Just a few years ago, liberals were cowering before Karl Rove's plans to permanently marginalize the Democratic Party and construct an enduring Republican majority. With Rove's reputation at an apex and the hapless Democrats still reeling from their unexpected defeat in the 2002 midterms, his vision appeared eerily achievable. Reporting on Rove's efforts in The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann identified six policies the GOP was prioritizing to hasten the Donkey's death. The first set were tort reform, unflinching support for Israel, and deunionization -- policies that would either flip or impoverish lawyers, unions, and Jews, thus eliminating the three primary funding sources for the Democrats. Simultaneously, the GOP would seek to privatize Social Security, Medicare, and education, robbing Democrats of their three signature accomplishments and political raisons d'etre.
As Lemann was writing in May 2003, the Bush administration was pursuing all six strategies. Queried by Lemann on whether he sought to permanently destroy the opposition party, Rove did not deny the suggestion: "[D]o you weaken a political party, either by turning what they see as assets into liabilities, and/or by taking issues they consider to be theirs, and raiding them? c Absolutely!"
This year's repudiation of Republicans and restoration of Democrats marks the end of Rove's strategy. But there's much in his focus on the long term that Democrats could learn from. Where Rove sought enduring political dominance by destroying the Democrats, the left can pursue its own play for sustained, majority status in a more positive fashion: By prioritizing policies that strengthen, expand, and empower their coalition.
Historically, Democrats are quite bad at this. When Bill Clinton entered office, his administration fell to debating whether the first major policy priority should be NAFTA or health care. Trade liberalization won, but the fight over NAFTA helped doom the subsequent health-care effort by exhausting and angering the AFL-CIO, which channeled resources into the NAFTA battle that would have gone to fund its National Health Care Campaign.
Policy merits (or lack thereof) of NAFTA aside, its passage certainly didn't enlarge the Democratic base. Health care, on the other hand, could have. In a legendary political memo, William Kristol outlined precisely why Republicans had to oppose Clinton's reforms "sight unseen" and eschew compromise proposals. "Health care," Kristol wrote, "is not, in fact, just another Democratic initiative. c It will revive the reputation of the c Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests" -- and in so doing, enlarge their electoral coalition substantially. In 1994, Democrats passed the assault weapons ban, which was good policy but did nothing for the Democratic coalition; on the contrary, it enraged the conservative base and contributed to Newt Gingrich's triumph in the midterms. But past needn't be prelude for the new Democratic majority. A quick canvass of smart Democrats from many walks of life produced a dazzling array of laudable policy ideas that would work to better the country -- and expand and empower the left. Herewith, a sampling.
Organized labor is the backbone of the American left and the Democratic Party. A key fund-raiser, a rich repository of votes, and a critical get-out-the-vote partner; unions are to the Democrats what the Christian Right is to the GOP. Yet the Donkey has let its partners in labor fall into sharp decline. The situation has grown so dire that Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, warns that "the United States is in violation of international human-rights standards for workers."
How to help? The current organizing process, which turns on a public election regulated by the National Labor Relations Board, allows employers ample time to terrorize and intimidate their workers into rejecting the union. In at least 25 percent of cases, pro-union workers are illegally fired, but the penalties for such illegal terminations are so miniscule that companies write them off as smart business decisions.
Much of that would be repaired by passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), already sponsored by 216 members of the House and 45 in the Senate -- and that's in the old, Republican-controlled House and Senate. The EFCA would introduce card check, allowing unionization to occur as soon as a majority the workforce signed cards calling for a union. It would radically increase the penalties on illegal union-busting techniques, and provide new avenues for mediation and arbitration of organizing disputes. The end result would be that more of the 57 million Americans who say they would like to join a union would be able to do so. And since about 70 percent of union voters went Democratic in 2006, good policy, here, would mean good politics for the Democrats.
The country's voting laws profoundly disadvantage young, old, poor, and mobile voters, all groups that swing Democratic. A few reforms, among the many good ones that should be instituted, stand out. Ensuring adequate supplies of voting machines would end the hour-long lines that amount to de facto disenfranchisement for voters with families or lives. Same-day voter registration would particularly enfranchise young people. Creating a voting holiday -- some suggest using Veterans Day -- would also help: In addition to underscoring the holiness of the democratic process, it would vastly ease the strain on those in low-wage jobs with little access to transportation or time off.
More controversial, but possibly more important, would be felon re-enfranchisement. In most states, former felons are barred from voting, even after they've served their sentences and finished parole. Because the legal system disproportionately convicts African-American and low-income individuals, it disenfranchises millions of voters whose interests line up with the left. In 2006, Rhode Island's electorate overturned the restriction, a‡rming that reformed offenders are to be welcomed back into society. Were the rest of the country to do the same, it would be a victory for democracy and a boon to Democrats.
The exorbitant expense of contemporary elections has left campaigners dependent on corporate sponsors -- who obviously expect some fealty in return, and can swiftly punish if they don't get it. As the Democratic Party is only partially -- albeit substantially -- corrupted by this dynamic, more corporate donations accrue to Republicans, tilting the electoral playing field -- and government policy -- significantly to the right.
Options for reform are manifold, from full public-financing schemes to variants of the clean-election laws in Arizona. Among the most interesting is New York City's program, which creates 4 to 1 matching on small-sum contributions. Such a setup magnifies the influence of small donors by making them a viable funding source for a serious campaign. A similar program, on a federal level, would allow individual contributions to emerge as a serious funding alternative to corporate money. It would also enhance the power of, among others, the online left, who have already proved energetic fund-raisers and could become a serious constituency calling for, as payback, progressive reform.
In 2006, seven out of 10 Latinos went for the Democrats. But that's the tip of the iceberg, given the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. George W. Bush and John McCain both would like to see comprehensive immigration reform that enshrines a path to citizenship. With the GOP scared of repelling an inevitably influential voting bloc, there's opportunity for a genuinely bipartisan solution that would create, in the near term, millions of new voters predisposed to vote Democratic.
Pay-as-you-go is a proposed budgetary law that requires changes in either revenues or spending to be balanced in the budget; it would, some suggest, end this era of irresponsible tax cuts and budgetary demagoguery. The Republican majority has sustained itself economically by cutting taxes without reducing (in fact, accelerating) spending. PAYGO would render that impossible, and force their free-ice-cream-for-everybody strategy to meet its much deserved demise. And some built-in suspension triggered by moments of economic emergency would allow liberals the Keynesian flexibility they desire.
Those are but a few of the ideas swirling around the progressive community. If Democrats truly believe their political success benefits the majority of Americans, it's time they took ensuring their coalition's health and expanding its size as policy imperatives. All these proposals would help do that -- and would increase political participation and empower oft-marginalized voices. Call it Rovian altruism. Call it good politics.
Ezra Klein is a Prospect writing fellow.