In defeat, Democrats have convened their perennial circular firing squad, issuing salvos of what Groucho Marx used to call departee–what they should have said. Everyone agrees, belatedly, that Democrats should stand up and fight for something. But of course, there is little agreement on what is worth fighting for or against. Suggestions thus far range from the laughable (the DLC–Democrats for the Leisure Class–urging the burial of Social Security and prescription drugs as issues, the two major reasons voters chose Democrats on Election Day), to the clueless (Representative Martin Frost announcing that voters “went to the right,” and Democrats should follow), to the just plain dumb (Senator John Edwards calling for an austerity budget in the midst of war and recession with interest rates lower than they’ve been for fifty years).

Democrats would do well if they would just be Democrats. Most people sensibly think Republicans represent the corporations and the plutocrats. They expect Democrats to represent the rest of us and are disappointed when they don’t. Senator Joseph Lieberman’s passionate defense of off-the-books executive stock options confounds, as does Senator Tom Daschle’s slavish pursuit of the credit-card companies’ bill to gouge distressed families in bankruptcy.

Democrats are in the opposition now, so they will be defined by what they are prepared to fight against, and what they are prepared to stomach. In Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi they have a prospective new leader in the House who isn’t afraid to mix it up (see “Ready to Rumble,” page 11). It’s no secret that Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay is collecting wish lists from every corporate lobby in Washington. A flood of special interest, antiworker, anticonsumer legislation is on the way–rolling back clean air protections, weakening inspection of food and drugs, forcing taxpayers, rather than polluters, to pay for cleaning up toxic waste. Democrats should do battle against these measures, expose the money politics behind them and take their case to the country.

The first big policy fight will come over how to get the economy going. Bush’s plan will feature the irrelevant (making his tax cuts permanent, instead of expiring in 2010) and the shameless (lavishing more tax breaks on corporations not connected to new jobs). Democrats–Senator Edwards’s goofiness notwithstanding–should put forth an ambitious plan to jump-start the economy by investing in people. Combine immediate tax relief for middle- and low-income families with direct investments in schools and in domestic security, help for the states to avoid layoffs of teachers and firefighters and extended unemployment assistance to laid-off workers. Deficit spending in the short term is vital to generate demand; Democrats can offer to pay for it in the long term by repealing the egregious extra tax breaks that Bush wants to give to corporations, the rich and the wealthiest estates. This is both good policy and good politics, and a good place to start drawing lines.

In addition, Democrats would be well advised to stop giving Bush a pass, and start challenging the self-evident failures of his leadership at home and abroad. His foreign policy is isolating the United States at a time when allies are vital. He has abandoned or trashed every international effort that might engage the United States in using its power and wealth to make the world better: defaulting on the AIDS epidemic, walking out on worldwide efforts to address global warming, shredding arms control and antiproliferation efforts. This arrogant unilateralism is a threat to America’s security and should be challenged forcefully. Democrats who resisted giving Bush a blank check to make war in Iraq, and helped push the Administration into going to the UN, showed how this can be done. At home, Bush has trampled on the Constitution but failed to make the investments in public health and safety vital to protecting Americans. He has blocked independent investigation of what went wrong before 9/11, and done nothing to reform balkanized intelligence agencies. Worse, he seems oblivious to a global economy that verges on deflation and needs a serious change of course.

One place to begin this challenge is when Bush seeks to peddle his Enron big-oil energy plan again. The plan lards subsidies on oil and gas companies and does nothing to reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. Its special-interest payoffs undermine the nation’s security. An alternative plan based on investing in efficiency and renewable energy will produce more jobs, less environmental damage and will reduce that dangerous dependence.

Finally, Democrats must speak to the concerns that Americans struggle with every day: how to pay soaring healthcare costs, how to see that their kids get a good education, how to care for their parents and save for retirement. To do this, Democrats must be bold. Drug companies spent more than $20 million successfully confusing voters about the ersatz drug plan for seniors that they wrote for the Republicans. They’d be less successful if Democrats were clearly willing to control the price of drugs for everyone–and would find it impossible if Democrats found their voice on universal, affordable healthcare.

Progressive Democrats must take one lesson from this election: Organize independently to develop an agenda, communicate it tirelessly and take it across the country, leveraging the activist and policy networks at the state and local levels. Progressive leaders, working with members of the Progressive Caucus, must take the lead in formulating an aggressive critique of, and alternative to, the Bush agenda. Independent groups like the Campaign for America’s Future must expand the capacity to wage effective battles over issues, as it did in routing–at least temporarily–the privatizers of Social Security. And progressives must reclaim electoral politics and start helping to build the activist and small-donor network of Progressive Majority and other groups dedicated to recruiting, staffing and funding the next generation of Paul Wellstones. In short, we need an organized base of progressives, capable of and committed to moving an electoral and policy project that can lift us out of cynical centrist posturing and toward a movement politics that can make this country better.

There is a broad majority looking for significant reform in America. But Republicans–and their conservative base and corporate allies–are far ahead in their institutional resources for broadcasting what they want, and in their courage to fight for it. Progressives will never match the infrastructure of the right. But we can match the intensity, and counter money with mobilization, if we are prepared, as Paul Wellstone urged us, to “stand up and fight back.”