This may sound ironic, considering the source, but now is not the time for Democrats to start sounding like bloggers. Republicans are preparing to shut down the government, and it’s time for their opponents to draw a clear and inspirational contrast in vision, values and tone.
The administration and Hill Democrats should be tough and even combative, but the need for combat must be articulated with higher goals in mind. Consider the lessons of 1995, when Bill Clinton won a similar clash with Congress with a simple formula.
It’s time for a new formula – one that’s direct, positive and inspiring.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney adopted a tone worthy of any blogger this Thursday when he said that Congress is holding the American people “hostage,” and remarked of its legislation: “The only thing I didn’t see was a birther bill attached to it.”
To be fair, Carney was absolutely right. The Republicans are holding the American people hostage, as they’ve done many times before. Their bill has become a piñata stuffed with items from corporate and Tea Partiers’ wish lists: A delay in implementing the Affordable Care Act. A repeal of the medical instrument tax (a poor tactical choice on the GOP’s part, since the repeal so clearly benefits instrument manufacturers. The individual mandate would’ve been a smarter target).
They even added a “conscience clause” that would allow employers and corporations to refuse funding for women’s preventative care they don’t like, including contraception, if they consider themselves morally opposed to such things. As far as we know, this would be the first provision in history to give one person’s “conscience” dominion over another person’s personal life.
(Dave Johnson has an excellent summary of the GOP’s giveaways.)
Carney was also correct when he said that “the debt ceiling has to be raised. It is not a concession to anybody for Congress to do that. It is not a concession for Republicans to do their constitutionally mandated job.”
But being right isn’t enough.
An Unfavorable Mood
Democrats on the Hill offered substantive objections to the GOP’s budget itself, which is getting closer to the heart of the matter. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that “the mood is not favorable for a 986 number,” referring to the Republican’s spending cap. Rep. Jim Moran said that “government shutdown is better than reverting to long-term sequester-level funding.”
Like Leader Pelosi, Rep. Moran is absolutely right. As Rep. Keith Ellison and the Congressional Progressive Caucus have said, the “sequestration” funding levels the Republicans want to extend will cost “millions of jobs.” They’re also exacting a grim toll from human beings at every stage of life, from Head Start to Meals on Wheels.
That needs to be communicated to the American people. And to do that effectively, we need to be reminded why we have government in the first place.
People want to know what a party and a president stand for, not just who and what they stand against. That was the shrewdness in Clinton’s 1995 strategy. Steve Benen summarized what he describes as Clinton’s M2E2 “mantra” back in 2011:
“Clinton would say he’s prepared to negotiate with Republicans, but wasn’t prepared to go along with deep cuts to ‘Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment,’ four popular measures voters didn’t want to see slashed.”
That strategy, along with some Republican blunders, eventually carried the day for Clinton. While he suffered a short-term dip in the polls, he emerged from the crisis stronger than before. More importantly, his messaging reinforced the importance of four vital government programs.
This time Democrats, with President Obama in the lead, need to go even deeper. Today’s Republicans are even more extreme than Newt Gingrich’s gang, with an even more nihilistic message and approach regarding governance.
Obama’s mantra, and that of Hill Democrats, could become a simple one: “We’ll work with the Republicans, but we won’t accept anything that threatens our nation’s health, homes, jobs, or our justice.”
This phrase, or something like it, could be the foundation for a global approach to the many draconian cuts the Republicans have proposed. Here are a few of the cuts that the GOP has put in this or other recent budget bills:
Cuts to Medicare or Medicaid: “I’ve already been very clear,” the President can say. “I will negotiate on anything that doesn’t endanger our health.”
The GOP’s massive giveaways to polluters – which include concessions on environmental regulation, coal ash, and the GOP bill’s Keystone XL pipeline provision: “We won’t agree to anything that threatens our health or that of the planet.”
Reductions in assistance for home heating: “We won’t negotiate on anything that puts our homes at risk, and I’ve already told you I won’t do that.”
Cuts to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, banking regulation, or government mortgage programs: “We won’t agree to anything which puts more Americans out of their homes.”
Cuts to banking and other corporate regulatory actions: “Gutting our nation’s agencies threatens our jobs, like the millions of jobs we lost in 2008.”
Across-the-board cuts: “We’ve already said we won’t agree to anything that costs Americans more jobs, and these cuts will cost nearly a million of them.”
Republican cuts to budgets for FBI and local policing: “We won’t accept any cuts that interfere with the process of justice.”
The GOP’s massive tax breaks for corporations and rich people: “Those kinds of cushy tax breaks violate our basic American sense of justice.”
Soul and Inspiration
Democrats might gain some short-term benefit from treating this shutdown as nothing more than a clash over procedure – the Republicans are being absurd, after all. But they took that approach in 2011 and it didn’t prevent the GOP from recapturing the House in 2012 (with a little help from gerrymandering, of course).
The party, and the nation, need a long-term strategy. It needs “H2J2,” or some similar guiding principle, to become its “mantra.” The very role of government itself is under siege, and that’s what Democrats need to defend. Their party has traditionally been the party that knows what government does well and is prepared to make it better. That’s its strength.
Democrats would have a strong tactical advantage going into this battle: the truth. What the Republicans are proposing will cost millions of jobs. Their proposals are unjust. They do threaten our health and our homes.
Instead, some Democrats seem to be positioning themselves merely as wiser stewards of the government’s dismantling. That will leave them with no flag to fly except that of “a more orderly process.”
That kind of debate will inspire no one. It will change few hearts or political allegiances. On the other hand, Democrats could fight for the idealism behind government service, and what a well-run government can mean in the lives of every American. Those ideals have inspired generations and changed the course of history.
There’s no reason why they can’t do it again.