Good News from the Democrats

Democrats are coming to agreement on an agenda for this year’s elections. Ethics, defense, jobs, healthcare, and education are key themes.

The Democratic proposals include a dovish, but tough defense strategy that will offer voters an alternative foreign policy. After the frustration of watching Republicans and some Democrats nominate Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court, the new message is creating enthusiasm. In the meantime, events continue to treat the Republicans harshly.

The Palestinian vote for Hamas, a militant anti-Israel party, has left the Republican foreign policy in disarray. President George W. Bush’s message that small “d” democratic governments are peaceful looks feeble and unconvincing. The influence-peddling investigations involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Republican Majority Leader Tom Delay cast a shadow over the GOP congressional prospects in November. Another ethics battle is developing. Vice President Dick Cheney may have legal problems for leaking classified information. His resignation is under discussion.

Democrats are getting serious about withdrawing troops from Iraq. The defense strategy will call for redeploying United States troops outside Iraq’s borders. The reservists would come home. U.S. influence would be guaranteed by specialized rapid deployment troops who would be close to Iraq and able to return if intervention is required. The Democrats will likely remain divided about a timetable for implementing the plan. Clearly they will study pre-election polls for clues about the voters views, but the bottom line is that the Democrats will have a coherent alternative on Iraq that doesn’t “me too” the Bush administration.

This past November, in this space, I discussed how the Democrats needed to take a page out of Newt Gingrich’s playbook and nationalize the Congressional elections. In 1994, Gingrich had the Republicans agree on “The Contract with America.” That year, the GOP won a majority in the House of Representatives, by gaining an astounding 54 seats in an off-year election. It was a mini-revolution—for decades the lower house had been Democratic. The Republicans have held the majority ever since.

The cheerleader for the new Democratic agenda is Howard Dean who is visiting local groups announcing that congressional elections this year will be based on a common agenda rather than relying on local and regional concerns. It was a key point he made to LGBT leaders in New York City last Monday.

Fighting corruption—the restoration of an honest and open government—will be one of the key planks. After pleading guilty, Jack Abramoff is providing information about congressional corruption to investigators. Cheney’s troubles stem from papers filed in court by the federal special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, about testimony offered by the vice president’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, that he was ordered to leak classified information by his superiors. Cheney is now saying he has the authority to declassify documents, all but admitting he gave the order to Libby. Howard Dean, the Democratic national chairman, has drawn a line in the sand—saying if Cheney gave the order, he must leave office.

Stay tuned—the vice president could be disgraced before the November election.

Cheney’s shooting of a hunting companion exposed the chill that has developed between Bush and his vice president, signed on in 2000 as the untested presidential candidate’s éminence grise. Worries about the leak investigation and Cheney’s connection with Halliburton, the defense contractor that has been a big winner in Iraq, are causing more tensions with Bush than the hunting accident.

Dean charges that Bush has made the United States weaker, tying the nation’s hands by invading Iraq and leaving us unable to deal with more daunting foreign policy threats presented by Iran and North Korea. In particular, policymakers worry that by making Iraq weak, the United States has made Iran strong, given that country’s ties to leading political parties in Iraq.

The Democrats will forcefully reject the idea that they are surrendering. If the troops leave Iraq by 2007, they will have been there for nearly five years—hardly an example of cutting and running. The new battle cry is: It’s not withdrawal, it’s redeployment.

This new strategy has been championed by Lawrence Korb, a former Defense Department official in the Reagan administration, and Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman John P. Murtha, who is close to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The two men have credibility with defense Republicans. Will disenchanted members of the GOP, increasingly aware that the Bush policy is adrift, shift their vote to the Democratic column?

The Democrats will also focus attention on a jobs program that will address concerns about globalization and downward pressures on wages. Dean, appearing on “Face The Nation” put it this way: “We want American jobs that will stay in America using energy independence as a new industry to create millions of construction and manufacturing jobs.” By making energy independence a priority, Democrats will strengthen their claim to having a viable national security plan, while simultaneously reaching out to environmentalists, blue collar workers, and red state rural residents upset about the cost of gas.

Health care and access to medical care will also move to center stage, with emphasis on the mess Bush made of his senior prescription drug program. If the start-up problems do not vanish, it will be proof of a recurring subsidiary theme—the incompetence of Republican government. The elections in Palestine were a devastating blow to the GOP, as was the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which may yet force out the Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The lack of body armor for American soldiers in Iraq has appalled veterans and their families.

The fifth and final item on the agenda is public education. The Democrats will press this issue hard, calling for additional federal funding and reforms in the massive testing program imposed by Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” effort that has tried to bolster public schools on the cheap.

Don’t expect all Democrats to rally around this agenda. The party is famously fractious, but the agenda will be particularly useful to candidates seeking election for the first time. The Democrats must elect this group if it is to regain the majority.