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Take Back America: 'This Is Our Time'

Robert Borosage

These are opening remarks at the fifth annual Take Back America Conference in Washington, a meeting of 3,000 leaders and activists from across the country and across the tribes of the progressive movement:

Five years ago, when we started this venture, Washington was occupied territory.

Tom DeLay in the House. Bill Frist in the Senate. Bush in the White House. Karl Rove in the cat-bird seat. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby at command central. Dick Cheney in an undisclosed location

We warned then that they would weaken America. And they did.

We pledged then that we would build an independent progressive movement to take back our country. And we did.

And now DeLay is gone. Frist is gone. Rove's lost his genius. Libby lost his case. He won't apologize, except to say, "Pardon me." Bush is still here, but so lame a duck that Republican presidential candidates avoid mentioning his name. And Cheney is so clearly divorced from reality that it may turn out that undisclosed location is simply the proverbial attic where they lock up the crazy relatives.

They are done. This is our time.

We meet at what I believe historians will mark as an historic turn. The conservative era that defined our politics for the last quarter century is at its end. The struggle for what comes next has now begun. That will be a fierce contest. This is our time—but only if we make it so.

Let me restate this. The right has failed. Their policies are bankrupt. Their political project has collapsed. They still dominate the Republican Party, but are well on their way to turning it into a minority, regional party of white exclusion.

Americans are looking for a new way forward. Progressives now must step up and champion a bold agenda for reform that meets the challenges that we face. Build an independent movement of increasing sophistication and capacity. Consolidate a new and enduring majority for change.

Let's look at each of these propositions in turn.

The right got it wrong. Over the past six years, conservatives have largely had their way—with catastrophic effect.

Iraq, Katrina, Enron, Terri Schaivo and stem cells, the assault on Social Security, growing inequality — each of the signature failures and follies of the Bush administration can be traced back directly to conservative ideas, and the ideologues and think tanks that championed them.

This is what educators call a teachable moment. But you have to teach it because you won't hear this from the right. They are too busy cutting and running from the Bush debacle. "Conservatives didn't lose in 2006," Newt Gringrich argues, "Republicans did." And they lost because they weren't conservative enough.

Ducking responsibility, Gingrich, in a sort of Winn Dixie takeoff of chairman Mao, offers the four "c"'s of conservative failure. A dearth of competence and candor. A surplus of corruption and consultants.

He's got a point. But characteristically, he has left out the biggest "c" of all: conception—or, rather, misconception.

Conservatives failed not simply because they are corrupt and incompetent — although they surely are. They failed because they get the world wrong.

With the wrong diagnosis, the medicine they prescribe is dangerous to our health. What we have here is a problem of false labeling — which is probably why they starve the FDA.

Here is a decent summary of the dial-tested, focus-grouped, message-massaged mantra of conservatives. Small government, lower taxes, strong military—you know the drill.

Sounds good in theory. But in actually existing conservatism — from Reagan through Bush — these attractive labels turn into a poisonous brew. Crippled government. Trickle-down economics. Growing individual risk and insecurity. Crony capitalism. A politics of division. Military adventure under an imperial president. And the results can be catastrophic.

Take Katrina. Conservatives famously scorn government. Here's Grover Marquis, the right-wing activist, hoping to drown it in the bathtub.

Before Bush even came into office, Heritage and other think tanks were railing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a bloated entitlement program. People who live in areas at risk should self-insure, they said. So they cut the budget, booted it out of the Cabinet, stocked it with cronies — you remember "great job, Brownie" — and stood by as the pros departed in dismay.

And when Katrina hit, the saints didn't come marching in. Only it wasn't government that drowned in the bathtub.

The right has failed not simply because they are corrupt and incompetent. They have failed because they get the world wrong.

Americans have had enough. Here are Bush's approval ratings. About where Nixon was when he resigned his office to avoid impeachment.

More than half the country says they've simply given up on the Bush presidency. Even more probably wish that Bush would give up on his presidency.

