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What Democrats Stand For: Four Messages for 2016

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In the aftermath of the disastrous 2014 midterm election, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean observed, "You've got to stand for something if you want to win." Before 2016, Democrats must figure out what they stand for and develop coherent messages. Here are four suggestions.

1. Fight for the Middle Class.

In 2016, Democrats need to follow the lead of Senator Elizabeth Warren who acknowledges that while the US economy has grown, "the system is rigged" and, therefore, the plight of the middle class hasn't improved over the past six years. "The stock market and gross domestic product keep going up, while families are getting squeezed hard by an economy that isn't working for them." Democrats have to reestablish their identity as the Party that is fighting for the middle class.

Most political observers believe the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate will be Hillary Clinton (although there are a substantial number of progressives pushing for either Senator Elizabeth Warren or Senator Bernie Sanders to run). If Hillary is the Dems choice, the challenge for liberals will be to get her to adopt a strong populist stance, to convince Hillary to advocate for change that jaded voters will believe in, and to establish Hillary as a champion of the middle class.

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A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicated strong national support for specific populist proposals:

a. 82 percent of poll respondents supported, "Providing access to lower cost student loans and providing more time to those who are paying off their student loan debt."

b. 75 percent of respondents supported: "Increasing spending on infrastructure projects for our roads and highways."

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c. And, 65 percent of respondents supported: "Raising the minimum wage."

It's hard to imagine that Hillary would oppose any of these measures.

This common-sense populism differentiates Democrats from Republicans. It's unlikely that any Republican presidential candidate would embrace the slogan "fighting for the middle class" or support measures to lower student loan costs, increase spending on infrastructure, or raise the minimum wage. (In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's slogan was "Believe in America" and his basic message was a reprise of classic Reaganomics: cut taxes and reduce government regulation and spending.)

2. Fix the Broken Immigration System

President Obama's November 20th speech on immigration ensured that it will be an important issue in the 2016 presidential election. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted just before the President's remarks, indicated that only 39 percent of respondents supported: "Creating legal status for some immigrants who are here illegally." Nonetheless, Hillary Clinton said, "I support the President's decision to begin fixing our broken immigration system."

Subsequent polls indicate that nine out of ten Latino voters supported the President's action. Immigration reform may not resonate with older white Republican voters, but it does with the Democratic base.

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In 2016, immigration is likely to be a critical differentiator between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. It's unlikely that any Republican candidate who is sympathetic to immigration reform -- such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush -- can make it out of the no-holds-barred Republican primaries.

3. Address Global Climate Change

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicated strong national support for tackling climate change. 59 percent of respondents supported, "Addressing climate change and global warming by setting specific targets to limit carbon emissions." (A November Hart Research Associates poll of "Battleground State Voters" found a similar result. In states such as Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire, two-thirds of respondents favored candidates who supported the EPA plan to reduce carbon emissions.)

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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