Robert Reich is professor of public policy at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration.
Democrats: Odds are, come November 7, you will gain the 15 seats you need to take back the House. (The odds are much lower in the Senate.) So it’s not too early to start thinking about what you should do during the two years leading up to the 2008 presidential election.
You’ll be sorely tempted to showcase the Bush administration in all its lurid awfulness. Imagine an endless parade of witnesses offering shocking details of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture camps, payoffs to Halliburton, Defense Department usurpations, Iraq’s descent into civil war, and other cover-ups, deceptions, data manipulations, suppressions of science, crass incompetencies, and outright corruption. Out of all of these hearings would come a bill of particulars so damning that every 2008 Democratic candidate running for everything from Indianapolis City Council to president will be swept into office on a riptide of public outrage.
After all, didn’t House Republicans during the Clinton years wreak all the damage they could even when there wasn’t much to complain about? Recall Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who, while chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, issued truckloads of White House subpoenas along with a sulphurous geyser of unsupported accusations. Why shouldn’t Henry Waxman, who will fill the same shoes, give as good as the Clinton White House got? Imagine how John Dingell, who will run the House Energy and Commerce Committee, could expose the intimacies between the Bushies and Big Oil; what John Conyers, in command of the House Judiciary Committee, could reveal about Bush’s trouncing of Americans’ civil liberties; or the job Barney Frank, at Financial Services, could do on the administration’s nefarious links to Wall Street. Hell, why not try to impeach Bush?
Warning: Resist all such temptation.
You won’t be credible. The public would see the investigations and hearings as partisan wrangling. They might even cause the public to question what it already knows, allowing Republicans to argue it was all conjured up by partisan zealots from the start.
You won’t get any new information anyway. Your subpoena power would have no effect on this White House. You’d end up fighting in federal courts for the whole two years. Besides, there’s enough dirt out there already to sink any administration. Although cowed at the start of the administration, the mainstream media have done a fairly good job since.
Moreover, Bush is the wrong target. His popularity could hardly be lower than it is already, which means 2008 Republican candidates in all but the reddest of red states will distance themselves from this White House. Sen. John McCain, should he be the Republican nominee, won’t be tarnished by Bush at all because in the public’s mind McCain is a maverick and independent. He’ll remain above the partisan mud-throwing while you’d just mire Democrats in it.
Finally, you and your colleagues have spent the last six years whining and complaining. That was understandable. There was ample reason, and you didn’t have the power to do otherwise. But do that when you do have some power, and you’ll confirm the Republican message that Democrats are pessimistic Eeyores, obsessed with what’s wrong with America and clueless about what to do or how to fix it.
Here’s a better way to go. Use the two years instead to lay the groundwork for a new Democratic agenda. Bring in expert witnesses. Put new ideas on the table. Frame the central issues boldly. Don’t get caught up in arid policy-wonkdom.
For example, instead of framing basic economic questions as whether to roll back Bush’s tax cuts, make it about how to recreate good jobs at good wages and rebuild the middle class. Consider ideas for doing this through trade policy, industrial policy, antitrust, publicly financed research and development, and stronger trade unions.
Instead of framing the central foreign-policy question as whether we should have invaded Iraq, make it how to partition Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish zones while America gets out. Focus the national-security debate on how to control loose nukes and fissile material, and secure American ports. Encourage direct negotiations with North Korea and Iran. On energy and the environment, offer ideas for developing new non–fossil-based energy industries in America, and how to ratify a realistic Kyoto accord.
Help the public understand how these are all related—why, for example, we’ll never have a sane foreign policy unless we reduce our dependence on oil. And most important, be positive. Bush’s shameful record is plain. Start the new Democratic record. Help America dream again.
This article was first published in The American Prospect.