(Attention: Actual, specific ideas contained below)
In 1994, the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. Up to that point, Democrats had controlled the Senate for six years and the House for thirty-four years. And a Democrat, Bill Clinton, was still in the White House. Like a new jockey mounting a horse that had just bucked the previous rider, one might have expected the Republican leadership to be timid, hesitant, more concerned with maintaining power in the next election than using their power to achieve real change. But instead, the audacious Republicans went for the gold.
Newt Gingrich and the Republican leadership of the 104th Congress outlined a "Contract With America," a bundle of proposals that Republicans promised to introduce and pass during the first 100 days of their control of Congress. This was no shrinking violet agenda. Republicans set out to implement a bold vision that included eviscerating welfare, abolishing basic fiscal equity through tax cuts for the super-rich, privatizing social security, undermining the peacekeeping role of the United Nations and expanding the U.S. military for wanton escapades abroad. And while much of the agenda did not pass in its intended form, clearly variations on the theme have seeped into political reality today -- to the point where many of these proposals have recruited new adherents, including the new class of conservative Democrats in Congress.
Fast forward to 2006: the Democrats take back Congress. Pundits and political leaders declare the Democrats' victory a landslide. Even President Bush admitted it was a thumping. So, back on the horse of Congressional power -- in much the same position as the Republicans twelve years ago -- what goals are the Democrats trying to reach?
In the lead up to the election, Representative Nancy Pelosi -- in the Speaker role that Gingrich once held -- outlined a six-point agenda for the Democrats first 100 legislative hours in office, a period potentially stretching over several weeks. The "Six for '06" includes some very good ideas -- negotiating for Medicare prescriptions to lower drug prices, cutting student loan rates and making college tuition tax deductible, reducing dependence on foreign oil through new energy-efficient technologies. But the agenda Democrats outlined can hardly be called bold and ambitious. Stopping the privatization of Social Security is important, but as Americans live longer and the baby boom generation reaches retirement, we need to expand Social Security to support all of us when we need it. Re-examining the strategy in Iraq is a nice first start, but what about re-examining the cowboy foreign policy used to justify pre-emptive war, whether on faulty intelligence or not? Raising the minimum wage is essential, but just as important is a plan for sensible trade the builds jobs and local economies in the U.S. and abroad -- rather than just building the bank accounts of multi-national corporations.
The "Six in '06" agenda befits the current Democratic leadership, which swept to power by running a slate of candidates who generally yielded to conservative-leaning voters rather than offering a hopeful, progressive vision. But now that they have power, Democrats should not make the same mistake. They can advance a middle-of-the-road, safe agenda that create make many enemies but doesn't create much real change, either. Or they can set forth a bold, positive agenda that fires up the Democratic base, inspires independents and -- for added measure -- actually improves the fairness and functioning of our social, political and economic world.
After the Democrats pass their initial agenda, testing the waters of newfound power, it's time to dive in and use that power to make even more profound changes to benefit the future of all Americans. I've interviewed over 165 progressive leaders and activists across the country about their ideas for our nation's future. Consider these proposals the "Six after the Six" agenda, an action plan for the Democrats second hundred hours in office:
- Pass a constitutional amendment to get all private money out of political campaigns nationwide, returning government to the hands of the people;
- Create a nationwide, community-funded health plan, to guarantee excellent health care for all Americans while cutting costs;
- Create tax incentives for small, local businesses and worker-owned firms while raising the taxes and standards for large, multi-national corporations; and guarantee the right of workers to organize across the United States;
- Develop an comprehensive approach to immigration which helps heal the economies of countries abroad while providing a path to citizenship for those who desperately migrate to the United States;
- Guarantee a high quality, public education for all young Americans in every neighborhood of the country by raising taxes for the wealthiest top percentile of super-rich; and
- Invest in a new generation of government programs creating secure jobs across the country, from securing our emergency response systems to training new teachers.
John F. Kennedy once said of the Democratic party, "Our duty as a party is not to our party alone, but to the nation and, indeed, to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of political power but the preservation of peace and freedom." Power is a tool, not for accruing more power but for making change. The Democrats have an unprecedented opportunity to chart a new course for our nation and our world -- away from fear and insecurity toward hope and possibility for all. Having rejected the disastrous ideology of Newt Gingrich and the Right wing, we are waiting for new leadership with visionary ideas.