On gun control, taxes and other issues, Democrats must seize this moment

Matt Bennett and Jon Cowan, co-founders of Third Way, are a senior vice president and president, respectively, of the group.

The collapse of John Boehner’s effort to get his party to rally behind a plan to raise taxes reveals the disarray and disagreement among Republicans. Democrats are urging them to forget about the hard-liners and go back to the negotiating table.

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That’s good advice for Democrats as well.

If Democrats play their cards right, a combination of political and demographic forces, and dangerous precipitating events, could create a tipping-point moment, when they can advance their priorities not just on taxes, but also on guns, marriage for gays and lesbians, immigration, and even climate change.

But first they must recognize that tax increases might pass, but not because the GOP had a sudden change of heart on higher rates. That progress on gun legislation isn’t inevitable after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. That recent gains on marriage for gay couples do not suggest a national embrace of civil rights and equality. That immigration reform won’t happen just because Latinos showed up for President Obama in November. And that progress on climate change won’t come simply because of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

If Democrats and their progressive allies are to achieve real gains during Obama’s second term, they must understand how we got here, and they must be willing to challenge some of their most cherished ideas and messages. If they do not, this historic opportunity could easily be squandered.

Keep taxes in balance

In the fiscal debate, taxes have, for the first time in decades, been turned from a Democratic liability into an asset. Ever since Ronald Reagan crushed Walter Mondale with the “tax and spend” label in 1984, Democrats have been on the defensive. But Obama put the question of raising taxes front and center in 2012. By reelecting the president, a majority of voters endorsed his plan. Republicans understand that, and some now say privately that they’ve lost the tax fight.

Rather than raising taxes to fund new social spending, however, Obama explicitly connected higher taxes to fiscal responsibility, making clear that he was proposing a balanced plan that would include tough choices on spending. That means that, as part of the “fiscal cliff” talks and future budget negotiations, Democrats can demand tax increases on the wealthy, but only as part of proposals that also include sizable spending cuts. A plan involving tax increases alone would be rejected by moderate voters and clearly is immovable in a divided government.

Back gun safety and rights

Another change in the political landscape, the widespread call for new gun laws, came in the worst way possible. The slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School may be a tipping-point moment because it has affected many of our political leaders not as policymakers but as parents. We are finally beginning a serious discussion about preventing these tragedies. Stalwart supporters of the National Rifle Association, such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), are proclaiming that something must be done. Obama has pledged “meaningful” action and has put Vice President Biden in charge of his effort.

As the president noted, however, it will not be easy to pass new gun laws. To ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and to close the gun show loophole that allows firearms to be sold without background checks, the left will have to beat the NRA. And to do that, it must embrace both new gun-safety measures and Second Amendment rights.

For decades, the left asserted that the Constitution did not confer an individual right to own a gun — that it was intended to cover only members of a militia. This stance made many gun owners sympathetic to the gun lobby’s often conspiratorial claims that Democratic administrations wanted to round up firearms. But recently, the Supreme Court settled the issue, ruling that the Second Amendment does confer gun rights — and that there is plenty of room for legal restrictions.

As Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted in The Washington Post this past week, this ruling was an asset, not a liability, for gun-safety advocates. While there are almost 100 million gun owners in the United States, only 4 million are NRA members. This majority supports new laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands and reduce the risk of tragedies such as Newtown.

As long as calls for new restrictions are balanced with an affirmation of their Second Amendment rights, most gun owners will be on board.

Make a commitment to marriage

On marriage for gays and lesbians, 2012 has been a year of revolution. Previously, marriage proponents had lost 32 times at the ballot box. But this year, Obama publicly backed marriage for gay couples, the Democratic platform changed to include support for it, and four states voted in favor of it in November. A challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act is now before the Supreme Court, and by June it is likely that the federal government will have to recognize marriages of gay couples in states that allow them. And the majority of the public now supports them; between 2008 and 2012, there was a staggering 10-point shift in polls toward support for marriage.

While the prospects are bright, however, it’s not inevitable that this tipping point will result in progress for Democrats. Thirty states have constitutional amendments banning marriage for gay couples, and it will be a tough political fight to change the status quo there. To keep winning, marriage proponents must understand what was really behind their recent ballot box victories.

First, advocates have shifted the focus of their campaigns away from the question of rights, which had been the dominant frame for years. Straight couples don’t get married so they can get tax benefits or a spouse’s pension; gay and lesbian couples don’t, either. People get married to show their love and commitment to one another. Research by our group, Third Way, showed that making “commitment” the centerpiece of marriage campaigns could help sway crucial centrist voters.

Second, they must address, not dismiss, the concerns of undecided voters. That means, for example, ensuring that state marriage laws have robust protections for religious liberty and reminding Americans that the First Amendment guarantees that no clergy members would be forced to conduct marriages that violate their religious beliefs.

Fight to legalize immigrants

On immigration — a top item on Obama’s second-term to-do list — another tipping-point moment may be within reach. Obama’s 44-point margin among Hispanic voters in November has shocked many Republicans into rethinking their obstinacy on immigration reform.

Still, there are limits to how far the GOP will go. Even President George W. Bush, a Republican from Texas who championed the issue, could not round
up enough votes in his party to get reform passed.

To break through and shift the debate their way, those on the left will have to make an ambitious but principled deal. While we would support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, there’s little evidence that such a plan could pass. Rather than losing momentum and leaving 11 million people in limbo, Democrats should be willing to accept a result in which deportations end for all, citizenship is granted to those who came here as children, and lifetime legalization is guaranteed for adults (with deferred citizenship also possible).

Passing such a plan would not be easy, but it is politically feasible and would dramatically improve the lives of millions of immigrant families.

Energize the climate debate

On climate change, Hurricane Sandy, drought and other unusual weather events seem to have convinced a majority of voters that the problem is real and must be addressed. But how do you turn this public concern into action?

Learn from the failures of the “cap and trade” legislation in the last Congress. Rather than backing a sweeping, economy-wide plan that has little chance of becoming law, advocates should seek more incremental approaches to reducing emissions. That means, for example, embracing America’s newfound reserves of natural gas, which creates 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than coal. Rather than fight the gas sector, the left should be encouraging its use as a bridge fuel as we move toward cleaner sources of energy.

Finally, to make the most of this potential tipping-point moment, Democrats must understand the moderate nature of the Obama coalition. Our post-election survey found that the group that reelected the president is not liberal. In fact, his voters are largely centrist, with 42 percent labeling themselves moderate and 14 percent saying they are conservative.

And this centrist coalition clearly believed it was voting for principled compromise between the two parties: When asked whether they wanted to see the parties work together, 80 percent of Obama voters said they strongly support such action on issues like the deficit.

What should all this tell us? That the Democrats finally have a chance to effect change on issues that have been stuck for decades. But they will get there only if Obama’s congressional and interest group allies can see and navigate the political dynamics are they are, not as they might wish them to be.

matt.bennett@thirdway.org

jon.cowan@thirdway.org

Matt Bennett and Jon Cowan, co-founders of Third Way, are the group’s a senior vice president and president, respectively.

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