(WHAT THE DEMOCRATS NEED TO DO)
by STAN SINBERG
Democrats are reportedly working up their own version of the Republican Contract of America that proved so successful with voters in 1994, in an attempt to defuse criticism that everyone knows what they’re against, but not what they’re for.
The problem for the Democrats is where to take their party. Three main approaches have been floated: moving more to the center, moving more to the left, and appealing to the “morals voter.” All three of these strategies are wrong on their face – but there is a solution that incorporates all of them together.
“Moving to the center” is favored by those who think the Democrats lose because most Americans are centrist and the Dems are too liberal. This is absurd because A) Bush didn’t worry about ruling from the center – in fact, he ran hard right despite losing the popular vote– and ended up with more votes in 2004 than in 2000, and B) As the Republicans become more right-wing, the “center” keeps shifting farther right. The “center” in 2004 is what the “right” was twenty years ago. The “center” goal-posts keep shifting. Trying to capture it is like trying to grab a hologram.
“Moving to the left,” sorry to say, is also not a viable strategy. In 2000, Gore ran on a platform promising middle class Americans better paying jobs, a “lock-boxed” Social Security, health insurance, and lost. In 2004, Kerry did much the same thing, assuring the middle-class “I’ve got your back,” and promising to raise taxes on the rich. This populist rhetoric fared worse than it did in 2000. A large number of voters don’t believe these promises, and another sizable percentage still react instinctively against anything that smacks of ‘tax and spend.’
The last presidential election, there was a great deal of attention paid to those who vote based on “moral values.” This is generally regarded to mean opposition to gay marriage, to a lesser extent abortion, and a general feeling that the country has lost its compass when trying to do what’s right. Too late, people have started to regard the war in Iraq as a moral issue. But that’s only because it’s going poorly. If we were winning decisively, it wouldn’t be regarded as such.
To the extent that these “values” are determined by right-wing evangelicals and fundamentalists, there’s not much the left can do. They will never reach these people and attempts to do so only come across as pandering, and causes people to regard the party as one that stands for nothing. There have been calls for Democrats to talk more about God, but it’s a mistake. I tend to shy away from sports analogies, but it’s time to stop playing on the other team’s field.
So how to appeal to the broad swath of Americans who aren’t religious zealots, who aren’t ideological, and yet want their leaders to lead with principles? I believe it’s by emphasizing what I call “American Values.”
Americans take tremendous pride in this country, and feel, deep down, that it’s different from any other on Earth. But exactly what makes us special gets lost in the heat of incendiary take-no-prisoners political campaigns and ratcheting campaign promises over who can put more booty in voters’ pockets. The left needs to remind people what the United States stands for, and if framed properly, I think, most Americans, almost intuitively, will respond to its message.
- American values are giving everyone a fair shake, and lending a hand up to those in need.
- American values are a decent job for anyone willing to work.
- American values are clean water, clean air, and a pristine environment.
- American values are fiscal responsibility which does not saddle our children with our debt.
- American values are innocent till proven guilty, equal protection under the law, and a fair day in court.
- American values are the right to speak freely.
- American values are the freedom to worship freely, and not to impose one religion on anyone else.
- American values are tolerance, respect, equality, justice, fairness, and opportunity.
- American values are speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
- American values are favoring the little guy over the big corporation.
- American values are those who have succeeded assuming a larger burden to help uplift the rest.
- American values are waging war only in self-defense or to end genocide.
- American values are keeping its citizens safe, without eroding the freedoms it stands for.
- American values are letting people keep control of their own lives.
- American values are a right to privacy.
- American values are renouncing bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.
These American values have their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but are not exclusive or beholden to it. They form a moral framework from which policy can be developed and guided. They are not “left” or “center” per se, but they are just. And they do not fall into the trap of trying to emulate, or react to, the right-wing that has captured the Republican Party.
If the Democratic Party were rooted in these American Values, and used them to explain its policies, the public would see the Party has a moral compass that shapes it, and that the policies are congruent with the country they love.