People get it. They know the wheels are coming off the trolley, as Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan put it, and the trolley is careening off the track. A stunning and record three out of four people say we are headed in the wrong direction. The right-direction people just won the lottery.

Americans are looking for a way forward — but they aren't simply neutral. They are moving our way.

On issue after issue, from the war in Iraq, to the need to address catastrophic climate change, to support for health care and education, to fair taxes — a majority of Americans stand with us.

This week, Media Matters for America joined with the Campaign for America's Future to publish a study — entitled "The Real America" — that challenges the convention wisdom that this a conservative country, using the most respected nonpartisan surveys to detail how progressive the views of most Americans really are.

And in 2006, these attitudes took political expression. The elections were a stunning repudiation of the right.

Democrats won up and down the ticket. They won majorities in the House and Senate, with a mandate to end the war, to clean out the corruption and challenge the failed economic policies.

And the new Congress has heard the message and started to repair the damage.

They passed the first legislation calling for withdrawing the troops on a date certain — which the president promptly vetoed. They passed the first raise of the minimum wage in a decade. They've added money for children's health care. They've made the first halting steps for lobby reform.

They're headed into battle over priorities, with Bush threatening to veto any increased investment in homeland security, children's health, education, affordable college, or renewable energy.

But repair is not enough. We need a broader lens, a larger vision and a greater willingness to fight. And to do that, we will need to break the conservative shackles on our imagination—and gird ourselves for far more fierce battles to come.

We have to put forth a bold agenda—a governing agenda—for America's future. This has many parts, but let me focus on just three.

We need a real security strategy that will defend our people, reflect our values and fit our pocketbook.

A first step must be to end the catastrophic occupation of Iraq. That won't be easy. America is only beginning to come to grips with a failed occupation. This next election will feature a fierce argument about Iraq.

But ending Iraq is not enough. The U.S. now polices the world, spending 45 percent of the world's military budget, with nearly 800 bases in over 100 countries.

As the new policy document released by the Institute for Policy Studies today argues, none of our emerging real security challenges—al-Qaida and stateless terror, catastrophic climate change, nuclear proliferation, global pandemics, failed states and mass desperation — has a military answer. Yet every major candidate in both parties for the presidency is committed to increasing spending on the military and expanding its ability to be places and do things. We must challenge the limits of this debate.

Second, we need a new agenda to insure that the global economy works for the many and not just the few.

We've passed the minimum wage. We're gearing up fights on paid sick days. Tomorrow we go to rally for the Employee Free Choice Act—essential if workers are to regain the right to organize and bargain collectively. This is the only mechanism that we've developed to insure that workers gain a fair share of the profits and productivity that they help to create. It is a critical reform if we are to sustain the broad middle class that is America's triumph.

But even this is not enough. We need a new strategy for this nation in the global economy. We're running up the largest trade deficits in the annals of time. We have an economy that is dependent on the kindness of strangers — primarily Chinese and Japanese central bankers. We've got a high-tech trade deficit with China, while our leading export to them is trash paper. This cannot be sustained.

Over the next months we must push for a central part of any new strategy — a concerted drive for energy independence, like that called for by the Apollo Alliance.

The transition to clean energy can be the largest jobs and growth program since the move to the suburbs after World War II.

Invest in conservation and alternative clean energy. Mobilize our science and technology, revitalize our industry, capture the growing green industries of the future, and unleash the imagination of the young. We will end our dependence on Persian Gulf oil, address catastrophic climate change, cut over 100 billion a year from our trade deficit, create some 3 million new jobs over 10 years and clean our air to boot.

Apollo will lay out its agenda at lunch today, and don't miss Van Jones on the potential for urban jobs on Wednesday. This is a future that we must capture.

Third, we must revive the American dream.

Corporations are now shredding the social contract that was the linchpin of the American dream—secure jobs that provided a family wage, health care, paid vacations, and pensions.

