What Reich Gets Wrong
August 24, 2006 - 10:10am ET
One of my favorite writers at Alternet, Josh Holland, does a handy job of explaining why Robert Reich was off-base in his latest piece of advice to Democrats, published earlier this weekon TomPaine.com. In it, Reich urges Democrats to "resist" the temptation to use their increased power on the Hill after the midterm elections for launching investigations and hearings into the Bush administration on any number of issues. As laudable and as justified as such investigations might be, says Reich, they'll have no traction because they'll be perceived as merely partisan attacks. Holland argues, and I agree, that Reich is wrong in framing the Democrats' options as an either/or proposition.
As usual, Reich gives good counsel when he tells Democrats to use the last two years of the Bush presidency to tighten their focus on developing a "bold agenda:"
Here’s a better way to go. Use the two years instead to lay the groundwork for a new Democratic agenda. Bring in expert witnesses. Put new ideas on the table. Frame the central issues boldly. Don’t get caught up in arid policy-wonkdom.
For example, instead of framing basic economic questions as whether to roll back Bush’s tax cuts, make it about how to recreate good jobs at good wages and rebuild the middle class. Consider ideas for doing this through trade policy, industrial policy, antitrust, publicly financed research and development, and stronger trade unions.
Instead of framing the central foreign-policy question as whether we should have invaded Iraq, make it how to partition Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish zones while America gets out. Focus the national-security debate on how to control loose nukes and fissile material, and secure American ports. Encourage direct negotiations with North Korea and Iran. On energy and the environment, offer ideas for developing new non–fossil-based energy industries in America, and how to ratify a realistic Kyoto accord.
Help the public understand how these are all related—why, for example, we’ll never have a sane foreign policy unless we reduce our dependence on oil. And most important, be positive.
But who says you can't advance a bold agenda that addresses the pressing challenges facing this nation and hold the Bush administration accountable for its disregard of the rule of law? There may be partisan points to be scored for holding official hearings attacking the Bush administration, but more importantly, there are serious public interest matters to be served by public hearings, specifically hearings on the Bush administration's conduct in its "war on terror." And here I'll turn it over to Josh to develop the rationale:
He's right that appearing overzealous in going after the Bushies may incur a political cost that is too high, but he's wrong to suggest that the issues that a Democratic Congress might investigate are in any way equivalent to the Republicans' obsessive attacks on the Clinton White House.
There are serious charges against this White House -- charges that go way beyond lying us into a war -- that need to be addressed, and Reich is dangerously close to suggesting that issues like circumventing the 1978 FISA law or international and domestic bans on torture are a matter of ideological or partisan preference not fundamental questions about the rule of law or the separation of powers -- he's saying: "vote for us and we won't choose to spy on you." They have, indeed, become partisan fights, but they never should have been.
Reich might have urged Democrats to pick their fights carefully, and I would have agreed. But at the end of the day, either you're for accountability or you're not. Saying we should let bygones be bygones and look forward is taking a stand against holding officials to account for their actions. We're supposed to be a nation of laws, not men, right?
It's also wrong to argue that Congressional investigations would have little impact because "there's enough dirt out there already to sink any administration." Controlling the Congressional agenda is a way of influencing what is emphasized in our political discourse. Yes, the media has covered Democratic reports of corruption or lying to Congress, but it's done so on page A22. When John Conyers held hearings on the trumped up rationale for the Iraq war, he did so in a crappy, overcrowded hearing room given to him by the Republicans who controlled the House, and that earned him only a typically sneering Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post ("In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe"). Yeah, the issues raised there were covered, technically, but never became part of the mainstream national discussion.
There's a lot more I could say about the assumptions that support Reich's piece, but let me just add that he's presenting us with a false dichotomy. Yes, we need representatives who will offer a bold new agenda, but I don't see how you get there without shining a bright light on how we got where we are now in the first place. Reich is correct that Bush shouldn't be the primary target; the big bull's-eye should be on the conservative project itself, and that means laying bare its framework -- the money, the communications, the politicians … everything (including its Democratic allies).
Without that, Reich's "bold agenda" will be limiting to tinkering around the edges, which is what the Clintonistas always endorse -- probably because of their abiding belief that the Clinton years represented some kind of ideal period in American governance. Until they get that a "bold agenda" means just that, millions of progressives will continue to see the Dems as no more than a bandage, a way to stop the bleeding, and not credible agents of change.
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