It is possible that 2008 could mark the beginning of a fundamental progressive realignment in American politics of the sort that happened in 1932. That year President Franklin Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress were swept into power and changed American life by enacting the New Deal. The New Deal involved fundamental reforms. It included Social Security, labor laws that allowed working people to organize for middle-class wages and a tax structure that ended massive economic inequality. It also included large-scale investment in public sector projects that created the infrastructure that would serve as the foundation for an unprecedented period of long-term economic growth.
The reforms of the New Deal, coupled with the GI Bill that followed World War II, created America's middle class. They made possible the high wage economy and educated work force that lead to sustained, shared economic growth. They were built on a premise that is fundamentally at odds with the Bush-McCain economic dictum that "you're on your own, buddy." That premise is the simple moral imperative that we're all in this together -- not all in this alone.
But to turn our own historic moment into progressive realignment we have four tasks:
1). Elect Barack Obama. After almost eight years of George Bush it goes without saying that progressive realignment requires a progressive president. It requires a president whose success can help elect, and reelect, Democrats at all levels. It requires a president who aspires to make fundamental progressive change. It requires a president who can inspire the voters to demand that Congress deliver on that change. I believe that Barack Obama could be that kind of president.
2). We have to act boldly to create fundamental change. Just as in 1932, there is a massive pent-up demand in America that our leaders deal with the fundamental needs that affect our future.
A lot of good people in Washington who are used to the gridlock and conservative domination of government think that a new Democratic administration will allow us to pass a series of minor improvements -- slightly expand children's health care, increase funding for education, tinker with the tax code. All of those are fine things, but, like Roosevelt, we must focus on the fundamental structures of our economy and society that will determine the kind of world we leave to our kids.
We need to deliver on the big issues like providing affordable health care for everyone. We must massively redirect resources into alternative sources of energy and end our bondage to the oil companies. Like Roosevelt we have to rebuild the public economic and transportation infrastructure that the Republicans have allowed to crumble. We need to reintroduce fairness into the tax code and reform labor laws so that workers can once again organize to defend middle-class incomes. And of course we have to end the War in Iraq and re-establish a foreign policy that can really make us safer by creating a peaceful, prosperous world.
It's exciting -- and somewhat disorienting -- for Progressives to contemplate making fundamental change in America rather than simply defending our country from a right-wing assault. It's been a long time. It will take some getting used to. But if we win this election, we have to deliver, or we will loose this historic moment.
That brings us to point three.
3). We have to substantially increase Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Narrow majorities simply won't do. To pass a bold, fundamental progressive agenda we need margins big enough in both Houses so that the more conservative wing of our party can't hold us up at every turn. Increasing the majority in the Senate is especially critical since virtually every major piece of legislation requires 60 votes to end debate.
This is particularly important when it comes to big economic issues like universal health care, where hordes of special interests lobbyists will descend like locusts on vulnerable Members of Congress. The banks, the credit card companies, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical companies, the Chamber of Commerce, the oil industry -- all of them will use every arrow in their quiver to prevent progressive change.
In the House things look bright. Democrats have won three successive special elections in long-held Republican districts. There are literally 54 additional districts where Democrats have a serious chance of taking Republican seats. Many of those overlap the 30 seats left open by Republican members who bailed out rather than run for re-election.
There are about 30 Democratic seats that also require a serious defense. Of these, only one is open (the Hooley seat in Oregon). Most of these should lean Democratic, but nothing can be taken for granted.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is well-organized and well-funded. Its Republican counterpart is short on cash and is reeling from an embezzlement scandal that damaged its fundraising and caused it to spend over a million dollars on a forensic audit.
In the Senate the field has broadened over the last month. Twelve states are now in play. Democrats are on the offense in eleven -- threatening to turn red seats blue. The most likely take-aways are Mark Warner in the open seat in Virginia, Jean Shaheen against John Sununu in New Hampshire, Tom Udall for the open seat in New Mexico, his cousin Mark Udall for the open seat in Colorado. Al Franken has a good shot against Norm Coleman in Minnesota, as does Jeff Merkley against Gordon Smith in Oregon, and Congressman Tom Allen against Susan Collins in Maine.
But the remarkable thing is that many more nontraditional seats are also up for grabs. Recent polls showed Kentucky Democrat Bruce Lunsford leading Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell 49% to 44%; Alaska Democrat Mark Begich leading Republican Senator Ted Stevens 47% to 45%; former Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove leading newly-appointed Republican Senator Roger Wicker 47% to 46%; and Democrat Kay Hagan trailing Republican Libby Dole by only 2% in North Carolina.
Of Democratic incumbents, only Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu has a serious challenge.
All told, it would not be surprising for Democrats to pick up 25 to 30 House seats and six to eight Senate seats -- maybe more.
4). Finally, to achieve long-term progressive realignment, we must shift the fundamental value frame for political and economic debate. We must re-establish the dominance of progressive values in the mainstream political dialogue, as the definition of what is political "common sense."
In my book, Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, I make the case that while some people think that in order to win we must move to the center, adopt conservative values, and split the difference, history shows they are wrong. We don't need to move to the center. We need to move the center. We need to redefine the political center in American politics.
From 1932 to about 1973 -- at least so far as domestic policy is concerned -- traditional progressive values defined the political and economic center in the United States.
By the mid-1970's that changed, and we've been on the political and ideological defensive ever since. For seventy percent of the years since 1968 we have had Republican presidents. President Clinton made many important progressive initiatives. But even in the Clinton years we were forced to battle the dominant conservative value frame.
To achieve realignment, we have to get out of that defensive crouch. To do that we have to forcefully, proudly, consistently stand up for those progressive values. We have to provide a clear contrast between the Right's belief in the unbridled pursuit of individual interest and our commitment to the common good; between selfishness and commitment to others; between division and unity; between fear and hope. We have to consistently assert that fundamental progressive premise: that we're all in this together -- not all in this alone.
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.