Adam Nagourney has a piece up at the New York Times that demonstrates the disarray of the Democrats in Washington, D.C.
Democrats said they had not yet figured out how to counter the White House’s long assault on their national security credentials. And they said their opportunities to break through to voters with a coherent message on domestic and foreign policy — should they settle on one — were restricted by the lack of an established, nationally known leader to carry their message this fall.
As a result, some Democrats said, their party could lose its chance to do to Republicans this year what the Republicans did to them in 1994: make the midterm election, normally dominated by regional and local concerns, a national referendum on the party in power.
It is essential that the Democrats turn the midterm elections into a national referendum on the Bush administration and the culture of corruption in the Republican Congress. It is also essential that the Democrats provide a coherent alternative on foreign policy and security. And there is one more thing we have to do. We have to develop a positive program.
“I think that two-thirds of the American people think the country is going in the wrong direction,” ” said Senator Barack Obama, the first-term Illinois Democrat who is widely viewed as one of the party’s promising stars. “They’re not sure yet whether Democrats can move it in the right direction.”
Mr. Obama said the Democratic Party had not seized the moment, adding: “We have been in a reactive posture for too long. I think we have been very good at saying no, but not good enough at saying yes.”
There is no question that progressives think that Obama has it exactly wrong. We have been very bad at saying no, and too good at saying yes. Yes to the war in Iraq, yes to the promotions of the architects of that war and the abusive policies of the global war on terror (Wolfowitz, Rice, Negroponte, Goss, Gonzales), yes to Roberts, yes to Alito, yes to the bankruptcy bill, etc.
But, I don’t think that is what Obama meant. He meant that we have not articulated an alternative to Bush’s policies. So, here is my advice.
The trick in setting out a broad set of priorities is to wrap them all up into a larger meta theme. The theme can be called the Culture of Corruption. It has a good alliterative ring to it and it can be attached to every policy that we want to emphasize.
The Democrats have two major hurdles to overcome. We must address the budget deficits, and it is never popular to campaign on raising taxes. In order to campaign on budgetary sanity, you have to have specific programs that you aim to cut.
Making matters more difficult, the Democrats are vulnerable to attacks on our commitment to national security. This makes a campaign to cut defense spending problematic. The solution?
On National Security:
We need to focus on the billions of dollars of waste, the corruption in military contracting, and the billions of dollars that have simply gone missing in Iraq. The Democrats need to focus like a laser on the irresponsible fiscal management at the Pentagon.
Before we even start to talk about rolling back the military budget, we first have to get value for the budget that we have.
How much could we raise soldier’s pay, and veteran’s benefits in medical care, psychological services, and pensions, if we had less waste and corruption in the Pentagon?
With improved compensation and benefits we can improve recruitment and retention for our armed forces. This will reverse the trend towards accepting low quality recruits and promoting undeserving soldiers, and improve the quality of the military.
The same strategy can be utilized when it comes to discussing domestic programs. Rather than emphasizing new programs, we need to concentrate on getting a better bang for the buck that we are already spending. We need to focus on improving the Medicare prescription drug program by allowing the Government to negotiate bulk purchases from the pharmaceutical companies. This all ties into the problem of lobbyists like Jack Abramoff having too much influence over public policy.
Even though Americans don’t want to pay for government programs, they do notice when programs are slashed. Once again, we can take any number of domestic programs (health, education, environment) that have had budget cuts and point out how many people could have benefited with the money that has been lost to waste and corruption.
Considering the extent of our budgetary problems, we cannot avoid discussing taxes. We have to raise them. Raising taxes is never popular. We should start out by saying two things. Before we even consider raising taxes we are going to clean up waste and prevent Bush’s biggest giveaways from becoming permanent. When this is done, we’ll see where we are and determine whether more revenue will be required. Above all, we want emphasize that balanced budgets are important and that a responsible government does not finance itself on the backs of children.
