Staying the Course

This one hurts big. But progressives have little time for grief or recrimination. George W. Bush claims a mandate for his radical domestic agenda and for his preemptive foreign policy. The dollar has already begun to fall and interest rates to rise. The evangelical right is clamoring for advancing the jihad against gays and choice. The corporate lobby is salivating at the coming feeding frenzy. Democrats, particularly those in red states, are shaken and ready to retreat. Progressives had better take a clear look at what happened and get ready to fight.

Karl Rove and the Republican chorus are claiming that Bush won this election with his vision and positive agenda. Bull -- Bush won by waging the election we witnessed. The voters who returned Bush to office by a narrow margin are not enamored of his record or his policies. An election-day poll sponsored by the Institute for America's Future and undertaken by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research showed that a broad majority of the voters that returned Bush to office were looking for a change. By 51 percent to 41 percent, they thought America was substantially on the wrong track. By 49 percent to 45 percent, they thought the war in Iraq was making us less safe.

On issue after issue, they were closer to progressives than to Bush. Bush claims a mandate to privatize Social Security, but by 57 percent to 40 percent, voters preferred preserving Social Security to setting up “private retirement accounts.” The corporate lobby claims a mandate for free trade, but by 58 percent to 33 percent, voters believe we should enforce labor rights and environmental protections in trade accords and challenge China rather than sustain current policies and train displaced workers. By 54 percent to 40 percent, voters thought our “first priority” in economic policy should be “investing in education, health care, and energy independence” rather than “reducing the deficit and government spending.” Contrary to Bush's agenda, their strongest mandates for president and the Congress are to protect Social Security and to provide Americans with affordable health care.

A separate Web-based poll by Luth Research, meanwhile, found that 90 percent of voters favored a “crash program” for energy independence, echoing the call of the Apollo Alliance for new jobs and freedom from foreign oil. Sixty-seven percent wanted federal funding for stem-cell research. Exit polls show a majority opposed to outlawing abortion and for tolerance of gays. More self-described conservatives voted in the election, but the majority is not with the right.

Despite all that, Democrats are right to be shaken by Bush's victory. Republicans seem to be building an unassailable citadel in the South and much of the Mountain West, all while challenging Democrats in states from Minnesota to Michigan to Oregon. And the Republican mobilization effort, enlisting volunteers and anchored in evangelical churches, is forbidding. Those churches are growing; union halls are declining. The right has the potential for an organizing base that will increase even as the core of the Democratic base declines.

This has led Democrats to start talking about reconnecting with the “morals” voters, clothing liberal policies in the language of the gospel. Talking about values rather than programs always makes sense. And in this religious country, it is clear that leaders who are comfortable in a church -- from Martin Luther King Jr. to Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson to Bill Clinton -- have an advantage over more secular leaders.
But moral rearmament can go too far. Democrats must resist a desire for symbolic push-off politics -- embracing the constitutional amendment against gays, abandoning affirmative action, ducking on anti-abortion judges. Democrats have paid a political cost for standing for civil rights, women's rights, and now the rights of gays and lesbians. But as Republicans discovered in California after Pete Wilson won re-election by bashing immigrants, Republicans can also pay a cost for being the party of intolerance and white sanctuary.

Progressives now stir the Democratic drink. We provided the party with its voice, broke the hold of big money in the primaries, proved the potential of small donors over the Internet, and provided the volunteers, the passion, and much of the money for this election. We're not about to allow the party to backslide on choice or human rights.


Are progressives thus fated to lose elections to a politics of fear and division, to watch stranded on the two coasts as the heartland ushers in a new dark age? Many think so, but take another look. In the Institute for America's Future poll, a majority of Americans said they wanted candidates to explain how “you'll make the economy and health care better for people” rather than how “you'll make us safe.”

But the Kerry campaign never really got there. John Kerry devoted his convention to establishing his credentials to lead the country in wartime, with economic issues barely mentioned. After floundering for months, Kerry finally found his voice on Iraq, and the debates removed doubts about his ability to be commander in chief. But Kerry never developed a compelling argument about the economy and how he would fight for working people. Had he the equivalent of John Edwards' “two Americas” speech, would it have made a difference?

