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How Progressives Can Deliver on the Promise of Change in 2009 -- Seven Rules for Success

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A little over a year and a half ago I published a book called Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win. At the time, Progressives were emerging from decades in the political wilderness after Democrats had taken control of Congress in 2006. That was followed by the extraordinary campaign of Barack Obama that convinced Americans to bet on progressive change.

In 2008, America voted for the hope that change would bring them better lives than the status quo. But hope will only last so long. In 2009, Progressives have to deliver the goods. We have to convert the "change we need" into change in people's lives.

The opportunity we have to make serious progressive change in the next six months is unparalleled in the last half-century. But our success is not preordained.

To succeed, we need to remember seven key rules:

1). The critical battles being fought in 2009 are not about "policies" -- they are about the distribution of wealth and power. When we talk about putting an end to exploding health care costs for families, the money we save will come out of someone's pockets. In the case of health care, those pockets belong mainly to the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. In the case of energy, it's the oil companies. When it comes to re-regulating Wall Street the oxen being gored belong to the big Wall Street banks.

These interests won't roll over and play dead simply because they have driven the health care system into bankruptcy, caused the collapse of the economy, and jeopardized our future by blocking the road to energy independence. They will fight tooth and nail for the status quo.

As Frederick Douglass famously wrote, "Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never has and it never will." They will mobilize all of their wealth and connections and the power of their political donations. We have to counter by mobilizing every resource at our disposal -- mainly the organized power of millions of voters.

The president can't do this alone. We have to make sure that every member of Congress understands that they will not return to Washington in 2010 if they don't deliver on health care reform, a path towards energy independence, regulatory reform, and immigration reform in 2009.

That will require millions of phone calls from constituents, angry town meetings, lobby days, protests, letters, email, TV ads -- and cornering Members of Congress in the grocery store. It will require intensity. It will require a massive progressive mobilization that won't take "no" for an answer.

2). Progressives -- and our Democratic Members of Congress -- have to remember that we have the high political ground. In times past, Progressives have correctly mobilized to protect minority rights, or defend other causes that challenge the popular view. This is not one of them. Today, 73% of the population favors allowing consumers to have a choice of a private or public insurance plan. Overwhelming percentages favor legislation to create a new generation of clean energy jobs. Three-fourths favor comprehensive immigration reform. And nobody likes Wall Street banks.

We are demanding that Congress enact programs that are politically popular. The other side will try to sow confusion and fear. We must proceed with self-confidence and clarity -- and not let one word of their attempts at misinformation go unanswered.

3). We must always present our case in populist terms. We represent the interests of average people -- not the elites that benefit from the status quo. The other side will try to argue that we favor a "government takeover" of health care that allows "Washington Bureaucrats" or some other elite to control our lives. If we spend all of our time talking about "insurance exchanges" and the arcana of health care policy we will lose.

We must frame the debate for what it is -- a battle between the private health insurance companies and their multi-million dollar CEO's on the one hand, and the interests of average Americans on the other. Populist frames are necessary for each one of our fights. Populism always trumps policy-speak.

4). Actually, it's not just the sizzle; it is the steak. We have to get the reform right. Especially when it comes to health care, people will put pencil to paper and determine right away how the "reform" affects them. It's not good enough to pass just any bill and call it reform. In the end, health care reform has to bring down the cost of health care for everyday families -- and make health care affordable for all Americans.

That is why it is essential, for example, that reform includes a public health insurance option that will compete with private insurance companies and end their ability to control health care in America -- a public plan that incentivizes the delivery of health care for an affordable price, not maximizing profits and market share. That's why reform has to include enough money for subsidies to middle class families to actually make premiums affordable.

In 1989 all of the "wise men" in Washington passed a "catastrophic health care bill" for seniors that was supported by Washington insiders. But they failed to see that it would make the average UAW retiree pay a higher percentage of his income towards taxes and premiums than Warren Buffet. Seniors across America rejected the plan.

