Al Gore’s endorsement gives Howard Dean a unique opportunity to build a new American majority, take back America, and transform the world. To do so, Dean must gather a bold coalition of progressive, liberal, and conservative Democrats, and, certainly, progressive Republicans. Dean’s platform already contains much of what is essential, but Karl Rove is already prepared to paint Dean as a Liberal tax raiser. To capture this historic opportunity, Dr. Dean needs a new framework, a new strategic concept, and a new approach to Federal revenue.
It is obvious that Governor Dean’s campaign has excited liberal Democrats. In the coming days and weeks, Al Gore’s endorsement will open the minds of conservative Democrats. If Dean can use the Gore endorsement to attract even a fraction of conservative Democrats, this will likely be enough to win the Democratic nomination.
But it will not win the Presidency. To win the White House, Dean must convincingly bridge in opposite political directions—to the progressive Democrats on his left and the progressive Republicans on his right—without contradicting himself.
The Bush campaign is banking on their ability to reinforce the perception that progressive and liberal Democratic interests are in conflict with the interests of conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans. The left side of this spectrum is more interested in the character of our social order, focusing on social justice, equality, civil liberties, social programs, universal health care, environmental stewardship, and corporate responsibility. Conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans, however, stress the more pragmatic mechanics of that order, such as economic opportunity, fiscal responsibility, national security, homeland defense, social security/Medicare, and personal security.
This difference allows Republicans to insert a wedge. In 2000 Bush was able to convince enough conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans that his “compassionate conservative” campaign overlapped with their interests. In 2004, Bush is likely to appeal to these same centrist groups using neo-conservative rhetoric against his Democratic opponent, painting him Bush-lite: why vote for a candidate who doesn’t believe in the righteousness and prerogatives of America? Why vote for someone who is wishy-washy with American values and interests? Why vote for someone who offers only half-measures and indecisiveness? Has not Bush acted decisively in favor of economic opportunity, national security, homeland defense, and Medicare? Give Bush four more years and the economy will be booming, the budget will balance, and America will rest secure in her borders and trade.
Sadly, with $200 million in campaign funding and Karl Rove at the helm, that short-sighted argument might win over conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans. But in making his case, Bush will once again be lying to America. His short-term frame hides long-term catastrophe. In this simple fact lies the opportunity for Democrats.
To capture that opportunity, an enlightened Dean would have to re-frame the theme of 2004 away from short-term crises and toward the long-term, toward America’s purpose in the world and our strategy to fulfill that purpose. Doing so at once exposes the enormous political deception of the Bush Administration and creates the policy framework that can contain this new Democratic majority for years to come. It also offers an exciting and bold revenue alternative that will disarm the Republicans.
Bush’s long-term agenda is about preserving and defending the dysfunctional core of America’s post-war economic engine: suburban sprawl, regressive income taxes, industrial subsidies, and fossil fuels. Thus we can understand the Energy, Medicare, and Farm bills. Thus we can understand the series of tax cuts to the wealthy. Thus we can understand the perpetual wars in energy producing regions of the world. Thus we can understand the pressure on Greenspan to keep interest rates low and the choice of protectionism over free trade. Bush is defending an economic idea that no longer makes sense for America. It is an economy that consumes more and more debt; it is an economy that requires increasing military intervention; and it is an economy that produces fewer and fewer good jobs. It is an economy in which the bottom 80% of American households’ income over the last twenty years grew 9% when our GDP grew by 42%.
The economic engine loved by Bush is more than inequitable; the long-term threats it generates are catastrophic. We now have trade and fiscal deficits that will smother global growth, fossil fuel dependence that can only lead to more regional energy wars, an economic model that excludes five billion people, and climate change that is already resulting in death, disease, and displacement around the world. These four global threats in turn spin off the short-term crises Bush claims are his highest priorities.
But without a clear interpretation of and consensus on our national purpose in the current era, Democrats, Dean included, cannot make that argument, since they are still themselves tied to that old economic engine. Instead, in the twelve long years since the Soviet Union collapsed and took our national purpose with it, Americans have been wandering in the desert. It is time for America must finally accept its economic responsibilities and lead the transition to an integrated, sustainable, and equitable global economy. The outline of that sustainable American economic engine is simple and clear: we must shift from suburban sprawl to metropolitan smart growth; from regressive income taxes to waste taxes; from industrial subsidies to subsidy free markets; and from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
A quick tour of his website reveals that Candidate Dean mentions all four of these policies, but, lacking a strategic concept, they are merely more issues in a list. Unfortunately, strategy still takes a back seat to polls and symptoms get more attention than the disease. This can be overcome. The political bridge between from polling to leading can be found in necessity of shifting the tax burden from income to waste. The waste is certainly there: 86 metric tons of material is displaced per American per year, yet only 7 metric tons of that stays in the economy more than one year. Likewise, the tools to capture that revenue exist: cap-and-trade, polluter-pays, and new inefficiency taxes can capture that revenue using market-friendly mechanisms. The reservoir of waste and inefficiency to be taxed offers a staggering supply of Federal revenue and frees Democrats from their historic dependence on income taxes.
By lifting such a huge financial burden from the majority of Americans, Dean would reap the obvious political harvest among the working and middle class. Simultaneously, such a policy creates the market-forces that turn environmental and social responsibility into major profit centers, keeping industry well fed but now sustainable. Combined with the leveled playing field of subsidy-free markets, the shift from income to waste will put the power back with the consumer allowing freer and fairer competition in the marketplace. That revenue can then eliminate our federal deficits and power an updated and smarter set of education, social services, health care, and retirement programs. New tax incentives and smart growth policies will harness the American Dream to once again anchor a long-term economic boom at full employment. This time that boom will destroy the root of urban poverty, end suburban income segregation, and transform the family, health, and educational problems that fester in our poorly planned communities.
Globally, the resulting energy independence and transformed economy opens the door to sustainable global trade as developing countries transition their own systems toward sustainable goals. The potential for regional warfare over strategic energy and material resources will drastically diminish, and the tyranny that accompanies oil extraction and fuels global terror will end.
The result is a strategy for governing that is simple, coherent, and effective yet meets the varied interests of the coalition Dean needs to win the election. Progressive Democrats will find their environment and social justice issues are advanced beyond their wildest dreams. Liberal Democrats will find civil liberties and worker’s rights expanded, the government liberated, and their social programs transformed. Conservative Democrats, progressive Republicans and the Independents in between will enjoy fiscal discipline, a booming economy, the safer world, and their communities peaceful and pleasant. Everyone will enjoy a massive reduction in income taxes.
Howard Dean has an amazing opportunity in front of him. What remains is to follow the hidden wisdom in Gore’s surprise endorsement. Al Gore recognized that we are experiencing extraordinary times marked by extraordinary challenges. In these times, the conventions of the past no longer serve the common good. Three such conventions are the mute acceptance of our economic engine, blind obedience to the strategic interests generated by that economy, and a formless agenda driven by polls rather than principled conviction and innovative strategy. Bush is counting on the sanctity of that acceptance and obedience. He’s also relying on the scattered list of issues the Dean campaign currently calls a platform. Gore defied convention on Tuesday and now it is time for Dean to follow. The framework is there and the majority is waiting.
Patrick Doherty is an independent writer living in Washington DC. For the last decade he worked at the intersection of security, conflict, and sustainable development in the Balkans, Caucasus, Africa, and the Middle East. Visit his site at: http://home.earthlink.net/~pdoherty7/