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Democrats Are on the Path to Doom -- I Want Off

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Here's the video ad we just released in my Democratic primary campaign for U.S. Senator:

It's a blatant imitation of a famous Paul Wellstone spot produced by North Woods Advertising.  The North Woods people have been good sports about me stealing their joke--"unlike my opponent I don't have x million dollars so I'm going to have to talk fast." The main reason the Wellstone format works, though, is that it lets you talk about a lot of issues in a short period of time. It's become a staple of underdog campaigns, like the old "empty chair" stunt. I stole that one too.

Wellstone was a hard-core liberal Democrat, though as far as I could tell practically everybody in Washington liked him because he actually believed in something and wasn't a disingenuous careerist schemer like most of those around him. He said what he thought, and voted that way too. You got a problem with that?

I disagreed strongly with a lot of what he said and thought (though not the principle of universal health care). But I want to make a brief pitch to those HuffPost readers who didn't disagree. Because it seems to me that liberal Democrats, especially, are being led by the interest groups who increasingly control their party down the path of ... well, doom.

Democrats are the party that believes in government, after all. We need to make it work for the majority of citizens. When teachers' unions force the layoffs of good young teachers because their seniority principle is somehow sacrosanct--well, it's not only individual public schools that suffer, but the whole idea of public education, as well as the whole idea of the social solidarity, or equality, that institutions like public schools are supposed to reinforce.

The same price is paid when the teachers' unions prevent the firing of bad teachers--and face it, that's what's happening when in a district of 33,000 teachers (L.A.) only a dozen or two are forced out each year. The Republicans needn't care that much about the resulting mediocre schools--it only makes their call for vouchers more plausible. The rich don't need to care--their kids don't go to public schools anymore anyway. It's the Democrats and the non-rich who take the hit.

Likewise, when illegal immigrants flood the labor market, it's unskilled workers who take the hit, in the form of lower wages. Even Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a key backer of the "path to citizenship" immigration bill I oppose, admits that immigrant competition bids down wages. That used to be organized labor's position too. But now, in a pell-mell effort to lock down the Latino vote, Democrats dogmatically insist that every attempt at reforming the immigration system must include a conditional amnesty--the so-called path to citizenship--that would legalize immigrants who are here illegally.

But if Democrats took Gutierrez at his word--and asked the question "How would we act if we wanted to boost wages at the bottom?"--I don't think they would end up supporting legalization. That's because every amnesty (like the one we tried in 1986) attracts more illegal immigrants who arrive looking for the next amnesty, secure in the knowledge that once they're here both Democratic and Bush-Republican pols will soon accommodate them for fear of alienating the growing Latino vote.

If you really cared about wages of the working poor--including the Latino working poor--you'd want to make sure that this wave of 12 million illegals was the last wave. That means securing the borders before talking about legalization. It means sending a message to the world that we're serious this time--if you want to come here, come legally and you'll be welcomed. When we get control of the border we'll gain some control over the labor supply and can help guarantee that employers face enough of a labor crunch that they can't get away with paying semi-Third World wages.

I'd argue these are the positions a liberal who cared about government and inequality would take. Why do Democrats reject them? They increasingly say it's not so much because of policy, but because of politics: they have to turn out the "base" to win the next election, and the "base" consists of union members and Latinos (plus African Americans, who are badly hurt by illegal immigration but whom the party takes for granted).

Never mind that this theory is nearly unfalsifiable--if the Democrats lose, its proponents will always say that they just didn't please the base enough. Has base-pleasing ever panned out? Looking back over recent elections, I can only think of one where the "base" was clearly more important than the moderate middle--that was the presidential election of 2004, when George W. Bush turned out millions of new right-wing voters many people thought didn't exist. But most recent mid-term elections have been preceded by predictions that "Hey, given the low turnout it all depends on mobilizing the base!"--only to be followed by acknowledgments that it was moderate swing voters who swung the result.

After a few weeks of running, though, I don't find Democrats who make the please-the-base argument that infuriating anymore. It's an argument, after all. They could be right. And Democrats who violently disagree with me about policy, rather than politics--about the role of labor unions and the undesirability of amnesty, etc,--aren't bothersome at all. Having arguments is what a campaign is all about. I've learned a lot from things angry people have yelled at me. That's all good.

What bothers me are the thug-like Democrats, the ones who say because people like me dissent from party orthodoxy on these two issues we have no business calling ourselves Democrats, are really Republicans, should get out of the party, etc. As if people who support health care, oppose the Iraq war, support same sex marriage, like a whole slew of big government institutions and don't automatically oppose tax increases could make common cause with today's Republicans.

This "get out" mentality isn't an attempt to win a debate. It's an attempt to suppress a debate. It's the attitude of power-addicted interest-group Democrats who would rather lose the election than lose their grip on the party.

But the debate over the Democrats' tired dogma is coming. If you want it to come sooner, rather than later--and to come on Democratic terms rather than Republican terms--I hope (if you live in California) you'll consider sending that message by voting for my candidacy.

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Mickey Kaus, who writes the kausfiles blog,  is author of The End of Equality and a candidate for U.S. Senator in Tuesday's California Democratic primary.