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Hey Senate Democrats, Wake Up! 

Dems have a chance to change the national debate,but will they seize the day?

"The Democratic Party of the nation ain't dead," said New York political operative George Washington Plunkett at the turn of the century, "though it's been givin' a lifelike imitation of a corpse for several years."

Quick, somebody check Tom Daschle's pulse!

Does the Democratic heart beat within the new Senate majority leader? Ready or not, he is now the public face of the Democratic Party, ironically having been thrust on stage by a Republican. When Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords got so fed up with George W.'s corporate extremism and frat-boy arrogance that he switched from the GOP to become an independent, his sudden move yanked the Senate gavel out of Trent Lott's slimy hands and delivered it to Daschle.

It was a windfall not only for the senator from South Dakota, but for all the Senate Democrats, giving them an opportunity to breathe new life into a party made moribund by the weight of Big Money.

The media focus, of course, was on process rather than substance: Which committee chairs were switching to whom? What did the switch mean to Senate decorum? Why was Bush so clueless as to let this happen? Which lobbyists were out in the cold now that Democrats chaired the Senate committees? Etc., etc. The bigger question was largely ignored: What will the Democrats do with this amazing opportunity?

Here's a chance to change the national debate from a myopic, bottom-line, corporate-boardroom fixation (is it good for Wall Street?) to the broad, common-good concerns of America's workaday majority (is it good for ordinary folks?). It's also a propitious opportunity to literally move the debate out beyond the Beltway directly to the people.


The road less traveled

Daschle and his Democratic colleagues are presented with two very different choices: (1) Adopt a defensive posture and play the inside game; or (2) Go on the offensive and move the policy battle to the grassroots.

The first choice is much preferred by the money interests, the media moguls, the lobbyists, and the other forces of the status quo. Their arguments are couched in words like "bipartisanship," "responsibility" and "governance." The pipe-smoking pundits and editorial aristocrats have been busily lecturing Daschle that, with his barest of majorities, his only responsible course is to build an "atmosphere of cooperation in Washington," as the New York Times editorialized.

This means that Daschle should use his gavel, his legislative scheduling power, and his ability to authorize hearings judiciously to block, if he can, a few of George W.'s loopier ideas (like fully deploying Reagan's Star Wars fantasy) and to seek slightly more progressive compromises on the margins of Bush's agenda (expanding the Patients' Bill of Rights, for example).

As a Democratic Party strategist advised after the Jeffords' monkey wrench was thrown into the Senate machinery: "This is still largely a game of defense, of moderating or deflecting the worst excesses of a conservative administration." With strategists like him on our side, who needs Republicans?

Nonetheless, the GOP was also eager to tell Daschle's team how to act. Here's Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning explaining that the new math in the Senate actually doesn't change anything, since Democrats "will have to be center-right, because we have a president who is more right than center, and they will have to come toward him to govern or do nothing."

Govern. That's the lure that Washington Democrats seem to find irresistible. "You're on the inside," whisper the status-quoers to Daschle. "You have to stay hitched to the way things are done, you have to help 'govern.'" But as a Texas farmer once said to me: "Status quo is Latin for 'the mess we're in.'"

Which brings us to No. 2: Get the hell out of Washington, rally people around an unadulterated Democratic program, start building a grassroots party again! This is an approach based not on weakness, but on strength.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Daschle has a strong hand, but only if he makes an outside play. For example, he and other Democratic senators can hold hearings and conduct investigations on anything they choose. So why not convene hearings on a bold agenda that completely restates the terms of debate on everything from health care to trade policy, from taxes to the drug war, from Social Security to housing?

Certainly, these things won't pass ... this year. But like women's suffrage, wage-and-hour laws, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights and every other progressive advance, they'll only be achieved if someone plants the flag on the highest hill so people can see it, rally around, organize, and agitate to make it happen.

Here's another powerful play Daschle could make: Move the Senate hearings into the countryside -- not just a week's worth of phony "field hearings," but move all the Senate's business out with the people for the next year and a half.

Why should citizens always travel to Washington, where lobbyists rule? Take the whole kit and caboodle to L.A., the Big Apple, and everywhere in between, including Portsmouth, Poughkeepsie, Pittsburgh, Peoria, Ponca City, Pueblo, Provo, Pocatello, Portland and Port Townsend. This is where our strength is, where people power counters the money power.

