"Fighting Extremism" Should Be Theme for Fall Campaign

08/13/2010 01:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"You despise me, don't you? If I gave you any thought I probably would.". --Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to Senor Urgarti (Peter Lorre), in Casablanca, 1943.

From what has been leaked, Democrats intend to make the November elections about a choice -- "D" for drive forward vs. "R" to go into reverse. It is a nice analogy to driving and appeals to Americans' love affairs with their cars. Perhaps, though, for this political season, a bit too cute?

Republican (i.e., FoxNews) strategy has been crystal clear since before President Obama took office: use the massive dislocations created by their economic failures, and the President's race, to exacerbate peoples' innate anxiety over change. As the late, eminently sane, Republican Congressman Joel Pritchard reminded us, "everyone wants progress; no one likes change."

But, this current Republican ugliness has provided Democrats with a much larger and profound opportunity, to seize, define and hold the political center. Unwilling to engage in any meaningful dialogue, unable to formulate a program with even a scintilla of internal consistency, repeating their talking points like automatons, kowtowing to outrageous media hosts, and nominating candidates for very high offices who seem to have several screws loose, Republicans have not just cast their lot with extremists, they have become them.

All Obama and the Democrats need to do to seize the political center is to claim it. And, to cast the November elections as a fight between the grand tradition of America can-do'ism and rationality against extremists and reactionaries that have usurped once-respectable, democratic institutions such as the Republican Party itself.

When they retaliate by claiming they are the traditionalists, and Obama/Pelosi/Reid are the extremists, the lines will be drawn. If we show up to the fight, we cannot lose this one. How does one know? Not by polls, but by the panicked attempts by the Republican campaigns to take down their own loon-candidates' websites, to try to assure people that they are not as far out as they really are. Get this -- Sharron Angle now wants to "strengthen" Social Security!

This battle harkens back to our Founders, children of the Enlightenment, when human reason overthrew blind belief and absolutism. Those dark forces are struggling for a comeback--in America and around the world.

No one is better suited intellectually to wage that battle than Barack Obama. Whether he has the temperament to do so is the question for this autumn.

This is more than just an opportunity to control the dialogue (for once!) and win in November. It provides a greater chance to govern, to forge solutions to key problems facing the country, having dispatched the extremists whose presence or threats have controlled or cowed our governing institutions -- not unlike Israeli and Palestinian extremists that block majorities on each side from achieving a settlement.

Indeed, it is an opportunity to lay to rest the false policy polarities Republicans have claimed and to which Democrats have failed to respond. This is, in short, the opening to speak the truth and dispel extremist myths. Karl Rove's claim that the rightwing could create its own realities -- about as arrogant a position as one can imagine -- would be cast to the ash heap of history, just as their policies used to pursue that mirage mired us in an unnecessary war and depths of economic failure not seen since the Great Depression.

Here are just a few of the mainstream truths Obama/Dems could advance, while also noting what extremism has wrought: an economy that has failed the middle class, and an atmosphere of fear and loathing that has paralyzed needed actions...

1. Our economy has never been free market or government run, it has always been MIXED: part private, part public, part private-public partnerships and each has played an important role. That balance will shift back-and-forth with changing circumstances. That's its genius.

2. A strong prosperous growing middle class is in the economic interests of the wealthy; indeed, even if they pay more taxes to achieve it, the wealthy become wealthier.

3. Tax cuts do not pay for themselves. Nice try, but only alchemists successfully created something out of nothing. We now have Republicans like Alan Greenspan, David Stockman and Greg Mankiw admitting it. Mythology has been tried, and it failed. Only under Reagan and the 2 Bushes did our debt/GDP ratios grow. Obama is still living with the Bush2 tax cuts...

4. Individuals can spend their money better than government on many things, mostly individual, but not on everything, not on public health needs like vaccines, or basic scientific research, or building roads and bridges and the electric grid or a justice system, or policing or firefighting, or insuring our food and medications are safe to take, our airplanes are safe to fly and land, our air is safe to breathe, and so forth.

5. Health care costs will increase with the aging of the population. Period. They will neither disappear nor be reduced by privatizing them. Somewhere, somehow, some one has to pay. Medicare is more efficient than any private plan. Imagine insurance costs if the elderly were part of your private plan. Other countries' healthcare systems have bottlenecks because they spend 50% less per person than the US, not because they are nationalized. Medicare passed in the 1960s because enough middle-aged families had either experienced, or feared, the extraordinary financial burden of paying for their parents' care, while raising children and trying to squirrel away enough money for their college tuition. By spreading that burden across the entire population, and running a very efficient program with less than 5% administrative costs, Medicare freed the children to invest in their own children's futures while having the security that their parents' healthcare needs were met. Millennials and X-rs lived in better homes, went to better schools, were able to buy more electronic gadgets, could hang with their friends... because Medicare freed their parents from the financial burdens of their grandparents' medical care. There are many ways to reduce those long-term costs -- phasing out the benefits are not one of them.

6. Social Security is NOT going bankrupt. [But, a better way to pay for it, and Medicare, in a globalized economy is to replace the payroll tax with a sales' tax on goods and services--exempting food, clothing, rent, doctors' bills, drugs, i.e., the major expenses of lower and fixed income families, so as to make it progressive--- so the burdens do not fall on US-produced goods, but are spread widely across all goods and services].

7. Government regulatory officials should NOT be 'acceptable' to the industries they are designed to regulate. The idea was called "counterveiling power". It should be restored.

8. As the population grows, and society becomes more complex, are we likely to be better off if government shrinks?

Routing extremism is right in the sweet spot of the President's philosophy.

Who, and what, constitutes extremism? One is tempted to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, "I know it when I see it." That may work for the in-your-face screws-loose Senate candidates (Angle, Buck and Paul) along with their matron saint, Sarah Palin, but it will be insufficient if those who have heretofore enjoyed the perception of being mainstream, but who espouse extremist views are not specifically branded -- e.g., Newtie's call for banning all building permits for mosques because -- get this -- Saudi Arabia does not have any churches. That is, we are to become like the Saudis! Or, his long-sought goal of "social security and Medicare withering on the vine".

As Republicans have shown for the past 40 years, those who seize the center also get to define it. With rightwing mythology discredited, the President would be in a much better position to pull the country to do what it needs to solve its basic structural problems. The extremists would then be at most a minor annoyance.

The President has been searching for a theme to replace "terrorism" to define our global engagement. "Extremists" are as good a foe against which to struggle as any, and a basis for rallying progressive forces against bronze-age brutality and megalomania worldwide.

In the meantime, let's win one at home.