News & Views from 465 California Street

The Democratic Party

Clint Reilly

The stunning victory in the 2006 midterm elections which led to a Democratic takeover of the House and Senate obscures a view articulated by many political experts. The Democratic Party lacks a rationale for permanently governing America. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and their legion of collaborators earned an important and legitimate triumph in 2006. Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992 only to see the Republican Party gain control of the House of Representatives in 1994.

In his new book THE ARGUMENT – BILLIONAIRES, BLOGGERS AND THE BATTLE TO REMAKE DEMOCRATIC POLITICS, New York Times Reporter Matt Bai tracks the emerging community of entrepreneurs, policy wonks, and technophiles who are collaborating and competing with old-school Washington power brokers to hone a progressive message relevant to 21st Century America. Bai concluded that blue smoke and mirror victories in the House and Senate were based on a rejection of Republican leadership rather than an embrace of Democrats. Democrats still make a garbled argument incapable of sustaining a winning coalition. “Until they (Democrats) ….. find something more contemporary than defending programs of the New Deal and espousing the social justice rhetoric of the 1960′s, it will be hard for Democrats to establish themselves as anything other than a slightly dated alternative to the mess that is modern conservatism.” In fact, the Democratic Party has been struggling to replace the message of New Deal liberalism since Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in 1980 by running against Big Government.

What is a Progressive message for the 21st Century?

In the 1980′s and 1990′s I struggled with this question as I managed campaigns for leading California Democrats. In the 1994 Gubernatorial Race I was unable to help my client, Democrat Kathleen Brown, fashion “an argument” that appealed to Californians and we lost a humiliating race to Republican incumbent Pete Wilson.

The difficulty of electing Democrats was brought home to me when I spent weeks driving my car through suburban neighborhoods in Northern California and the Central Valley in 1978, two years before Ronald Reagan was elected. I realized that for all the taxes paid by middle class homeowners, very little was returned to them in the form of relevant services for their families. Their tax dollars were paying for “Big Government” programs that served the poor or subsidized the rich. Rather than the self-interest agenda of the New Deal, where average citizens were receiving vital help from the government, these Democratic homeowners were picking up the check for everyone else and receiving little to nothing in return. A program of self interest in the 1930′s had mutated into a program of charity in the 1980′s. This was a prescription for political disaster.

As the party of progress, the Democratic Party must answer a daunting question. What is progress when the vast majority of Americans are middle class? When food and shelter is no longer the key issue for the many, though still a critical question for the few, what new policies and programs must be put into place?

In 2007, Americans have attained an unprecedented level of material well-being and mass affluence. When citizens are no longer focused on survival, they are free to pursue and demand the fullest quality of life. This quality-of-life demand has elevated the importance of such issues as longevity, the eradication of curable diseases, physical health, health care, environmental protection, conserving natural resources, alternative energy, global economic progress, education, egalitarian availability of educational opportunity and more.

By standing unabashedly for the universal right to “quality of life” and fashioning a national and global agenda to achieve this objective, the Democratic Party will become the Party of Progress … not just the progressive party.

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