When We Get Behind the Wheel

As GOP senators drop out, the wild hope grows: Could the Democrats get a filibuster-proof Senate? If so, and if the party took the White House and kept the House, then at last the progressives would have the keys to the car. This would not be like 1992, but more like 1964.

Of course it's wrong -- too early -- to indulge in such fantasy. But if it does happen, here are three cautions I would give:

1. Make catastrophe bipartisan. Let's be like the British in both World War I and World War II, and in foreign policy have a government of national unity. Make James Baker secretary of state. Make Chuck Hagel secretary of defense. "What?!" you say. Well, at least for the first two years -- at least during the withdrawal from Iraq -- I'd be glad to see a few reality-based Republicans in charge. In fact, if we had a parliamentary system, I think something like this would have happened just before the 2006 elections. The Bush government would have fallen. A government of national unity would have taken its place. Of course, the U.S. Constitution does not permit this kind of eve-of-Dunkirk rearrangement of the deck chairs, but FDR knew how to bring in Stimson-type Republicans, and our generation should, too. This bipartisan arrangement would limit the risk that in a few years, the Republicans would accuse the Democrats (as the Nazis accused Weimar's Social Democrats) of a "stab in the back" to our armed forces.

"But Baker? How could you agree to him? He put Bush in the White House in Florida." Precisely. If he could fix a Bush victory in Florida, he might be able to pull off some acceptable conclusion to Iraq.

In some ways, we'd have the best of both worlds. On foreign policy, and only there, we'd have a government of national unity. On domestic policy, we could go all out to the left. But here, too, I'd have some cautions.

2. Keep it simple, stupid. If we win a 1960s-type majority, let's simply re-enact the two great laws of the 1960s. First, we should "re-enact" Medicare -- for everyone. We should take our single-payer health-care system and just make it wall to wall. Aside from its merits, people also understand it, while they don't really understand any of the health-care plans. One thing that Ronald Reagan proved is that people like big, simple ideas: In his era, the big simple idea was tax cuts, and in ours, the big simple idea should be "Medicare for all adults," and "national coverage of children, too." (I know it comes out to the same thing, but since single-payer is a big pill to swallow, it's nice to cut it in two.) Above all, keep it simple. The Democrats seem to specialize in coming up with health-care plans that only Paul Krugman can understand. And so far as I can tell, even Paul Krugman wants to keep it simple.

Every increment of complexity, every compromise in the Medicare principle, will make a bill harder to pass. Reagan kept things simple; why can't we?

3. Build in redundancy. Of course, the other great 1960s law was the Civil Rights Act, and we should extend this law, too. I mean not to prohibit just race- and sex- and now age- and handicap-discrimination, but discrimination in employment based on union membership or support. I know that the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have their own version of labor law reform, the Employee Free Choice Act. For liberals not familiar with the Employee Free Choice Act (and they are legion), the idea is simple: Have card checks instead of elections, and speed up what the National Labor Relations Board is doing. Indeed, not just speed up the NLRB but prod it to do more -- help negotiate first contracts, that sort of thing. All of this is fine. I'm a labor lawyer and I support it. Let's enact it. But it has major flaws. First, it will require years of rule making, which will end up in endless legal challenges. The courts won't like or understand it. Second, it creates a kind of bottleneck, in that a labor revival still has to "go through the government."

If we re-enact the Civil Rights Act, we have a model the courts already understand. If employers fire pro-union workers, those workers can go into court, and get damages, an injunction, and legal fees. With discovery, pro-union workers can get access to corporate files. We should exempt employers from these suits only if there is a labor agreement in place.

That's my plan, but -- WAIT! Let's wake up. Back to work. Bush is still in power. It's not even 2008.