It's always a bit discouraging to read articles like the one on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times about how the Democrats are trying to figure out what they stand for. Not that they shouldn't figure it out. But in May of an election year, the sound of party leaders admitting that they need to figure out what their "values" and "principles" are is a little unnerving. The good news is that there seems to be a fairly large constituency among Washington pundits, think-tankers and politicians that the Democrats ought to actually HAVE some values and principles, as opposed to the Clinton-era prescription for lots of tiny policy proposals held together with a gloss of optimism and not-too-progressive swing-voter appeal.
Michael Tomasky, editor of the American Prospect, is a leading proponent of a resurgence of Democratic values.
But the notion of reconnecting with core principles is becoming popular even with people like Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton aide and head of the DCCC. The only problem is what kind of values? Pro or anti Iraq war? Pro or anti fair trade? It doesn't sound like any consensus is likely before the midterm election, or even 2008.
As the Democrats muddle on toward fall of 2006, hoping, more than anything, to benefit from the public's disgust with the other party (and then sweep into office like Robert Redford in The Candidate, muttering, "Now what?!"), there are some very smart, progressive people who are thinking about more profound, long-term political change.
I've been spending a lot of time lately talking with some of the groups that are trying to build a progressive "farm team" of downballot candidates. These are the people who will eventually form the moral center the national party is seeking.
One such group, 21st Century Democrats, has actually abandoned its mission of trying to build Democratic majorities at the state and federal level to focus exclusively on what it calls "extraordinary, visionary leaders." Rather than supporting hundreds of candidates who are generally progressive on the issues and might help retake Congress and the states, the group is trying for a more radical change. It is looking for what executive directory Kelly Young calls "a paradigm shift" in the political culture by supporting a small number of progressive leaders who are committed to bold goals like 100 percent renewable energy within twenty years.
Other groups—like Howard Dean's Democracy for America, now run by the former Presidential candidate and DNC chair's brother, Jim Dean, along with Wellstone Action and Progressive Majority—are committed to finding and training the next generation of progressive leaders. That means helping progressives run for city council and school board, as well as statewide office. It is a very long-term proposition. But, as more than one activist has pointed out, just getting Democrats to win a majority in the House or Senate doesn't mean we'll have a progressive (versus nervous, centrist, poll-driven) government.
Community organizers, leaders of the Native American, African-American, Asian-American, and Latino communities, nurses and bus drivers and school teachers and grassroots environmentalists, who are receiving candidate training from Wellstone Action, campaign support from Progressive Majority, and manpower from Democrats For America and 21st Century Democrats are the people who will help the Democratic Party find its soul again.
The "common good" is the theme Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect wants the Democrats to sound. Instead of appealing to disparate interest groups focused on narrow agenda items--abortion, gay rights, global warming--Tomasky argues that the party needs to find an overarching message for all Americans.
That is exactly what grassroots candidates running for local office are doing, in many ways. Whether it's the nurse in SEIU who can connect the issues of fair wages, quality health care, and decent lives for the poor and elderly or the African American community organizer who can talk about environmental racism and civil rights, these grassroots candidates are speaking to the people the Democrats are supposed to represent. A big, bold message about democratic values, high-quality education, opportunity, and economic justice could have tremendous power. But the people who will carry that message--of how all the different elements of progressive politics fit together into one coherent statement of principles—are the people the party has come to ignore.