By David Sirota
Sunday, June 11, 2006
If Democrats ever want to regain their status as a majority party, they must move to the center. But that means moving to the real center -- one very different from Washington's definition of the term.
Inside the Beltway, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) is called a "centrist" because he still supports President Bush's misguided policies in Iraq; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) proved his centrist credentials when he helped gut consumer bankruptcy protections; Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) is a centrist because he votes for corporate-written, wage-destroying trade deals. And former senator John Breaux (D-La.), now a corporate lobbyist, was labeled the ultimate centrist after working to stop Congress from cracking down on the drug and health industry profiteers who backed his campaigns.
These are just a few examples of how many high-profile Democrats promote the Beltway's idea of centrism -- focused on perpetuating the status quo and abetting the influence of corporate interests that finance political campaigns. But with a centrism like this, so far outside the real center of public opinion, no wonder the Democratic Party keeps losing congressional elections.
On the Iraq war, for instance, polls show a majority of Americans want a timetable for drawing down troops. On economic policy, most Americans support stronger government regulations to protect citizens. On trade, polls show the public is widely suspicious of free-trade deals that have destabilized the middle class. And on health care, surveys show that about two-thirds of those asked want a government-guaranteed universal health-insurance system -- even if it means tax increases.
The Republican-controlled Congress seems too out of touch and too corrupt to care about, much less resolve, any of these issues. Democrats, therefore, could make serious gains, but only if they reject Washington operatives who preach split-the-difference strategies that have led to repeated election
Anger at the Bush administration's misguided policies on Iraq is bipartisan, meaning that Democratic candidates who take a strong position in favor of an exit strategy will be able to attract Democratic and traditionally Republican voters. Similarly, on economic policy, the Republicans' conservative base is increasingly ready to bolt if a bold, establishment-challenging alternative is offered. (A 2005 public opinion survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, for example, showed that about half the GOP's core voters support the "government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes" and an astounding three-quarters support an increase in the minimum wage.)
These are votes ripe for the Democrats' taking. But, sadly, they are being neglected. Democratic congressional leaders still publicly say there will be no official party position on Iraq. Meanwhile, a faction of Democratic lawmakers continues to vote for corrupt GOP economic policies, such as a bankruptcy bill written by the credit-card industry, an energy bill written by the oil industry, a Central American Free Trade Agreement that further depresses American wages, and Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that drain resources from health-care programs.
These Democrats seem all too comfortable in the minority, and all too complicit in Washington's pay-to-play culture -- and they are undermining the party's ability to hone a sharp and authentic message.
Thankfully, a movement is building outside the Beltway that will help the Democrats in spite of themselves. Thousands of online activists are pressuring Democratic incumbents to get more aggressive on Iraq and to stop supporting Big Money interests on economic issues. In some districts, they are fueling serious primary contests, such as the recent effort against Lieberman. Meanwhile, Democratic governors and state legislators are pushing major ethics reform packages and bills to force corporate America to pay its fair share of taxes and worker benefits. These positions are helping state-level Democrats win in some formerly Republican strongholds. By pursuing similar policies at the national level, and rejecting Washington's faux centrism, Democrats will be able to reclaim a congressional majority.
David Sirota, a Democratic strategist, is author of "Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government -- And How We Take it Back" (Crown).