As Republicans dig in for the fight to privatize Social Security, Democrats have to wonder if the best they can do in government these days is defend the 69-year-old centerpiece of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
Democrats have had some success in marshalling their forces against the assault on Social Security. Republicans in Congress are in disarray over George Bush's plan to gradually replace the guaranteed benefits of Social Security with private accounts that are subject to stock market fluctuations. They are desperate to find a few Democrats they can tack onto the privatization bill to call it a bipartisan effort. Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com counts at least eight House members and six senators in his "Fainthearted Faction" of Democrats, who are considered open to some form of privatization. [If you are constituents of Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) or Mary Landrieu (D-La.), tell them to get on the record ruling out privatization.]
Republicans usually do an expert job framing the debate and putting Dems on defense. In the public mind, the GOP is for cutting taxes, promoting gun rights and family values -- as long as those families don't include homosexuals. They depict Democrats as wanting to stop kids from praying in school, promoting abortion, sending gays out to collect our guns and raising taxes to let lazy people live off welfare checks.
What do you say to a neighbor who has spent a generation listening to talk shows depict Democrats as pro-abortion, anti-prayer, pro-gay, anti-gun, pro-tax and anti-work-ethic?
It would help if Democrats had a list of principles that could be cited and easily understood. The Democratic National Platform, adopted last summer in Boston, was a typically useless document with 43 pages of platitudes designed mainly to avoid offending people (see democrats.org).
Senate Democrats under new Minority Leader Harry Reid took a step toward establishing concrete principles Jan. 24 as they unveiled their opposition agenda. They presented 10 bills that reflect legislative priorities, including adding as many as 40,000 military troops by 2007; improving veterans' benefits; increasing college aid; allowing prescription drugs to be imported; creating national standards for federal elections; restoring overtime pay benefits to workers who lost them under a 2004 labor rules change; and increasing access to family planning services and insurance coverage of birth control products.
It's a good legislative package but it consists of half-measures that won't get a hearing anyway. So if they want to lure back the working class that lately has had a hard time figuring out what the Democratic Party would do for them, party leaders might as well take the offensive against the plutocracy.
Our proposals to rebrand the Democratic Party:
1) Preserve full Social Security benefits at age 65, so that retirees and disabled people can live above the poverty line. No diversion of payroll taxes to private accounts. As corporations walk away from their pension responsibilities, the integrity of the Social Security Insurance program is more important. Any Democrat who supports any form of Social Security privatization needs a primary opponent next year.
2) Enact universal health care. Expand Medicare to let all Americans see the health provider of their choice. Our profit-driven health care system is broken, as businesses find it increasingly difficult to provide health coverage for their employees in the face of double-digit increases in premiums charged by insurance companies and HMOs. Many workers are forced to go without health insurance or pay a greater share of its cost when it is available, but corporations also are reneging on their promises of health coverage for retirees. Bush proposes little more than limiting the access of maltreated patients to the courts. Dems should stand up for a national health program similar to Canada's. It would be funded with a 7% payroll tax, which would be a better deal for most businesses than they get now from rapacious insurance companies.
3) Rebrand social welfare policies as "pro-life" policies. Enact a living minimum wage, day care for children and free public health care and education through the university level, so that women will be encouraged to bear children they can take care of, so they won't feel forced to choose abortion. But abortion must remain available for women who make that choice.
Most Republicans aren't pro-life; they're mainly pro-birth. After the baby is born, the GOP would leave mom on her own to raise the child, unless the father is still around.
Many pro-choice Democrats are uncomfortable with efforts to make the Democratic agenda more palatable to voters who consider themselves pro-life, but it makes sense for Democrats to find as much common ground as they can, particularly with Catholic voters who are increasingly the swing voters in swing states. Dems should emphasize that their agenda more closely reflects the social justice teaching of Catholics and other Christian denominations than the GOP does.
4) Ensure free, quality public education for all through the university level. Bush's No Child Left Behind program is a cruel hoax that sets underfunded mandates for public schools, setting them up to fail. At the college level, costs have risen to the point that working-class families cannot afford to send their kids to state universities. Democrats should stand for equal opportunities for education to all.
5) Promote a demilitarized foreign policy that features human rights and multilateral cooperation through the UN, NATO and other international organizations. Turn Iraq over to the UN as soon as possible and bring US troops home.
6) Make worker rights and environmental standards part of all trade accords. Since 1994, when the World Trade Organization was established and the North America Free Trade Agreement took effect, the US has lost more than three million jobs and the trade deficit has skyrocketed to an estimated $600 billion in 2004. The WTO has failed to deliver on promises of economic gains to poor countries. Multinational corporations have used the portability of jobs to keep wages low, environmental rules lax and profits high; international standards are needed to slow the race to the bottom.
7) Repeal the USA PATRIOT Act, much of which violates the Bill of Rights anyway.
8) Make corporations accountable. Establish a Bill of Rights for workers, including the right to a job, a safe workplace, decent wages and benefits. Secure the right to organize and be represented, grieve about working conditions, strike, get fair compensation for injuries and have secure pension and retirement benefits. Enforce antitrust laws to protect small businesses from large corporations.
9) Promote clean energy and natural resource conservation. Repeal right-to-pollute laws. Toughen environmental enforcement against polluters; reduce oil dependence; spur investment in alternative energy sources, including hydrogen, solar, wind, biomass and hybrids. Encourage clean energy technologies that produce new jobs.
10) Promote rural communities and sustainable family farms and ranches. Require country-of-origin labeling; ban packer ownership of livestock; increase funding and marketing assistance for regional food processing plants. Put people to work rebuilding public assets such as schools, hospitals, libraries, swimming pools and parks. Teachers, doctors, veterinarians and other professionals should be offered incentives to work in under-served areas. Locally-owned businesses should have a fair chance to compete with chains.
We also support media reform, of course, but after the mugging of Howard Dean and then John Kerry last year, don't expect an even break from the networks. -- JMC