Public Expects Democrats To Be Counterbalance Against Bush And GOP
There is a certain freedom that comes from being the party out of power in a virtual one-party state. And make no mistake about it, with the GOP having control of the White House, Congress, and the courts for years, with the GOP having ready access to and accomplices with a Corporate America media, and with the Democrats having inept opposition leadership under Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt for Bush’s first term, we have had a virtual one-party state in this country. Democrats were lulled into believing Bush’s bipartisan rhetoric at the outset of his first term, and then after 9/11 were slow to see how a craven and corrupt cabal like the PNAC crowd would take advantage of a national tragedy of their own making to seize even more power and bludgeon and intimidate the opposition. This myopia carried over into the Kerry campaign, best exemplified by a convention that refused to spend four days attacking the party in power, offer an opposition agenda, and sell it in the weeks after the convention. With voters now seeing the Bush Administration’s true designs for a second term, it should come as no surprise that those same swing voters who decided to stick with the incumbent GOP cabal are having second thoughts. And as if on cue, a recent poll shows that respondents want the Democrats to not go along with the GOP, but rather to be a counterweight to George W. Bush. But will Democrats actually seize the opportunity to be an opposition party?
The recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken from February 10-14 by Peter Hart and Bill McInturff of over a thousand respondents shows that when asked if they wanted the Democrats to go along with the Bush/GOP agenda or provide a balance to the Bush and the GOP, respondents preferred that Democrats be a counterweight to Bush and the GOP by a 60%-34% result. When respondents were asked on what issues they thought compromise was acceptable, tort reform received the highest number, 37%. Reforming Social Security trailed by 9% at 28%. Notably, going along with Bush’s choices for federal judgeships and drilling in the ANWR came in at only 25%. Cleary, respondents don’t think Democrats should give Bush a rubber stamp on his judges, Social Security, or drilling in the ANWR.
But on what issues did respondents feel Democrats needed to fight the White House? Here the picture is muddied, as no one issue was listed over 30% of the time. Yet in looking at the results on more specific question on Social Security, one can see that respondents feel that restoring fiscal solvency to the system is more important that support for private accounts, and that restricting benefits for the wealthy and increasing the payroll tax are far more popular than raising the retirement age. On Iraq, the same group of respondents said that with the election now past in Iraq, 60% of those polled thought we should either now leave as soon as possible or at least privately set a timetable for the withdrawal of troops with the Iraqis. Only 38% felt we should either set no timetable and stay until terrorism has been eliminated, or stay until terrorism has been eliminated and the country has been rebuilt. This suggests that the country as a whole has a realistic view of the campaign, knows that we will not eliminate terrorism within Iraq, accepts that with the elections behind us we have accomplished what was minimally necessary, and now wants to see a gradual withdrawal.
So what are the outlines of an opposition agenda along the lines of what respondents say they expect of Democrats, according to this poll? Well, let’s run through some domestic policy possibilities:
Judicial Nominees: Respondents seem to indicate that they do not support any effort by Bush to stack the courts with right wingers. Therefore if Democrats can clearly establish that individual nominees are outside the mainstream or are right wing ideologues and not seasoned moderate jurists, they should dig in and fight them, even including the option of filibusters.
Social Security: Everything the Democrats should say and do on this issue should center on shoring up the system’s finances and preserving the safety net inherent in the program. Therefore, increasing the tax base supporting the program should be first and foremost, and holding fast on the principle that any private accounts would be add-ons financed outside of the system.
Health Care: Note that by more than a 2 to 1 margin in this poll (67%-27%) respondents felt that expanding health care coverage through tax credits, medical savings accounts, and building more community health clinics was viewed as practical and realistic. This is largely the Bush Administration position on the issue, so the Democrats have a way to go to sell the public that more needs to be done here to expand coverage. Democrats need to educate the public that providing a tax credit to low income people to buy insurance they can’t afford in the first place is meaningless. The poll also shows that 76% feel that expanding health care coverage to more people is a high priority, so Democrats should not be shy about telling voters that there is a moral values choice here in either reconsidering tax cuts for the wealthy to pay for expanding health care coverage, or doing nothing so that millionaires can continue to profit off the misery of the masses.
Taxes and the Deficit: The poll shows that 73% feel that reducing the federal deficit was a high priority, whereas only 44% said cutting taxes was a high priority and more importantly only 34% felt that reducing the number of government programs was a high priority. Since cutting taxes further and eliminating federal programs is the core of the Bush budget, Democrats can firmly oppose the Bush agenda for doing little on deficit reduction while protecting millionaire tax breaks and cutting federal programs. I think the Democrats have the room here to propose the rollback of some Bush tax programs on a gradual basis over the remainder of this decade to deal with the deficit and to meet domestic needs here at home in health care, homeland security, the environment, infrastructure improvements, safe communities, and education. And yes, that means going back to voters on issues like the estate tax, capital gains tax cuts, and corporate subsidies and tax havens, even asking voters why dropping the top rate so far at a time of national sacrifice is warranted.
Energy and the Environment: The poll shows strong support for developing more energy independence, including more domestic sources like alternative and nuclear energy. Yet this same poll did not show support for drilling in the ANWR. Democrats can push for an alternate energy policy that doesn’t require the ANWR, but it appears that the party should reconsider a grand trade-off whereby alternative energy sources are emphasized as well as clean coal and a return to safe nuclear power technology. It seems that voters are receptive to an argument aimed at energy independence, and the Democrats can push for obtaining our oil from places other than the Persian Gulf in the near term so that our soldiers don’t have to die for oil again, while we take steps to transition our economy over the next two decades to a greater reliance on home-grown sources. The broad outlines of just such a strategy were in a July/August 2003 Foreign Affairs essay.
On the environment, we have argued before that Democrats have an opening to appeal to religious conservatives on the need to conserve and preserve our national resources, and the need to protect people from the harmful effects of pollution and contamination, especially women and the unborn from mercury pollution. Arguing against Bush’s weakening of the Clean Air Act with his deceptively-named Clear Skies Initiative and his mercury pollution giveaway to the power plant industry would be good places to start.
Moral Values: We have said numerous times in the past that it is well past time for Democrats to respond to the moral values arguments waged by the Republicans directly by asking what would Jesus do. Democrats should go point by point and run down the Bush foreign and domestic policies of the last four years and ask voters how exactly these demonstrate Christian values. The poll shows that a gay marriage ban has little or no support amongst respondents, who don’t feel it is a high priority of our politics. Democrats need to inject moral arguments into their appeals if for no other reason than to show voters that there is a moral underpinning to caring about your fellow man, building strong communities, opposing discrimination and economic injustice, and fighting against Republicans who favor private gain over public interest.
These are just some of the ways in which the Democrats can fulfill what voters apparently expect of them and want to see. The initial steps taken by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are promising, but are offset by the rumblings from the likes of Joe Lieberman, Diane Feinstein, and other centrists who apparently feel that getting along is more important than fighting for your principles. Let’s hope that the party as a whole can actually be an opposition party giving voters a real choice, and not an echo.