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Reclaiming the Party: Four Suggestions to Jump-start the Democrats

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Reclaiming the Party

Four suggestions to jump-start the Democrats

by Jeff Faux

The Democratic Party – like Enron, the FBI and the Catholic Church – is a dysfunctional institution that cannot reform itself from the inside. If the party were a well-run corporation whose products weren’t selling, its board of directors or its CEO would bring in outsiders to give an honest assessment of what was going wrong and engage stakeholders — workers, customers, suppliers — in planning a new strategy. But the Democrats have neither a competent board of directors nor a responsible CEO. The Democratic National Committee is a worn-down fundraising machine with a chairman, Terry McAuliffe, tainted by the huge windfall he made on an investment in Global Crossing.

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the new minority leader in the house, will bring some much-needed energy and media excitement, but she will have a difficult time rising above lowest-common-denominator politics in order to keep unity among her troops. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) will have an even harder time taming the Senate with a half dozen of the biggest cats running off on their own for the 2004 presidential nomination. Whispering into the ear of this Washington leadership is a Greek chorus of lobbyists, pollsters and fundraising consultants whose professional “credibility” is based on giving political advice that is noncontroversial and reflects their clients’ interests.

This cynical and cautious institutional culture keeps the Democratic Party from offering dramatic ideas that might make a real difference in ordinary people’s lives — and rally voters. The comparison with Republicans is heartbreaking. Despite polls consistently favoring universal healthcare coverage, Democratic leaders haven’t talked about it since 1994, when Bill Clinton couldn’t win enactment of his particular proposal. By contrast, Republicans never stop promoting tax cuts for the rich, whether they have the votes or not. Because the country knows where Republicans stand, they can claim a mandate when elected, as George Bush did in 2000 despite a disputed presidential tally. Democrats’ timidity also makes it easier for the Republicans to co-opt their modest ideas, from prescription drugs to homeland security.

One sign of a nonperforming organization is its inability to act on what it learns from experience. After Bush successfully touted his 2001 tax cut a as a job stimulus, the Democratic congressional leadership knew that it needed a stronger economic message. So party leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle set up task forces to produce proposals for pension security, job creation and the like. Nothing coherent emerged. As one staffer for the congressional leadership reports, “Every idea that cost money or called for more business regulation was nixed because they were afraid it sounded too liberal or that some contributor wouldn’t like it.”

After the 2000 election, Democrats were aware that Republicans had learned how to mobilize their core voters. Yet in the 2002 election, they left their own core voters to mobilize themselves. With little organizing and a weak message, many stayed home.

Says Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO: “When I was on the street, the talk among union members was, ‘Where was everyone else?’ There was a big partner missing at the table, and that was the Democratic Party.”

Democrats have also known for a long time that they cannot keep up with Republicans in terms of fundraising. Yet they have been lukewarm to the issue of campaign-finance reform, largely because so many in the party’s hierarchy got there by being fundraisers. With no serious proposal of their own, Democrats had to support the McCain-Feingold bill, which merely rerouted soft money and gave Republicans a further advantage by raising hard-money contribution limits.

Today, some Washington Democrats even console themselves with the notion that Republicans are at risk because they now have to take responsibility for the country — as if politics were about avoiding, rather than seizing, power. The same people who confidently predicted that Bush would be dismissed as illegitimate now tell us that Bush will overreach, as Newt Gingrich did in the mid-1990s, or that he will repeat his father’s indifference to unemployment. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Bush and the Republicans seem to learn from their failures.

If the Democratic Party is to rest its hope for 2004 on something other than Republican mistakes, it needs to shake up its jaded and nonperforming Washington management.

The first step is to get the discussion out of the corporate suite and onto the shop floor. A fact-finding commission should be set up to hold hearings around the country in which rank-and-file Democrats — the ones who have been working the phone banks and leafleting the street corners — can participate. Let the various parts of the party — labor, the social liberals, the New Democrats and the Blue Dogs — present their analyses and square off in a debate in front of the workers as well as the managers. At the very least, this process would help give some ownership and sense of participation to the legions of demoralized grassroots Democrats.

Second, the party needs to invest in the future by appealing to young voters whom the polls show now have more faith in the GOP. In no small part because of Democrats’ bland centrism, young activists on the left are turned off by electoral politics, choosing instead to get directly involved in fights against global sweatshops, corporate pollution and a possible war in the Middle East — all of which makes the Democratic establishment nervous.

The party has an asset in the legacy of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who fought for big defining issues such as national health care, massive investment in preschool education, taxing the rich and a foreign policy based on human and labor rights. Democrats could tap that legacy and organize Paul Wellstone clubs on college campuses. These clubs would combine intellectual boldness and activism, challenging the conservative youth groups with an in-your-face idealism.

Third, the party must address the GOP fundraising advantage. The fundraising culture of Washington cannot do it. Democrats need a grass-roots campaign for a constitutional amendment to lower spending. This could mobilize the many people who believe that the system has been corrupted by money and let liberals tell a powerful story about what is really wrong with government.

Finally, the vast right-wing echo changer of talk radio, FOX TV, must be met by a broad counterattack involving unions, constituency groups and campus activists, Unchallenged, this relentless propaganda machine will continue to trick working people into voting against their own interests.

The Democratic Party’s top management — like Enron executives and the Vatican hierarchy — won’t like the idea of democratizing power. But if the party’s stakeholders want the next election to turn out differently, they need to shake up the executive suite. Now.

Jeff Faux is a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.



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