Thursday, November 04, 2004

Mark Weisbrot: Democrats Need New Electoral Strategy

Center for Economic and Policy Research

Democrats Need New Electoral Strategy

George W. Bush has been returned to office, with an increased Congressional majority for his party. Amazingly, he achieved this after dragging the country into a disastrous war that had nothing to do with our national security, and on the basis of lies. And after sacrificing the lives of more than 1100 Americans and probably 100,000 Iraqis (mostly innocents).

On the home front, he was the first president in 70 years to preside over a net loss of jobs. Wages have been falling even as the economy grows. He rewrote the tax-code to favor the richest Americans, and stuck the rest of us with a bill in the form of the largest national debt -- as a share of the economy -- in more than half a century.

This election result cries out for explanation, and unfortunately all the wrong answers are flooding the media. The pundits tell us that people don't vote their economic interests, that September 11th changed everything, that "values" are what really matters. Disillusioned and depressed Democrats blame the ignorance of the American electorate, an explanation that resonates abroad.

Ignorance is a problem, although it is a willful ignorance that has little to do with formal education. A poll last month found 75 percent of Bush supporters believing that Saddam Hussein gave substantial support to Al-Qaeda, and 72 percent asserting that Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction or major WMD development programs.

But Bush's vote total was less than 27 percent of the electorate, even with the record turnout. Compared to other democracies, this country discourages voting. If we held our elections on the weekend and allowed for same-day registration, a much bigger and more representative electorate would choose our government. The Republican party as we know it would have little chance at capturing the presidency or Congress.

Even today, Democrats could win by appealing to voters' economic interests. Hundreds of thousands of Ohio voters lost their jobs during the Bush presidency, but what could John Kerry tell them would change if he were elected? The leadership of his party supported most of the policies that have -- over the last 30 years -- eliminated decent-paying jobs for working people and caused a massive redistribution of income from working and middle-class Americans to the rich.

What if the Democrats put forth a real alternative, including health coverage for everyone, family leave, affordable college and child care, for example? This is not pie in the sky but the rights of citizenship in most European countries that are no richer than we are.

Of course Democrats would have to deliver the goods. But once they began to do so, Republicans would have a hard time cobbling together "majorities" on the basis of issues such as gay marriage, gun control, or coded appeals to racism.

As for terrorism, people in New York and Washington DC -- the sites of the 9/11 attacks and the most likely victims of future terrorism -- voted overwhelmingly (82 percent in Manhattan and 90 percent in DC) to oust Bush. Most of the rest of the country is also capable of understanding that wars of conquest against the Arab and Muslim world will only blow up in our faces. But the Democrats will have to be much more honest in explaining these things.

Proof from Wisconsin: Democrat Russ Feingold just won his third term in the U.S. Senate by a comfortable margin, in a state where Kerry barely squeaked by. Feingold has a clear and consistent populist economic appeal to his working constituents, strongly opposed the Iraq war, and was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act. There is the future of the Democratic party -- if they have the guts to try it.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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