Beyond Jeffords

Two headlines that appeared within 12 days of each other--"Jeffords Quits Republicans, Dems Take Control of Senate" (Associated Press) and "L.A. Turns to the Left as Top Office Goes to a Democrat" (the Los Angeles Times)--have given encouragement to millions of politically active progressives, many of whom have been in a dark funk since the Supreme Court's gang of five put George W. Bush into the White House. But can progressives build on the good news by dramatically escalating independent citizens' politics while teaming up with elected officials to define an agenda and take it across the country?

It is a shame that it took a Republican defection to derail the Bush operation. Since the November election, too many Democrats in Congress have been reluctant to confront Bush's agenda--and some have actively embraced it. They've seemed oblivious to the increasing anger of Al Gore's voters and the growing doubts of average citizens.

Bush at Bay

Jim Jeffords's decision to leave the Republican Party and to vote with Democrats to organize the Senate signals just how extreme the Bush administration has been. As Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts put it, "It is a measure of how reactionary Bush is that Jeffords could last eight years as a Republican with Reagan as president and couldn't last six months with Bush." More important, it reflects a growing political realignment, charted by geography and demographics, that is beginning to work against the Republican Party as it becomes branded by its whites-only Dixie leadership, its right-wing base, and its big-money finances and policies.

A few days after the Jeffords jolt, Democratic political operatives James Carville and Paul Begala offered "A Battle Plan for the Democrats" on The New York Times op-ed page. They admonished that "accommodation," or "offering a kinder, gentler Mr. Bush, as it were," constitutes "a prescription for policy failure and political defeat." These former Clinton advisers proposed three political strategies: to call the Bush agenda what it is--"radical and dangerous"; to "spend and shrink"--that is, to push for more spending on prescription drugs, education, and expanding health care coverage by shrinking the giveaways to the rich embodied in the Bush tax plan; and to "obstruct" the president's most damaging proposals.

This is all good advice, reinforcing the best instincts of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and new Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. But Carville and Begala are fully aware that many New Democrats--most notably, Zell Miller of Georgia and Carville's old friend and client, John Breaux of Louisiana--are marching to a different drummer. Miller endorsed Bush's tax cuts on day one, while Breaux helped to broker the "compromise" tax-and-budget plan, which was supported by 12 Democrats. Breaux seems ready to deal with Bush on key issues like turning Medicare into a voucher system, privatizing Social Security, and extending the North American Free Trade Agreement to all of Latin America. Many conservative Democrats are also willing to go along with Bush on environment-and-energy issues. It is clear that Daschle and Gephardt face a hard struggle to keep their caucuses unified, so it will be difficult for them to create a clear alternative to Bush that can rally public enthusiasm and win elections.

What Democratic committee chairs in the Senate can do is use their committees to alter the context of the political debate. They can start by exposing the reality of low-wage work, the true crises of unaffordable housing and inadequate schools, and the collapse of the public health system. Bush preposterously argued that his tax cuts come from "money left over" after his budget "has funded our needs." Committee hearings can bring to the public's attention just how those needs have been neglected.

On the other side of the continent, liberal Democrat James K. Hahn is replacing Republican Richard Riordan as mayor of Los Angeles, America's second-largest city. Both Hahn and his chief election rival, Antonio Villaraigosa, son of Mexican immigrants and a leader of progressive politics in California, ran far ahead of the strongest Republican candidate. Now that the bitter runoff is over, Mayor Hahn will have to be responsive not only to his African-American constituents and labor base but also to the community organizations and labor groups that formed the backbone of Villaraigosa's campaign. Ironically, Villaraigosa's unabashedly progressive election agenda is likely to become the guiding set of principles for the Hahn mayoralty.

That platform was drafted in an intense planning process with community groups and was designed to empower working families by putting government on their side. Both Hahn and Villaraigosa called for extending living-wage mandates, massive investment in affordable housing and mass transit, and new efforts to control sprawl, get developers to make social investments, and open up parks and other green spaces. The L.A. election shows the power of labor-based community organizing to transform the political agenda.

Moving on Up

The good news from Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles should not lead to passivity. The political pendulum won't swing all by itself. Bush is already scrambling to reclaim the center. And however emboldened, Democrats are not likely to act reliably like a coherent opposition party with a compelling vision for winning back public support and for governing.

This is where the rest of us come in. Rather than wait for the institutional Democratic Party to lead, progressive activists need to protest against the Bush agenda and push the Democrats in Congress to challenge the limits of debate in Washington. To do all of this, progressives should not act simply as a field operation for a divided Democratic Party. They need to organize independently to build public support and attract media coverage. Now is the time to turn up the heat. The best progressive elected officials need to work with expanded citizens' movements in order to transform the country. Major elements of this challenge are already under way.

Consider, for example, that most Americans want new rules for the global economy that secure decent work with living wages and safe working conditions, preserve clean air and water, protect food safety, and ensure basic human rights, here and around the world. Over the next couple of years, the vibrant "blue-green" alliance that forced open the World Trade Organization debate in Seattle will further this agenda in battles over "fast track" trade authority, uncontrolled "dumping" of imports into the U.S. market, corporate sweatshops, and International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies.

