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The Democrats' next focus

Topic A
Sunday, April 25, 2010;

The Post asked what issues the Democrats should focus on after financial regulatory reform. Below, assessments from Douglas E. Schoen, Dan Schnur, Maya MacGuineas, Frank Sharry, Frances Beinecke, Mary Beth Cahill and Ed Rogers.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The debate the Democratic congressional leadership is reportedly having over what issue to take up next represents a choice between the wrong issues, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.

Congressional Democrats are apparently weighing whether to take on climate change or immigration. But both are clear losers politically at this time. Immigration would only provoke fierce opposition among swing voters in marginal congressional districts -- particularly in the South and Southwest. Climate change would produce a firestorm in the coal-dependent Midwest from voters wary of the legislation and scared to death of its cost.

Instead, what the Democrats should be doing is taking up the issue of jobs, then jobs and then jobs once again. With the unemployment rate still hovering perilously close to 10 percent, the only way congressional Democrats and the administration can improve their eroding political position is by taking on the jobs issue systematically -- not sporadically and spasmodically. Every approach should be put on the table: tax incentives for job creation, a payroll tax holiday and even infrastructure investment -- if only to demonstrate the party's commitment to doing everything possible to stimulate employment.

Until the Democrats dedicate themselves singularly to spurring long-term, private-sector job creation, they face the prospect of an overwhelming defeat in November.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

Despite the recent signals from the White House about taking on immigration reform, it's difficult to believe the Democrats think they can actually get a bill through that's much different from the Bush-Kennedy-McCain immigration effort from a few years ago. More likely, they figure they can make just enough noise on this issue to keep Hispanic voters from sitting out the midterm elections this fall.

It's also hard to see a way they get energy legislation done this year, either. Even by switching from cap-and-trade to drilling-and-nukes, there are too many moving parts -- and too much ideological distance between the environmentalists and the Blue Dogs in their own party -- to reconcile in such a short time.

That leaves campaign reform or education. Obama seems pretty intent on using his Supreme Court nomination as a platform from which to tee up a "people vs. the powerful" campaign to lessen the impact of the court's Citizens United decision, and moving from the confirmation of a new justice into a legislative fight on this front is a natural segue. But pushing harder on the Race to the Top education reforms still seems like the smartest option. It's popular, it's relatively bipartisan and it might be the single best way of reinvigorating the youth and minority vote that the Democrats will need to turn out in November.

MAYA MACGUINEAS

President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

No question, the growing national debt is on the public's mind, and Americans want solutions. The problem is taking what is clearly good policy -- explaining to the country that major budgetary changes are needed and getting specific about those changes -- and turning it into good politics.

President Obama needs to lead as only the president can. He must elevate the issue so that policymakers can no longer twiddle their thumbs as the nation's fiscal health nose-dives. He needs to challenge both parties to come up with budget fixes, and he needs to put something specific on the table himself -- perhaps a gradual increase in the retirement age, a specific plan for reducing government personnel or a long list of programs to eliminate. But it needs to be more than just symbolic; it needs to be real.

Democrats should start slowly -- and in bipartisan fashion. They could take up Social Security reform -- relatively easy to fix compared with many other areas of the budget -- or revenue-neutral tax reform that could raise more money down the road.

I know that most of the political advice this election season will be to promise more government spending and further tax cuts. But a mere glance at the polls shows that traditional political advice isn't working. No party that shirks its responsibility to protect the health of the country will remain strong for long.

FRANK SHARRY

Executive director of America's Voice

Comprehensive immigration reform should be next.

The old conventional wisdom on the politics of immigration has been proved wrong. The old view was that immigration would mobilize the right, sap independent support and make Latino voters shrug. But in tight races in 2008, Democrats who supported comprehensive immigration reform beat Republican hard-liners in 20 of 22 races. In 2006 and 2008, Latinos turned out in record numbers and swung dramatically toward Democrats. The new view -- shared by Democrats from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to James Carville to Markos Moulitsas, as well as by Republicans such as Mitt Romney and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) -- is that immigration divides the right, wins most of the center and mobilizes Latino voters.

Won't the debate be health care on steroids? No, more like the Sonia Sotomayor nomination fight on steroids. The president and Senate Democrats will frame the debate in centrist terms. This will connect with a majority of voters. Then, the right-wing crazies on the outside will go really crazy. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Tom Tancredo will emerge as the public face of the Republican Party. Smart Republicans will then step in to tone down the rhetoric. Nine or so Republicans will vote yes, and off we go.

FRANCES BEINECKE

President of the Natural Resources Defense Council

Voters care most about three things: putting Americans to work, making the country more secure and creating a healthier future for our children. Come November, we'll all want to know which candidates have focused on those national imperatives.

The Senate clean-energy and climate legislation that rolls out Monday can advance all three. That's why passing this bill is the most urgent order of business on the political calendar.

There are 15.7 million Americans officially out of work, more than at any time since the Great Depression. The clean-energy bill can put 2 million back to work -- carpenters, electricians, steelworkers, machinists and more -- developing wind, solar and other renewable power sources and building energy-efficient cars, homes and workplaces.

This bill will position American workers for decades of success in the fast-growing global market for the green technologies of tomorrow. It will cut our oil imports in half, largely by enabling us to tap oil stranded in aging domestic wells. And it will strike a blow at the single greatest environmental ill of our time: the carbon pollution that's warming our planet and threatening us all.

MARY BETH CAHILL

Manager of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign; former chief of staff to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

The Democrats are rolling toward a bipartisan victory on financial reform on the heels of their very partisan achievement on health care.

Food safety should be next. The public scares of food contamination of the past several years make reform a public-health imperative in a world of global sourcing where regulation lags far behind the marketplace.

Properly packaged, safe food could be made into a potent electoral issue for female voters, a stand-alone, clear achievement of benefit to America's families. We would all like an end to stories of Americans suffering life-long damage or death from E. coli or other poisoning, and it's possible this could be achieved through a bipartisan bill.

President Obama could post another bipartisan notch on his belt, Speaker Nancy Pelosi could score another victory in the House, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could have great stories to tell in his reelection campaign.

Good policy, good political strategy.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

Everyone knows what the Democrats should do next: focus on jobs. The problem is that no Democrat knows what that means. They are inhibited by an ideology that is anti-wealth and anti-growth. So the choices that fit within that ideology are more of the same ineffective, tired gestures. More deficit spending, more pro-union government hiring, more jobless benefits, more convoluted tax tweaks that no one can notice.

The Democrats would be smart to pass three jobs bills between now and October -- one in the spring, summer and fall. But they must stop pretending there are near-term "green jobs" and saying their real priorities such as government-run health care are job creators. Lip service to the private sector is breeding cynicism and doubts about the future.

Democrats must grasp the need for bold initiatives such as tax holidays and downsizing of government that will inspire and enable real businesses to start hiring.

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