After George W. Bush delivers his fifth State of the Union address, on January 31, the President’s partisans will try to persuade Americans that even while his extremist agenda runs aground, there is no alternative. It’s a spin that has worked in the past, with too much of the media and too many Americans convinced that a hapless and incoherent Democratic leadership is unprepared to take the country in a new direction.
That spin stops here. In this special issue of The Nation, twenty members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus take on the daunting foreign and domestic policy challenges facing the United States in year six of the Bush/Cheney Administration. They offer road maps to renewal that are both principled and pragmatic. In the words of the senior member of the caucus, Representative John Conyers, these House members are expressing “a clear vision for America. Ours is not the Bush agenda of the radical right nor the flaccid flounderings of Democrats. We have a fresh, vigorous alternative, and we’re going to present a plan for an activist government dedicated to serving all Americans.”
This bright alternative arrives at a critical moment. The fears and uncertainties that warped American politics in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 have given way to frustration, anger and skepticism. A genuine opposition message can finally be heard by an electorate weary of the deliberate deceits, abuses of power, crimes and corruptions that have dominated the headlines for months. Yet the strategists who steer the Democratic leaders in Washington continue to counsel caution. Their misguided timidity makes the views and ideals of the Progressive Caucus–leaders of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party, to paraphrase the late Senator Paul Wellstone–more vital, more necessary, than ever.
The proposals in this issue are not poll-tested compromises. At a time when too many Democrats have lost their way (read: spine), these Progressive Caucus members–from co-chairs Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, to outspoken House veterans like Conyers and Henry Waxman, to rising stars like Jan Schakowsky and Raul Grijalva–have consistently fought against the war and for working Americans. Practical and achievable, the solutions they propose also express deeply held convictions that have carried a number of these Representatives, including Independent Bernie Sanders (a Senate hopeful come November) and Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur, to victory over Republican incumbents. They are the principles that have made the sixty-two-member Progressive Caucus the fastest-growing group in a Capitol where ideologically committed factions–from the old Democratic Study Group of the 1960s and ’70s to Newt Gingrich’s Conservative Opportunity Society–have a record of transforming moribund parties into political powerhouses. The caucus has reorganized in recent months, hiring new staff and making a serious push not only to shift the debate in Congress but to reorient the American discourse on issues ranging from national security to healthcare and tax policy.
The Progressive Caucus is not yet the defining force among Congressional Democrats. But it’s the one group that makes the connection between members of Congress and the grassroots activists whose idealism and energy will be essential to progressive victories in next fall’s elections. The Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank, has worked with the caucus since its inception in 1990 to help make that connection. The IPS provides members with bold policy approaches to national and international issues and with research showing how skewed federal budget priorities cause economic, political and racial inequities. IPS also takes caucus members to vulnerable communities to see the effects of those inequities firsthand.
This special issue shows that progressives do have a coherent agenda–and that they have bold, workable solutions to the country’s most vexing problems. The time for this progressive agenda is ripe: We have a historic opportunity to renew not just the Democratic Party but our national experiment in democracy. These Progressive Caucus members are seizing that opportunity with faith that the American people are ready to take back their democracy, to undo the damage of the Bush-Frist-DeLay years and to set America on a course toward the just and peaceful future that can–and must–replace the dark interregnum through which we now pass.