Itty-Bitty Agenda

Some say the Democrats don't have the courage of their convictions. Could be. But what I worry about more is that they don't have the courage of the public's convictions. Take the issue of war with Iraq. Polls have consistently shown that the public is leery of unilateral action in Iraq and would prefer not to act in the absence of backing from the United Nations and our allies. The public also wants to give weapons inspectors a chance to do their job and does not see any compelling necessity for immediate action against Iraq. Sound familiar? That's Al Gore's position and Ted Kennedy's, but it is supposedly such a far-out, liberal position that those running for office must strenuously avoid it. That's why the Democratic leadership in Congress, we are told, has been so circumspect in its reactions to George W. Bush's drive toward war.

But that far-out, liberal position also happens to be the view of a majority of Americans. Maybe it wouldn't be so risky for Democrats to take a clear, anti-unilateralist and give-weapons-inspections-a-chance position in the halls of Congress and on the campaign trail. Now, it may still be the case that Democrats can't afford to be seen as purely antiwar and that they are therefore boxed in to supporting some kind of resolution authorizing the use of force in the near term. But that doesn't mean that they need to give the president a blank check. If Republican Sens. Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel can raise serious questions, why can't the Democrats? What's wrong with injecting some sanity and the views of the public into the discussion?

And that's just the short run. In the longer run, the Democrats have nothing to be afraid of by providing a clear alternative to the aggressive unilateralism of Bush administration hawks. After 1994, the GOP made the mistake of thinking that most voters agreed with Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey about the worthlessness of the federal government. Today, the GOP may be making the mistake of thinking that most voters agree with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz about the worthlessness of international cooperation. The Republicans paid politically for their miscalculation before; they may do so again if they don't heed the messages the public is sending them. But only if the Democrats face up to the messages the public is sending them: Americans are looking for an alternative national-security policy that would provide security at home while avoiding go-it-alone adventures abroad. That means the Democrats actually have to articulate such an alternative, not just me-too President Bush.

Can the Democrats do it? Sure -- but they have to lose the defensiveness with which they approach national-security issues. The public, they should remember, is pragmatic. Americans just want to be safe and they have no particular ideology -- unlike Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al. -- about international relations. If they become convinced that the Republican approach isn't going to deliver safety and may actually make things worse, they will happily switch their national-security preferences to the Democrats -- provided they know what the Democrats stand for. The misgivings the public is currently expressing have provided the raw material for such a switch; the rest is up to the Democrats.

Give the people what they want: a revolutionary idea. And let's not stop with international issues. What about the Democrats' domestic program? Does anyone seriously believe that preserving Social Security and adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare -- the dual foci of the Democrats' domestic program -- fairly sum up what the public is looking for on the home front? These are areas of Democratic strength, of course, and seniors are an important constituency in any election, particularly in low-turnout, off-year elections. But Census Bureau data show that senior voters (65 years and over) made up only 21 percent of the electorate in 2000 and probably won't constitute more than 24 percent in the upcoming election. That means that three-quarters of voters are being asked to vote for the Democrats on the basis of programs that aren't currently giving them a nickel's worth of direct benefits.

To be sure, some day they will be drawing those benefits; even now, many have parents who are dependent on them. Still, it's striking that the Democratic program doesn't have much of a direct benefit to younger voters. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of education. Americans worry constantly about the state of education in this country, and they worry a lot: The issue regularly ranks at or near the top of Americans' domestic concerns. Their concerns are basically twofold: They want American students held to high standards, and they want the resources provided that will enable students to meet those standards.

The standards part of this was recently addressed by the No Child Left Behind Act, passed by Congress with bipartisan support last December. Since then, the public has been moving the Democrats' way on education, probably because Americans associate the Democrats with a willingness to invest more resources into school systems. Indeed, a Gallup Poll in late September shows the Democrats with a 22 percentage point advantage on education, a lead the magnitude of which hasn't been seen since before the 2000 election.

Beyond affirming that they wish to invest more money in education, however, the Democrats have had little specific to say about what they wish to spend that money on. That makes it less likely that the Democrats can convert this advantage on education into actual votes. The public, for its part, has shown strong interest in higher teacher quality, universal access to preschool, school modernizations and smaller class sizes. But voters can't vote for what they don't hear about.

And how about health care? Seniors want and deserve a strong, modernized Medicare system. Think about children, though, at the other end of the health-care delivery system: According to Census data, about 12 percent of children -- roughly 9 million kids -- lack any health insurance whatsoever. And yet this group would be relatively cheap to cover, and a variety of workable schemes are out there to do so -- perhaps most notably that of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (a 2004 presidential hopeful), whose plan would build on existing programs to cover all children, as he has done in his state. It's good that working families don't have to worry about health insurance for their parents, but wouldn't they be even happier to know they don't have to worry about coverage for their own children?

Finally, take the economy, which is looming large in this election. So far, Democrats have been content to pillory Bush for his general economic stewardship (or lack thereof) and his squandering of the surplus on his massive tax cut. But most Democrats have pulled up short from the logical next step, which is to call for postponing or rolling back some of the tax cuts for the wealthy that have not yet been implemented. The public has consistently expressed support for such action, especially if the money saved is directed toward -- guess what! -- funding education and health-care programs. [See "Politics for Democrats," TAP, April 8, 2002.]

Of course, it's probably too late for Democrats to try a new approach for the 2002 elections. To some extent they're stuck with the hand they dealt themselves. But it's not too early to start thinking about 2004 because -- no matter which party does better in this election -- Congress and the country are likely to remain closely divided. Giving the people what they want would be a good place to start. But if the Democrats wind up running (again) in 2004 on Social Security, prescription drugs and we're-just-as-patriotic-as-Bush, they just might lose. And they'll deserve to.