Soon one-quarter of all jobs will be contingent. Right now, fewer than 30 percent of young workers get any help for retirement from their employers. Older workers are stunned by broken promises on pensions; younger ones don't even get the promise.

Conservatives have a response. Education for your children? Here's a voucher to pay part of it. Health care? Here's an individual savings plan. Retirement? Another individual savings plan. You take the risk. You're on your own. Lots of luck.

We must sustain the American dream. We will begin with what will be a Titanic struggle to fix our broken health care system.

Already in this election, we have pushed candidates to lay out plans for affordable health care for all. But even that is not enough. In education, in pensions, in paid vacations, we must create a common-good agenda to supplant the broken private promises.

There is much more. A revitalized democracy. A transformed justice system. Revitalizing our cities. Investing in children. Revitalizing science. Strengthening worker, consumer and environmental protections.

None of this will be easy. The entrenched interests of the status quo are powerful and they know how to operate. Already, the price of Democratic lobbyists is on the rise.

You can't get to affordable health care without taking on the insurance and drug companies. You can't get to clean energy without facing off against big oil. You can't transform our economic strategy for Main Street without confronting Wall Street.

So we must build a movement that can transform the country.

What is exciting about this moment is that we are moving on up. Labor is here — with an expanded and aggressive education program that reaches into the households that constitute nearly 25 percent of all voters

MoveOn is here — with over 3 million members, with increasing sophistication and resources.

Americans United is here, anchored in USAction, ACORN, AFSME, SEIU and the Campaign for America's Future—and driving issues across the country.

Progressive bloggers are here—helping progressives capture the lead in the new media and confronting the right.

Progressive majority is here, electing progressive candidates from state and local offices across the country — the next generation of Paul Wellstones.

We're building a progressive infrastructure—still not as well funded as the right—but increasingly able to compete in the battle of ideas. The Center for American Progress is here, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Economic Policy Institute. Drinking Liberally is here, with more than 100 chapters across the country, a modern-day version of the tavern politics of our Founding Fathers.

And a new, enduring majority for progressive reform is within reach.

We can find economic common aground across racial battlegrounds. We can build a progressive coalition for change.

Labor households represent 25 of the electorate and vote 64-34 Democratic. Hispanics are the fastest rising part of the electorate and voted 69-20 Democratic. African Americans voted 89-10 Democratic. The young, 18 to 29, voted 60-38 Democratic and hope for the future. Single women — when they vote — are 66-32 Democratic. Independents in the last election voted 57-39 Democratic.

Now you and I know that voting for a Democrat is not necessarily the same as voting for a progressive. Joe Lieberman proved that. But increasingly progressives are driving the Democratic debate. We are setting the agenda. We are recruiting and identifying new candidates. We, to quote the Yankee philosopher Reggie Jackson, are "the stick that stirs the drink."

We can build a new majority coalition for progressive change. But we are not there yet. And we won't get there unless we stay on the move.

This is the time to unfurl our sails and ride with the current which is headed our way. This is not the time for timidity, for tacking to the elusive center, for trimming our sails or lowering our heads. This is a time to claim the future, to challenge the failures of the right, to chart a new direction.

Americans are ready. We have the opportunity. You have the power. We must feel, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, the fierce urgency of now.

We have done this against great odds before. Our forefathers built a new nation in revolt against the British crown. We fought a civil war to rid ourselves of slavery.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, populist and progressive movements challenged the great corporations and the barons of wealth — and passed antitrust, the minimum wage, the 40-hour week, workplace safety, national parks, the income tax and more — to guarantee that prosperity would be broadly shared.

And our own generation fought to let others sit at that table — civil rights, women's rights environmental movements — the civilizing movements of our time that transformed this nation.

Now we must act again. To reclaim our country. To shape our future. To make the new global economy work for the many and not the few. Together we have the power. It is our time—time to take back America.

Robert L. Borosage is the president of the Institute for America's Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America's Future.

© 2007

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