The Greenberg poll shows that wavering voters who ended up going with Bush were even more interested in economic questions than most. These included seniors, who are the most socially conservative sector of the society, but also the most concerned about health care and Social Security. It includes non–college-educated white women, the most vulnerable economically. Many of these voters held out until, not hearing a compelling argument on the economy, they voted their social conservatism or their security fears and swung to Bush in the last weeks.

Could economics trump moral concerns or security fears? The AFL-CIO and associated unions made a concerted effort to reach their members largely on kitchen-table issues -- the export of jobs, overtime pay, soaring health-care and college costs. An election-day poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates reports that while white men in general voted for Bush by a margin of 18 percentage points, white men who were union members went to Kerry by 21 points. Weekly churchgoers favored Bush by 21 points; if union members, they went Kerry by 12. Gun owners chose Bush by 20 points; if union members, they preferred Kerry by 12.

The AFL-CIO's “secret weapon,” its Working America program, showed that it did not require a lifetime of union membership to produce this effect. Working America used paid canvassers to enlist more than 750,000 largely nonunion, blue-collar workers in three states -- Ohio, Florida, and Missouri -- as associate members, providing these voters with education on kitchen-table issues. The Hart Research tracking polls leading up to the election showed white males going to Bush by 23 percentage points; but if they were part of Working America, they went to Kerry by 21. Married women in those states voted Bush by a margin of 13 points; if in Working America, they favored Kerry by 23.

Democrats should surely nominate candidates who are comfortable talking about values and are respectful of the faithful in this deeply religious country. But Democrats will never compete as the party of fundamentalism, provincialism, or intolerance. Kerry proved that a Democratic commitment to collective security can compete with Bush's preemptive unilateralism. But in the end, the best hope for eroding the right's appeal to the faithful is a powerful populist appeal to their bread-and-butter, kitchen-table concerns. This requires more than a bunch of good policies; it requires a compelling argument that proves the Democrats are ready to fight for their concerns.

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This fight is not over. True, Bush and the right will drive the debate. But they will also rouse the opposition. The renewed offensives in Iraq will increase doubts about the president's war of choice. His budget will feature cuts across the board in education even as he seeks a $70 billion supplemental for Iraq, sparking public anger at misplaced priorities. Bush's first Supreme Court nominee is likely to be an intentional outrage to reward his base. House leaders will push early for a vote to write bigotry into the Constitution with the amendment banning gay marriage.

While opposing the above, progressives should mobilize now to challenge the president's economic agenda -- privatization of Social Security, making his tax cuts permanent, and “tort reform,” which will come up first. Progressives should use this debate to open a major attack on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the most corrupt Congress in memory. At the same time, progressives should be putting forth alternatives, like countering the president's drill-and-spill energy plan with the Apollo Alliance's plan for good jobs through energy independence. Progressives should also gear up a national campaign for a higher minimum wage, and make DeLay's arrogant refusal to even allow a vote in the House on raising the minimum wage a statement of what side the right is on.

Opposition works. It defines differences and forces responsibility. In 1992, after Clinton was elected and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, Newt Gingrich and the right launched a relentless attack on the president and all of his initiatives. Two years later, Republicans nationalized the mid-term elections and swept Democrats out of the majority for the first time in 40 years. In 2000, by contrast, Democrats rolled over after Bush stole the election, gave him his tax cuts, endorsed his power to make war on Iraq, and chose to have no national challenge to his economic policies. Instead, Bush nationalized the election, assaulted the patriotism of Democrats, and rolled them in the off-year elections.

Progressives drove the Democratic Party debate this year and turned out the largest vote any candidate has ever received (except one). The Democratic vote exceeded that of Ralph Nader and Al Gore combined four years ago. And the institutions and organizations that got engaged were often built from scratch like America Coming Together, or moving to an entire new level of action, like the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now and USAction and the Hip-Hop Nation.

This fight isn't over; it has only just begun. Rove's strategy roused the fundamentalists into action, but the president's policies will continue to provide progressives with a disaffected majority to engage.

Robert L. Borosage is the co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.