If we are forced to discuss raising taxes we should color it as an issue of patriotism. Never before has this country fought in foreign wars without the citizens making sacrifices. We have no draft, we have no rations, the least we can do is help pay for a war that costs more than a billion dollars a week to fight.
We must emphasize the lies that were told about Iraq as a way to drive home the overall picture of this administration as dishonest and irresponsible. We also have to dwell on the incompetence of the plan, and the cost of the war. We need to point out how detrimental to our interests the war has been in all phases: economic, moral standing, diplomatic, incitement, etc. But, we cannot do all of this without offering a plan to get out of Iraq and to repair the damage that had been done. We will probably never reach a consensus on Iraq, but the Murtha Plan is something most Democrats can rally around.
When discussing a drawdown in Iraq it is best to change the subject. This is not because we cannot articulate a strategy (the Murtha Plan is a strategy), but because we cannot force the administration to incorporate our ideas. There is no point in dwelling on a plan that has no hope of implementation. This is especially true when the plan is really an acknowledgment of defeat. We want to get off this turf as quickly as possible.
One way to deflect attention from our impotency over this subject is to attack the leadership in the Pentagon. After six years of incompetence, corruption, waste, and lies, Donald Rumsfeld is no longer a credible partner for setting policy. If President Bush will acknowledge the pathetic performance of his Pentagon and appoint a new Defense Secretary that has bipartisan support, then we can actually regain the trust and confidence to work constructively with this administration to extract ourselves from Iraq.
We are in a pickle over Iran. There is a bipartisan consensus that anti-proliferation is a valid and important priority that is critical for protecting our security. There is still a consensus in favor of anti-proliferation in the UN Security Council. Some on the left feel that the major powers have no inherent right to have a monopoly on nuclear weapons. This is especially true now that Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have nukes. It is seen as either arrogant or hypocritical to dictate to other countries what kind of weapons they can possess.
No matter the merits, the Democrats cannot take this viewpoint to the voters. The Bush administration has support for its anti-proliferation efforts from Europe. China and Russia are emphasizing diplomatic solutions to the issue, but they do not question the fundamental principles that undergird anti-proliferation.
Lastly, and most importantly, Bush can defeat any arguments for inaction with one simple sentence: “They want a nuclear weapon and they want to wipe Israel off the map.” No amount of rhetoric can overcome that one talking point.
Facing that reality is the best policy. All efforts need to be directed at encouraging a diplomatic solution. The Democrats should support the Russian initiative, where they will provide nuclear power but will take the spent uranium out of Iran.
If a military solution becomes inevitable, the Dems need to emphasize that we need to proceed cautiously and in full consultation with our European allies. We cannot repeat the same mistakes that we made in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
In my personal opinion, I cannot imagine a plausible military solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. At least, I can’t imagine a solution that would be lasting short of obliterating the whole country with our own nuclear weapons. But, that is for the military planners to decide. Democrats running for office need not focus on military plans. They need only to demonstrate a shared commitment to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear device.
The Democrats should develop a whole program to deal with the problem of terrorism. It should involve nearly every agency of government. Each agency should be given a set of tasks and priorities. Energy should work on reducing our dependency of foreign oil and gas. Treasury, DEA, and ATF should work on the financing of terrorist organizations. FEMA and OHS should work on protecting ports, tunnels, bridges, and chemical plants. State should develop a serious program of cross-cultural exchanges, including conferences, seminars, sponsored trips, etc. Health and Human Services should work on solutions for chem/bio attacks. And so on. The comprehensive plan should be printed up in a booklet and carried around by all our candidates.
There are two major ways to reach out to traditionally Republican voters. The 1994 Republican Revolution was fueled on anger about corruption in Washington and high budget deficits. We need to hammer these same points. But we also have a new issue: civil liberties.
Libertarians are budget hawks and they are opposed to domestic surveillance. The Democrats need to take full advantage of the confluence of interests between themselves and libertarian Republicans.
These are just some of my ideas for the upcoming campaign.