Many Members of Congress remember vividly the image of senior citizens chasing the "powerful" Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, down a Chicago street in the middle of his own district to protest the new bill. It was repealed six months later.

Today's Congress must remember that each of this year's reforms will be measured in very concrete terms by every American family. They won't be able to dress up the status quo in a flashy new coat and call it reform.

Even when it comes to issues that play out over the long haul, like energy and regulatory reform, it will be pretty clear, pretty quickly, if average people get real change or more of the same. And of course, economic reform has to deliver a real economic recovery or Obama will be a one-term President and the window for progressive reform in America may close for many years to come.

5). Progressives have to keep their eye on the ball of real structural reform - changes in the distribution of power.

From the standpoint of the long-term direction of our society, the essential questions at stake this year are all about changes in the distribution of wealth and power. Progressives need to focus like a laser beam on those questions.

The creation of a public insurance option will permanently change the structure of the health care economy. A cap and trade system will change the economic incentives over the long haul and channel investment into clean energy jobs -- not just into hydrocarbons. The Employee Free Choice Act will allow a massive expansion of collective bargaining rights for employees. Immigration reform will change the status of 12 million people who should be allowed to contribute fully to our society. A Financial Consumer Protection Agency will radically limit the ability of the financial sector to siphon massive sums of money from the pockets of average Americans into the fortunes of a few.

6). No whining. Progressives have to swear off whining about the tactics of the opposition - and match them blow for blow.

In the two days before the energy vote the opposition used Twitter to generate a flood of calls to swing members of Congress -- many from outside their districts. There was a certain amount of whining within our ranks -- as if that were unfair.

The other side will do whatever it can to win. Next time we simply have to deliver twice as many calls that actually come from within Members' districts. A hundred years ago, Mother Jones said: "Don't mourn, organize." We have to live by the dictum: "don't whine, organize."

7). This historic window for progressive change will close if we don't act, just as surely as a hole in the line disappears in football if a running back doesn't burst through.

Mike Lux's book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be surveys the history of progressive change in our country. He finds that it is not randomly spread. It occurs in clumps - during "big change moments."

We are blessed to live in one of those big change moments. But, Lux finds, the lengths of those moments have varied enormously depending mainly on how well Progressives execute.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about the Roosevelt Administration is called: No Ordinary Time. This is no ordinary time, either.

For the next year, every Progressive in America needs to realize that he or she has an opportunity to make history that simply isn't available to most people at most times. That means that all of us have a responsibility to all of the Progressives that have gone before us -- and to our kids and grandkids -- to make the very most of this precious opportunity.

More than anything else people want meaning in life. They want to do something of lasting importance. At this very moment we have that opportunity. It is up to each of us to seize it.

I believe that President Obama and the key people in his Administration are completely committed to using every power at their disposal to make real progressive change in 2009. The same goes for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But -- just as in last year's election -- the critical ingredient that will allow us to be successful is the mobilization of millions of Americans. It simply won't happen without us.

Some people are lucky enough to be able to say: "I was there at Selma." For many, it was the proudest moment of their lives. Their eyes well up when they speak of it. It changed the course of history.

We all have the opportunity to be present at another one of those moments. To be there, each of us has to empty the stands -- march into the arena - and help make history.

Sign up with Organize for America (OFA), Health Care for America Now (HCAN), Americans United for Change, MoveOn.org, USAction, Campaign for America's Future, Immigration Reform for America, League of Conservation Voters, The Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Rebuild and Renew America Now, Americans for Financial Reform, the Center for Community Change, Catholics United - there are scores of progressive organizations to choose from that are working together to pass the progressive agenda. Get active with your union. Join a progressive religious organization.

It's simple as this: If we don't take advantage of this historic moment we may not have another for many years to come. If we do, we will help lay the foundation for a period of unparalleled possibility and hope.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.