making the case for public investment in areas that Americans agree are vital to their families and our country's future. Bush's pledge to pack the courts with zealots will mobilize progressives in defense of equal rights, women's right to choose and corporate accountability. (Spooked by Senator Tom Daschle's defeat in South Dakota, many Senate Democrats are skittish about this battle, and will need to feel the heat from the activist base of the party.) The debacle in Iraq indicts the militarist unilateralism of the Bush Administration and provides progressives with the obligation to push for an exit strategy from an occupation that a majority of Americans now oppose. In this effort, the antiwar movement can make strategic alliances with much of the realist establishment, from George Bush Sr.'s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to growing portions of the uniformed military as well as intelligence and State Department professionals.
At the same time, progressives should develop and push positive ideas for change: minimum- and living-wage campaigns, progressive tax reform, strategic initiatives like the Apollo Project for good jobs and energy independence. A "blue-state strategy"--elaborating a state and local agenda on such issues as healthcare and education reform--can provide models and demonstrate the attractiveness of progressive ideas.
None of this will be led by the lobbyists and retainers of the Democratic Party machine, such as it is. In the House, minority leader Pelosi will keep the caucus generally unified in opposition to the Bush agenda, but House boss Tom DeLay brutally locks Democrats out of the room whenever he pleases. Progressive champions like Jan Schakowsky, Hilda Solis, John Conyers, new Black Caucus chair Mel Watt, Barney Frank and others will help guide and support outside progressive mobilizations. The barons of the Senate are less organized and more frightened, as illustrated by minority leader Harry Reid's bizarre public acceptance of the idea of Antonin Scalia as Chief Justice. Senators Dick Durbin, Jon Corzine, Barbara Boxer and newly elected Barack Obama will help define the debate, but external pressure will be vital.
All stripes of Democrats agree on the need to persuade voters, not simply mobilize the base. But persuasion requires committed activists, passionate in their cause, ready to enlist and challenge their neighbors. Progressives haven't yet made up for the decline of union halls, nor matched the right's ubiquitous media clamor. But the pathbreaking house parties organized by MoveOn.org and the Dean campaign, and the extraordinary training provided by Wellstone Action, provide new models for educating activists and encouraging them to organize their neighbors.
So forget about the chattering classes and the corporate wing of the party, now fantasizing about purging the new energies unleashed in the last election. What matters isn't what they say in Washington, but what progressives do on the ground across the country. We have just begun to build. The radical agenda of the Bush Administration--and its abject failure--will continue to set the stage not for a retreat to the center but for a fierce, passionate reform movement.