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How Not to Sell Out

Progressive values, not pandering, will win

By Eoghan W. Stafford

The day after Senator Kerry conceded the election, George W. Bush shared some curious revelations about his advisers with reporters. “They’re getting ready to come in and tell me what for,” the president related, “and they walk in and get overwhelmed by the atmosphere, and they say, ‘Man, you’re looking pretty.’”

The fact that this man has just been vested with unchecked power is a Democratic nightmare come true.

But we’ve had a week to sniffle into our hankies. It’s time to focus on how we’re going to take down the Republican hegemony. Democrats are already fiercely debating whether Kerry and his Congressional buddies got hammered because they were too liberal or not liberal enough. Should we court the Democratic base or the moderate middle?

The keep-the-base-happy crowd note that, while Kerry hunted geese and reminisced about being an altar boy, Bush rode to victory by accentuating ideological differences and inspiring traditional Republicans. He beat us at our own game—turning out core supporters—while Kerry lost ground among women and African-Americans.

On the other hand, middle-of-the-road enthusiasts believe we can woo social conservatives—many of whom agree with the Democrats on non-cultural issues—if we reign in the party’s social liberalism. Exit polls showed that a majority of voters disapproved of Bush’s record on Iraq, tax cuts and the economy, but as many Americans based their vote on “moral values”—mainly socially conservative values—as on the economy or terrorism. Ohio was the state hit hardest by the job slump, but its voters put Bush over the top.

History upends both arguments. Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton all defeated incumbents during economic downturns. The first two won with plans considered radical—Roosevelt wanted to establish a social safety net, and Reagan wanted to dismantle it. Bill Clinton, by contrast, ended 12 years of Republican ascendancy by tacking to the middle on trade, welfare and crime.

Each historical juncture is unique; neither the middle-of-the-road nor the fringe is a sure path to electoral victory. What FDR, Reagan and Clinton shared was a willingness to think big and think new—to transform their parties and the country. The public respected their ambitious visions, and gave them each a mandate to lead.

So forget the leftism vs. centrism dispute. To become the majority party again, Democrats must redefine the values debate and show a willingness to innovate as they translate progressive values into a vision that inspires the nation.

We can build a broad majority around progressive values. Denizens of the heartland don’t want the government to dictate their private lives. Progressives agree—that’s why we think the government has no business telling you whom you can marry or controlling your reproductive rights. Progressives believe that an equal opportunity is every child’s moral right and that we must give a helping hand to those working hard just to get by. Whether they’re struggling to make ends meet in a red state or a blue state, working Americans everywhere want their family healthy and housed and they want their kids to get a quality education.

As well as clearly articulating progressive values, Democratic leaders must vigorously defend them. If many Americans think Democrats in Washington lack backbone, it’s because a lot of Democrats in Washington lack backbone. Too often, Congressional Democrats have pulled their punches, from Bush’s plan to use taxpayer money to fund ”faith-based initiatives” to the excesses of the PATRIOT Act and the discriminatory Special Registration program for Arab-Americans.

When Americans trust Democrats to stand up for a clear set of principles, our candidates will be free to champion any idea that serves our progressive values, not just those that will win liberal or conservative votes. President Clinton rejected such ideological straitjackets. He wasn’t afraid to challenge his party’s protectionist leanings, but he also backed federally funded job retraining, so that the benefits of trade would be spread broadly.

Democrats today could use an infusion of Clinton’s imagination and political derring-do. For example, it is hypocritical for Democratic politicians, many of whom had the good fortune of attending private schools, to deny that same opportunity to inner-city youths by dogmatically opposing vouchers. That opposition is at odds with the legacy of the GI Bill and other Democratic efforts to achieve equality in educational opportunities. At the same time, we need to bring America’s investment in preschool and health care for all children into line with those of Canada and Europe. The Democratic Leadership Council’s fears of being labeled liberal Francophiles by the GOP are no excuse for inaction.

To do right by America, and to create a winnable agenda, both the Ted Kennedy and the Al From wings of the party have to be willing to try new ideas. A civil war inside the Democratic Party over leftist vs. centrist ideology would be exactly what Karl Rove wants. This is the time for a big tent—big enough for an army of Democrats who are unified, clear about their ideals, and ready to defend American values from the fiendish schemes of Rove and Bush.

Eoghan W. Stafford ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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