The tax cuts passed by Bush and his Republican and Democratic allies will have little or no effect on the growth of the economy, but they will restrict the ability of government to invest in a more prosperous future. Progressives must lead a constant challenge to those misshapen priorities. The AFL-CIO has told members they should consider themselves on a "war footing" and is taking early steps to place political-message organizers into the field to counter the anti–working families agenda. The new Alliance for Retired Americans is launching a campaign to put a prescription-drug benefit back on the table as a kind of campaign-building tool for the 2002 elections. USAction likewise intends to lobby for a prescription-drug plan and for health care coverage for all. The Campaign for America's Future has geared up a broad coalition to protect Social Security and Medicare, taking on the Bush administration's plans to privatize and voucherize. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which has worked with local groups in campaigning for living-wage laws, is gathering support for national efforts to raise the minimum wage. And in mid-May, the Children's Defense Fund unveiled a new initiative around an ambitious "Act to Leave No Child Behind." Building on a strong public consensus that the well-being of our children should be America's top priority, this campaign--which involves grass-roots educational activities and Washington lobbying "on every Wednesday of every week until the job is done"--will make a powerful case for changing budget-and-tax priorities.

Progressives, like most Americans, want livable and healthy communities. To achieve this would require a federal government that invests in public infrastructure, like transportation, and addresses the nationwide shortage of affordable housing. But as we can see from the large impact of the Los Angeles labor/community coalition in the recent mayor's race, another key is citizen organizing, metropolitan regional planning, and, most of all, building the worker-based coalitions that can set the rules for high-road rather than low-road growth.

Americans have already shown their suspicion of Bush's Enron Republicanism--the energy-and-environmental policies that favor corporate interests over the common good. While national environmental and consumer groups mobilize against the latest Bush administration outrage, progressives should be bringing environmentalists and workers together around a bold program of investment in "green growth" and a plan that will stop global warming while creating jobs.

Progressives should continue to demand political reform at state and national levels by building on public disgust with the Florida election debacle and our money-drenched politics. Led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other citizens' groups, progressives are organizing to turn up demands for thorough reform of the political system to make sure that every vote counts.

In 1992, faced with Clinton in the White House and Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, conservative activists set out to take the country back. They called on congressional Republicans to oppose every Clinton initiative. Newt Gingrich--leading a minority of the congressional minority--worked to construct a simple agenda drawn from the concerns that galvanized the conservative base, including tax cuts, prayer in schools, term limits, a ban on abortion, and "Star Wars." He and his colleagues organized to teach a generation of activists and candidates how to argue their case. By 1994 his agenda had evolved into the Contract with America and provided a rallying cry for conservatives as they captured both houses of Congress.

Progressives should take a page from that book: Demand that Democrats stand up to Bush. Support research that reveals the myriad payoffs and unseemly alliances that characterize his administration. Unite members of Congress with movements on the ground in order to bring new passion and energy to the elections.

At the first large national gathering of progressives after the 2000 presidential election--the Next Agenda conference sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future--Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois issued a call for a new alliance of activists, thinkers, and public officials:

Everything we need is right here. We have longtime organizers and activists. We have the academics and the policy wonks who are leading experts on the economy, energy, environment, education, globalization, health care. We have the people, like [AFL-CIO President] John Sweeney, who are leaders of powerful progressive institutions and progressives who have been elected to important offices. What we need to do is create a political home for progressives that is permanent. We need to transform the anger, the frustration, and the rage that I'm hearing from people out there into progressive activism. To accomplish that--this is an announcement--we are creating a progressive-leadership organization of activists and leaders across the country to spread ideas and strategy, to educate the next generation of leaders, to get our message into the media, and to separate rhetoric from reality. We're recruiting progressive political officials, local activists, labor leaders, and others.

This effort is now under way. On June 24, Antonio Villaraigosa, Dick Gephardt, and others will speak at a conference devoted to the theme "Take Back Our Country," cosponsored by the southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action and the Campaign for America's Future. And on September 22, the Campaign for America's Future will co-sponsor a conference with the Progressive Los Angeles Network (PLAN), which is at the center of the labor-based community movement for change in the city. Progressive legislators will join with local officials, union leaders, and community activists in laying out an agenda and learning how to make the case.

A similar conference in October will help launch in Pennsylvania a coalition of progressive groups, many of which worked heroically and successfully in the 2000 presidential campaign to set up the issues that determined the outcome of the vote. Co-sponsoring the conference will be the Keystone Research Center, Citizens for Consumer Justice (the state's USAction affiliate), many labor organizations, and the Campaign for America's Future. Other conferences are now being planned for Illinois and other states, and a regional conference is in the works for people all over the South. In each area, activists will be enlisted into an ongoing statewide or regional coalition; they'll be able to share information on local and national issues and form an agenda and strategies.

The Bush presidency and the short-lived Republican majorities in both houses of Congress may mark the end of the conservative era that has dominated politics over the past quarter-century. But change isn't inevitable. And in our money-driven political system, it isn't easy. It will come only if independent citizen-movements force new demands onto the Bush administration and if activists join with political leaders--forwarding an agenda that inspires hope and building coalitions on the ground that can do the heavy lifting. The Jeffords defection and the L.A. mayoral election reveal the opportunity. The question is whether progressives are prepared to seize it.