Dems Need a Plan

Americans do not want to believe that their president is a liar and that Republican leaders in Congress are his enablers, but George W. Bush's approval rating sliding to 41%, the lowest of his presidency so far, gives Democrats more hope of regaining control of Congress, even with the ham-fisted gerrymandering that was designed to reinforce the GOP hold on the House.

A CBS News poll released May 23 showed 52% disapprove of the president and 65% think the country is on the wrong track -- matching the highest number CBS News polls have recorded since they started asking the question in the mid-1980s. The last time that percentage called the country "on the wrong track" was in November 1994, when Republicans swept both houses of Congress for the first time in decades.

Now is the time for Democrats show that they have a plan to get America moving forward, a plan that provides opportunities for the working class and rebuilds the endangered middle class. Even a few pickups for the Democrats could make a difference in the House, which currently has 228 Republicans, 205 Democrats, one independent who usually votes with the Democrats and one vacant seat. The Senate is even more closely split, with 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats.

Columnist Arianna Huffington, in her new book, Fanatics and Fools, suggests that Democrats take a page from the GOP playbook of 1994 and adopt a "New Contract for a Better America," a populist agenda that resets the country's priorities. Her key points:

• Achieve Energy Independence: America needs a sane energy policy that protects the environment, stresses fuel efficiency and invests in clean and renewable energy. Democrats should embrace the goal of achieving energy independence in a decade -- with no more environmentally destructive drilling and no more unsafe nuclear waste. A great model, Huffington noted, is the Apollo Project, a $300 billion proposal by unions and environmental groups to create 3 million new jobs while reducing America's foreign oil dependence over the next 10 years. We can reduce our reliance on foreign oil with existing technologies such as hybrid cars, mass transit options that are clean, fast and more convenient and "green buildings" -- energy-efficient homes and offices.

• Prescribe a Cure for the Health-Care Epidemic: Some 43 million Americans are uninsured and millions more face inadequate coverage as more employers cut back on health benefits. Democrats should embrace three bedrock principles: 1) Universal health coverage that 2) includes preventive care and 3) puts an end to the economic tyranny of the pharmaceutical industry. We would add that doctors should make health-care decisions, not insurance company executives or HMO administrators.

• Treat Lost Jobs as a Social Calamity, Not a Lagging Economic Indicator: Adopt former Gen. Wesley Clark's $100-billion "Restore America" plan to improve homeland security by hiring and training first responders, public health personnel and security providers for critical installations and ports. Help states and cities repair and rebuild crucial civic infrastructure like roads and schools. Plug the drain of jobs overseas with tax credits for companies that keep and create jobs for American workers and an end to loopholes that encourage employers to ship jobs abroad. Finally, a forward-looking energy policy's investment in renewable energy would also create well-paying high-tech jobs and nurture the next generation of job-creating entrepreneurs.

• Truly Leave No Child Behind: Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which was supposed to be the heart of his domestic agenda, turned out to be another broken promise, this time to our children. "Indeed, the supreme irony is that we are now willing to invest tens of thousands of dollars a year on a child who goes wrong and winds up in the criminal justice system but are begrudging the far smaller amount it would cost to help these kids lead the kind of productive lives that would keep them out of jail in the first place. We can pay now, or pay later," Huffington wrote.

• Break Down Barriers and Create New Opportunities in Education: In his 2005 budget, Bush freezes Pell Grants for our nation's poorest college students and cuts funding for 38 education programs, such as after-school programs for low-income children, Even Start (a program that provides literacy help to at-risk children), mentorship programs, the Dropout Prevention Program, and programs providing rehabilitation for juvenile offenders. His administration also has cut programs intended to improve teacher quality in low-income neighborhoods. The bitter irony here is that federal money invested in teacher education pays enormous dividends in the near and the long term.

• Truce in the Drug War: America now has more people living behind bars than any other country -- over 2 million crowd our nation's jails and prisons, and 80% of their crimes involved drugs or alcohol, but few inmates get treatment in prison. Democrats must promise to put an end to America's crippling addiction to the war on drugs and to put those resources to work where they're desperately needed -- treating addicts and protecting our streets from random violence.

• Secure the Homeland First: Homeland security starts with more funding for neighborhood watch groups to increase their numbers and improve their training. And we need to recognize that gang violence is a byproduct of our failed drug policy and our failing criminal justice system, which returns prisoners to the streets more calloused and dangerous than when they were incarcerated.

• Be a Leader, Not a Bully: Counter the Bush administration's unilateralism and preemptive defense strategy, by strengthening old alliances and building new ones, consulting and acting in concert with other countries and the United Nations. Honor and abide by international laws and treaties. And, in the hope of being respected in return, respect other nations and cultures. "As Secretary of Offense Rumsfeld has acknowledged, the danger at the moment is that for every terrorist we eliminate, we create ten more to take his place alongside those minted afresh every day by the madrassa schools," Huffington wrote. "We don't need to give the sponsors any unnecessary recruiting help."

• Restore Integrity to the Political Process: We must break the grip of what campaign finance reform champion John McCain has called the "iron triangle" of lobbyists, big money and legislation. The only way to do that is to overhaul the way we finance our campaigns, with full public financing of political campaigns. In addition, TV and radio stations must be required to offer free air time to candidates and the toothless Federal Election Commission must be made more independent. Instant runoff voting, Internet voting and nonpartisan redistricting legislation are all essential reforms if we are to put our democracy back in the hands of the people. We also propose proportional representation in congressional districts.

• Put People Above Corporate Politics: Democrats have got to stand up and say, "Enough is enough."

(See Arianna's "New Contract for a Better America" at www.ariannaonline.com/books/fools/contract.php/.)

It's not enough to wait for the Bush administration to implode -- though the incompetence is starting to show through the bluster. But Iraq is only Bush's biggest blunder. It has taken resources from the real war on terror in Afghanistan, but his economic policies have hurt farmers, small businesses and US workers, who see their jobs being exported to factories in China, financed by Bush's tax breaks to the wealthy. There are many cracks in the Republican wall and the Democrats need to tune up their Mack truck to bust through it this fall. -- JMC

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