HELP WANTED: A MINORITY PARTY WITH IDEAS
Every now and then it’s good to look back at watershed events in our nation’s history. If we don’t, we fail to learn from them – we keep repeating idiocies of the past (like the Vietnam War), and prevent ourselves from duplicating our previous successes.
When speaking of successes, most of us like to hearken back to the days of Jefferson and Washington. We treat those men and their comrades almost like Biblical patriarchs, which isn’t hard to do, considering that they lived in a by-gone era of horses and buggies. The “Founding Fathers” could refer to the men of the Bible, but they refer instead to a band of brothers who declared independence from a traditional world power, successfully defended our turf against that power, and then drafted a Constitution so incredibly prescient that it now seems like the product of divine intervention. Abraham? No, Madison. But they’re both great, so you’ll pardon us if we confuse them from time to time.
Greatness is rarely a word that you see used to refer to events of the recent past. It’s rarer still when you see the word used by an unabashed liberal to refer to the product of right-wing minds. Still, 12 years is enough time for someone like me to step back and glance at a moment in time with some dispassion. When I look back 12 years, I cannot help but marvel at what I see. As a model of how to use a common set of ideas to seize legislative power, I’ve never seen anything half as effective as what we witnessed in 1994. It makes me wonder why that model can’t be replicated again – only this time, from the opposing point of view.
The summer of 1994 was an ugly year for us liberals. It was particularly ugly for the liberal baseball fan. You might recall that in 1994, the players went on strike, and the World Series was cancelled for the first time in 90 years. But in the place of sports, we were given politics – lots and lots of politics. And as political battles go, that “series” was clearly over in four games.
The then-minority party had a plan, you see, and stuck to that plan like glue. It was associated with the representatives of our Government’s most representative branch, but the truth is that it enjoyed the support of the entire party, and practically all its adherents. Their coalition building was a thing of beauty.
They called their plan the “Contract for
The Contract originated at a right-wing think tank called the Heritage Foundation. This is a place where well-funded intellectuals get together with a single purpose in mind: to formulate, disseminate and ensure the hegemony of conservative ideas. Heritage Fellows don’t need to feign objectivity, balance, open-mindedness, or any of the other characteristics that liberal thinkers take as their bone fides for entry into the realm of intellectuality. Heritage Fellows are there to ensure that their side wins at the polls, and wins convincingly. In 1994, they saw their work bear incredible fruit.
The Contract didn’t deal with every issue. Certain hot-button topics like abortion were left for future battles – such as the battle for President in 2004, which was also won by the party who drew up the Contract. Instead of focusing on social issues, where there was some split inside the ranks, the Contract concentrated on tried-and-true conservative shibboleths that appealed to virtually all members of the then-minority party.
-- Shrinking the size of Government.
-- Placing the Government at the service of the private sector, not itself.
-- Reducing the burden of taxes.
-- Assisting that true American hero: the entrepreneur.
-- Eliminating the culture of dependency that results from our welfare system.
-- Protecting businesses from vexatious lawsuits and excessive judgments.
The Contract, then, had many objectives, but they all had a common theme: to return the
The Contract wasn’t just about themes and overarching principles. It was about practical suggestions. The designers, you see, recognized that they had to come across as serious men who were mad as hell and weren’t going to see their country hijacked any more. The people deserved better. They deserved specific, workable proposals that could immediately change the culture in
Here was the promise. On day one, if the minority party ascended to power in the House of Representatives, they would vote on the eight different government reforms. These proposed laws, if passed, would: require all laws that apply outside of Congress to apply to Congress as well; audit Congress itself for potential fraud or abuse; sharply reduce the number of House committees and their staffers; prevent Representatives from voting by proxies at committee; cut the terms of committee chairs; require committee meetings to be held in public; require a 3/5th vote to pass tax increases; and mandate a zero baseline for the federal budget process.
Eight proposals, then, would come to a vote on Day One. But that was just the start. The Contractors also promised that during the next 100 days, bills would be sent up on a wide variety of major public policy areas aside from government reform. These included tax cuts for individuals and business entities, legislative term limits, and pro-business reforms in the areas of social security, tort law, and the welfare system.
The Contractors had it all – a wellspring of ideas from which to draw; enough discipline to emphasize only those ideas that could support a broad coalition; and the wisdom to speak in terms of feasible suggestions for change, rather than broad slogans. You’ll also note that the Contractors didn’t merely bash the party in power. They advanced an agenda that was both concrete and visionary. They came across as people who wanted to govern, not merely to win an election. And this only makes sense, given that they were espousing the ideas of intellectuals who were not themselves professional politicians but merely citizens devoted to a common political philosophy.
So here’s my question, which by now should be quite obvious: if the GOP could pull this off in 1994, why couldn’t the Democrats have pulled it off in 2006? Surely, the party of the donkey can agree on some broad themes other than that “Bush is bad” and “We want to win.” Right? Well … maybe I’m speaking too quickly. When I reflect on what the Democrats would accomplish if they controlled the House or the Senate, I find myself quite confused. What votes would the Democrats send to the floor on Day One? What bills involving important public policy issues would the Democrats propose by Day 100? Truly, I don’t have a clue.
I’m not sure my Party has one either. Recently, I received in the mail a form letter from Al Gore asking me to give money to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Rather than talking about what the Senate would accomplish if the Democrats regained power, Gore talked about what the Senate would accomplish if the Republicans retained power. “A free pass on Iraq … More damage to the environment … More right wing judges … An all-out assault on Social Security … More tax cuts for the wealthy … No fix for Medicare … More jobs sent overseas …”
In short, his message was very clear: “Be afraid. Be very afraid. Vote for us, or suffer the consequences.”
Is that really the best we Democrats can do? Even Republicans who care about living in a vibrant democracy would have to shudder at what has become of our new minority party. Ideas? Try having one idea. Just one. But make it an affirmative idea – not just that the other guys are evil. As they say in the Red states, that dog couldn’t hunt in 2004. It won’t hunt in 2006 or 2008 either.