Such boldness on subject matter and maneuverability on choosing the political front would send a powerful message to the people; at the same time, it would discombobulate Beltway insiders and put Bush Inc. on the defensive. The only thing the senators would give up is their pretensions that they are partners with Bush and the GOP in "governing" -- a hokey dance in which Bush calls the tune, owns the band and sings the lead.


Daschle does the dance

I can't claim to know Tom Daschle well, but I've been acquainted with him a long time, going back to the early 1970s when he was a Congressional aide to then-House member Jim Abourezk of South Dakota (a guy, by the way, who is a genuine populist, relishing any chance to pop the powerful in the snout).

Daschle is a thoroughly decent fellow: smart, good-hearted and damned near eaten up with sincerity. You can't help but like him personally. But daring, he's not -- nor does he claim to be. He's completely missing the boldness gene. He's a consummate don't-rock-the-boat Washington insider (his wife is even a corporate lobbyist, representing such clients as American and Northwest airlines, Boeing, Loral and United Technologies).

It's no surprise, then, that he chose Door No. 1 as the direction in which he would take the Democratic Party: "I believe the only way forward is to embrace a spirit of principled compromise," he intoned after becoming majority leader.

Bush's bunch and their lobbyist pals winked and nudged each other gleefully as Daschle elaborated: "Polarized positions are an indulgence," and "My hope is that while I come to the floor with partisan beliefs, I can leave the floor with bipartisan accomplishments." Not exactly the stuff of Jefferson and Paine.

As for his "bipartisan accomplishments," Daschle declared that the very first bill he intends to break loose from the legislative logjam and send to Bush's desk will be the anti-consumer bankruptcy bill that's been pushed so hard by the credit-card giants and big banks. This legislation will punish families trapped in credit-card debt (often due to job loss, divorce or illness), making it very difficult for these hard-hit folks to make a fresh start. You can just hear working stiffs across America saying, "Thanks, Tom, we needed that."

Daschle does have what he calls a Democratic agenda, but don't expect to be dazzled. It consists of a patients' bill of rights, a one-dollar increase in the minimum wage, and a prescription-drug plan for seniors. This is minimalism writ small.

It's true, as Daschle has been saying on the Sunday morning yacking shows, that his party's bill of rights for patients is better than Bush's sham version. But as columnist Gail Collins has pointed out, a patients' bill of rights "is to health care reform what a gnat is to aviation."

Come on. America has 3 million more people without health coverage today than when President Clinton took office. Insurance companies are whacking benefits and jacking up premiums at will. Corporations are cutting or eliminating coverage for millions of their employees. People overwhelmingly support a universal health-care program... And the boldest the Democrats can get is to call for a right to sue our HMOs? It's like calling for a chicken bone in every pot.

Likewise, their prescription-drug plan is limited to seniors, and even then it soaks the taxpayers while allowing the drug makers to keep charging rip-off prices. And hiking the minimum wage by a buck means doing full-time work for gross pay of barely $12,000 a year -- poverty wages. People are going to get excited about this agenda?

Now is the time for the Democrats to step forward. Already, the Bush administration is rolling over into the political ditch. Less than nine months in office -- even after having delivered that sugary tax cut, and even after an ego-boosting mini-tour of Europe --Little George's poll numbers stink. The New York Times poll last month puts his overall job-performance approval rating at a pitiable 53 percent, and it's far worse for him on specific issues: Only 47 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy, he's down to 39 percent approval on his environmental stewardship, and only 33 percent agree with his energy policy.

The worst news for Bush II is that the public is viewing him like they did Daddy Bush: Only 25 percent say that he's focused on problems that matter most to them, while nearly 60 percent say that he favors the rich.

But as Al Gore could tell you, the public's disgust or dismay toward Bush does not necessarily translate into an outpouring of support for Democrats (especially when a majority of Senate Democrats supported the credit-card giants over consumers on the bankruptcy-reform bill, and when a quarter of them joined George on his tax giveaway to the rich).

Rather than hide in the cloakroom, hoping this wobbly galoot of a president will tumble, some Democrats somewhere need to strut their stuff. It's time not only to show up Bush for the weakling he is by throwing some real punches at him, but also to show the disenchanted public that there's a new populist spark in the lumbering old Democratic Party, a reawakening of the give-'em-hell-Harry spirit, a willingness to go toe-to-toe with the corporate behemoths running roughshod over the party's natural constituency.

