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Rethinking the Democratic Agenda

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Heading for the 2006 mid-term elections, the Democratic Party has yet to present a unified agenda, to clearly spell out what it stand for. Rather than a narrowly defined issues-based agenda, why don't the Dems propose a platform that highlights their historic values?

From here, the key issues seem obvious. On February 6-9, the Gallup Poll asked Americans to define the major issues confronting the US. The highest priority response was "the situation in Iraq" at 22 percent. "Terrorism" got 9 percent. "Dissatisfaction with government" corruption" weighed in at 10 percent, closely followed by "ethics"dishonesty; lack of integrity" at 6 percent. The "economy in general" received a 10 percent response, closely followed by "high cost of health care" at 9 percent, and "unemployment/jobs" at 7 percent. So, there were three general issue areas: the war on terrorism, public morality, and our economic future.

Unfortunately for the Dems, the most prominent issue area, the war on terrorism, is the only one where President Bush has a positive poll rating. The February 10th Gallup Poll found that while only 38 percent approved of the way Bush is handling "the situation in Iraq," 54 percent approved of his stance on "terrorism."

There are various interpretations of this paradoxical finding. Some say it's because the White House message machine drones on 24/7 that the best way to fight the war on terror is to be in Iraq, "fight them there, rather than here." Others contend that while Americans don't necessarily agree with the President they at least understand his position, whereas they don't know what the Democrats' is. And there are those who argue that voters confuse Bush's stubborn defense of his plan for Iraq with a stand based upon principle; in other words, they like a guy who sticks to his guns, as opposed to Democrats whom they see as flip-floppers. The point is that the Bush-Rove machine has largely rendered ineffective what should be the Dems most effective point: the Bush Administration has failed to protect America; they flunked on 9/11 and their response to Hurricane Katrina.

This is the basic conundrum that confronts Dems heading into the 2006 elections: Bush is seen as strong on defense when he's not. Moreover, Republicans are seen as better on national security than are Democrats, when the opposite is the case; the GOP doesn't have a clue how to protect America.

At the moment, the Democratic Party is split between two tactics to solve this dilemma. The DLC, and others in the Clintonista wing of the Party, wants to hold off delivering an agenda. They argue that Iraq, the public perception of Congressional morality, and the economy will probably get worse over time. They say why not let the Bush Administration sink of its own accord? Why not take the position that since they broke it, they have to fix it?

The other tactic is to actually present an alternative agenda. This is what Senate Minority leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are preparing to do, at the appropriate time.

There are compelling arguments for both tactics. It's certainly true that the Bush Administration is likely to look worse in six months. But it is also true that the public, not to mention rank-and-file Dems, want to know what the Democratic Party stands for. They want to hear something more substantial than "We're not Republicans." On the other hand, proposing an alternative agenda during the spring gives the dark forces of Karl Rove six months to chip away at it, to systematically obfuscate Democratic reasoning on key issues.

There's another way for the Democrats to proceed""a third alternative. They can present an agenda that is fundamentally values based, rather than issues based.

The issue of the war on terrorism contrasts the two approaches. The conventional issues-based approach shows Democrats taking one of two stances. "Wait and see" argues that Dems should point out that Bush is failing, but not say anything else. The "provide an agenda" stance provides an alternative, but bogs down in details. The eyes of the public glaze over when politicos debate whether Al Qaeda is stronger or weaker because of the war in Iraq or whether the Bush approach "fight them there, not here" actually works.

The beauty of a values-based approach is that it sidesteps the conventional terms of debate on the war on terrorism. Rather than attack Bush's performance as commander-in-chief, the values-based strategy instead questions his honesty. This approach goes beyond the failure of the Iraqi occupation. This approach tells voters that, from the beginning, the President has not told the truth about Iraq. Further, that he is not telling the truth about the state of homeland security; Bush is being deeply irresponsible. The values-based approach ties together voter concerns about terrorism and public morality.

The values-based approach takes advantage of the fact that Dubya is no longer trusted as President, yet he remains the public face of the GOP. Bush's approval ratings have plummeted""they're at their lowest point in his Administration""and most Americans now feel that he is leading the nation in the wrong direction. Given this death spiral, the Democratic Party should adopt a strategy that links Bush's character to GOP corruption, in general. "The President can't be trusted." "Congress should conduct real investigations so that the public can learn the truth about Iraq, homeland security, and our economic future." "If you want the truth, vote Democrat."

A values-based strategy requires a Democratic Party spokesperson that, in the public eye, is someone of unmistakable integrity. The only national Democrat that has both the reputation, and the charisma, to take this role is Barack Obama. Barack should take the lead role in the presentation of a Democratic platform based not on issues but rather five values: honesty, responsibility, equality, opportunity, and community.

From this moral platform, Democrats should tie their powerful national security initiative to the value of responsibility. Make the case that President Bush is being dishonest and irresponsible because he has failed to protect America. They should point out the obvious; money and resources spent in Iraq diminish our homeland security. Congressman John Murtha can deliver this message.

Americans are deeply concerned about the economic future. Many of us feel that the US is no longer the land of opportunity, a place where individuals can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and through hard work and perseverance climb to the top. Democrats need a credible spokesperson to speak out for the values of equality and opportunity. How about DNC chair Howard Dean or Senator Russ Feingold? Both seem naturals to make the case that we need an effective healthcare and educational system, among other things.

Finally, Democrats must return to their historic respect for community. They must argue that we have to stand together to make the American dream come true. "All for one, and one for all." "I am my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper." Obama can also be an effective spokesperson for this perspective.

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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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