Writing in The Nation, David Sirota looks askance at the "centrism" of the Democratic Leadership Council. As you may recall, the DLC and its emphasis on getting the economy right was a major factor in the election of a little-known red-state governor named Clinton as a popular two term president. This would seem to be a lost cause from the get-go, but Sirota asks the right questions, particularly when it comes to the economy:
Let's start with economic policy. The DLC and the press claim Democrats who attack President Bush and the Republicans for siding with the superwealthy are waging "class warfare," which they claim will hurt Democrats at the ballot box. Yet almost every major poll shows Americans already essentially believe Republicans are waging a class war on behalf of the rich--they are simply waiting for a national party to give voice to the issue. In March 2004, for example, a Washington Post poll found a whopping 67 percent of Americans believe the Bush Administration favors large corporations over the middle class.
The "centrists" tell Democrats not to hammer corporations for their misbehavior and not to push for a serious crackdown on corporate excess, for fear the party will be hurt by an "anti-business" image. Yet such a posture, pioneered by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, is mainstream: A 2002 Washington Post poll taken during the height of the corporate accounting scandals found that 88 percent of Americans distrust corporate executives, 90 percent want new corporate regulations/tougher enforcement of existing laws and more than half think the Bush Administration is "not tough enough" in fighting corporate crime.
On taxes, self-described "centrists" like Senator Joe Lieberman, a senior DLC leader, attacked proposals to repeal the Bush tax cuts to pay down the deficit. Yet even the DLC's pollster found in 2001 that a majority of Americans support such a policy, and that a strong plurality of voters would actually be more likely to vote for a Democrat who endorsed this proposal. Lieberman caricatured those in favor of repeal as extreme, claiming a repeal would alienate millions of voters who supposedly feel the tax cut helped them. Yet a September 2004 CBS News poll found that 72 percent of Americans say they have either not been affected by the Bush tax cuts or that their taxes have actually gone up.
Sirota similarly examines assumptions policy perceptions on health care, the environment and trade, and in each case finds broad public support leaning much further left than the positions staked out by the DLC, whom Sirota tars as corporate shills. He bases his arguments on a variety of mainstream media polls, and one could certainly look more closely to determine whether the wording and order of the questions biases the results (a CBS poll biased? No way!).
But I will leave that for others because Sirota's read on the public is similar to my own, at least insofar as the issues he presents. Even though we just put George W. Bush back in office for four more years, the American Center tends to agree with the Democrats on many domestic issues: it would forego tax cuts in favor of reducing the deficit or paying down the debt; it would like to see some form of portable, universal health coverage because a large pool efficiently spreads the risk and keeps costs down; it is bullish on economic growth but doesn't want to sacrifice the environment to achieve it; it favors free trade in theory, but is skeptical at weakening the domestic industrial base and losing good-paying jobs to offshore workers if the only outcome is to fatten corporate profit margins.
I am of the opinion that none of the above positions are in any way controversial for a Democratic candidate, centrist or otherwise. Where the Democrats had a problem in this election was on issues of national security, a subject that Sirota sidesteps altogether but will of necessity be key to winning any election in the coming decades. The mantra of the Clinton years was, "It's the economy, stupid." The mantra post-9/11 is, "It's the jihad, stupid."
Simply put, Americans need to be convinced that the Democratic leadership is serious about confronting the the threat posed by radical Islam. It is not enough to pay lip service to "hunting down the terrorists" as Kerry did: voters want to be assured that our elected leaders have a plan for taking the fight to the enemy. Bush does and makes no bones about it. You can disagree about how effective it has been, and question whether it's in fact creating new enemies through our military presence in Iraq. But Bush at least champions the spread of democracy, and with it classic liberal values such as religious tolerance, racial and gender equality, and freedom of speech. Where is the Democratic left on this most important struggle of our era? Mostly sitting on the sidelines taking shots at Bush, but offering no plan of its own other than a vaguely-defined multilateralism that is overly reliant on the bureaucratic and corrupt UN.
A resurgent centrist Democratic movement would take its cue from publications like The New Republic, and speak candidly about the necessity of standing united and resolute against jihadist ideology. It would emphasize the role of the US over the years as a force for good, that in the last century was instrumental in defeating both fascism and communism. It would echo the rhetoric of Tony Blair, who as a Labour Prime Minister is on the surface a very unlikely ally for the likes of George W. Bush, but who champions liberal democratic values as the counterweight to despotic regimes that offer no hope for their people and the religious totalitarian movements that flourish in such places.
Moving to the center doesn't necessarily mean adopting the domestic platform of the GOP, as the article seems to suggest. In fact, as Sirota points out, on domestic issues Democrats may be more in sync with the mainstream than is generally believed. It is in the crucial arena of foreign policy that we need to lead the battle of ideas if we ever hope to defeat the forces of global jihad. It's high time the Democrats got back in touch with the values of the nation they want to govern.