Do something, in other words, that would excite the workaday majority's imagination and offer these people a reason to give a damn, as they did when Democrats used to be unequivocally on their side.


Agenda, anyone?

Here are a baker's dozen of things that a resurgent Democratic Party might be for that would perk up the interest of their core constituency, as well as lukewarm voters, discouraged voters and non-voters:

A simplified program of publicly financed health care for all, by-passing the administrative hurdles set up by insurance-company rip-off artists and reuniting us patients with our own doctors.

Low-cost prescriptions for all, with the government serving as price negotiator with the drug giants, as it does now through the Department of Veteran Affairs.

A living wage, set at the poverty level for each city, applying to any sizeable corporation that benefits from government funding or actions.

Put the rich and the corporations back on the tax rolls, and make a progressive tax out of the regressive payroll tax (which now costs 75 percent of Americans more than their income taxes). It's currently applied to only the first $78,000 of a person's income. Instead of this being a ceiling, make it a floor, and apply the tax only to people making $78,000 and up.

Fully fund Social Security, keep Wall Street's hands off of it, stop Congress from raiding the trust fund, restore the retirement age to 65, and maintain benefits indexed to inflation.

Put a computer in every child's home. If this is indeed the key to a child's education and economic potential, why not make sure everyone has the key, with the government negotiating low wholesale prices with both the hardware and software giants, then providing vouchers for families to buy them?

Public financing of all elections (both primaries and general), not only to get the bulk of corrupt corporate money out of the system, but most importantly to allow regular folks to run for office again, giving them a chance against entrenched incumbents.

Stop the globaloney. Say no to fast-track and the Free Trade Area of the Americas; withdraw from NAFTA, the WTO, and all other one-sided corporate trade scams; then renegotiate fair deals by including workers, environmentalists, small farmers, public-interest groups and others at the negotiating table.

Adopt the "precautionary principle" for approval of toxic chemicals, drugs, waste disposal, genetic engineering, irradiation and other dangerous technologies -- meaning that they will not be approved unless the manufacturers and profiteers can prove that they're safe for people and the environment.

End our dependency on the energy gougers by launching a serious, mass-market effort to develop renewable energy sources, conservation, micropower and other viable alternatives to Big Oil, nuke builders, etc.

Stop corporate and governmental invasions of people's privacy -- on the job, in our homes and classrooms, through our computers, with our Social Security numbers, on the street, by the plethora of police agencies, by the Supreme Court and elsewhere.

Pass a market-based farm bill that works for family farmers, rural communities and the environment rather than for price-gouging middlemen -- specifically including an emphasis on sustainable ag practices, localized marketing, organic production and small-farm profits.

Restore the concept of "public" to the debate and to national policies, asking what a policy can do not for the special interests, but for the common good -- particularly including a reinvestment in public education, libraries, parks, transportation, utilities and airwaves.

Then there's the insane drug war, the affordable-housing crisis, crime in the suites, the bloated Pentagon budget, corporate merger mania, equal pay ... and so much more. There is no shortage of ideas that a majority of Americans would support if we have the gumption to put them forward and make the case for them in an ongoing grassroots campaign. For nearly every one of these, some lonely Democrat in Congress has proposed legislation, but there's no unified effort to make something of them.

The Democrats have the media access and the broad organizational base necessary to take these ideas to the people. But will they? Unfortunately, Tom Daschle won't -- it's not who he is. Neither will the gaggle of corporate Democrats who are jostling to be the next presidential nominee in 2004: John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Dianne Feinstein, Al Gore (thud), and that ilk.

But the good news is that there are progressive senators who could band together, assert themselves in the Democratic caucus, enlist the House progressives, put an organizing plan together with grassroots progressive groups ... and come to the countryside.

It's time for Paul Wellstone, Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer, Mark Dayton, Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad, Tom Harkin, Carl Levin, John Edwards, Ted Kennedy, Harry Reid, Paul Sarbanes and Debbie Stabenow -- and any other senator whose populist instincts have not totally atrophied -- to be part of something larger than the go-along-to-get-along insiders' game.

Democrats can't continue to ignore the majority of Americans who are either not voting (100 million), voting out of disgust (another 25 million), or voting third party -- nor can they continue to blame the Greens, the New Party the Working Families Party, and others who are trying to build a grassroots, anti-corporate political force.

-- Jim Hightower publishes The Progressive Populist, a journal of progressive politics and social policy.

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