A New Direction For America? (Part 2)

07/02/2006 07:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In my previous post, I examined and graded the new Democratic campaign strategy document "A New Direction For America" (ANDFA) as a whole. After calling for such a document from the Democratic leadership in my book How Democrats Can Take Back Congress, I feel obliged to critique not just the overall plan but also the individual items as well.

All of ANDFA's six bullet points are steps in the right direction. However, each bears the whiff of being overanalyzed by focus groups. It seems like the Democrats started with bold ideas but then watered down and "timidified" them. This may sacrifice the chances of swing voters getting excited enough about these ideas to believe that Democrats can chart a better direction for the federal government.

In other words, they lack oomph. They lack media buzz. They lack backbone.

ANDFA's six points are short enough for me to include their entire title and text (in italics), before my comments. Taking them in the order they are presented:

Make Health Care More Affordable
Fix the prescription drug program by putting people ahead of drug companies and HMOs, eliminating wasteful subsidies, negotiating lower drug prices and ensuring the program works for all seniors; invest in stem cell and other medical research.

All of these are admirable policy goals. But where is the sweeping rhetoric of a "Patients' Bill of Rights" soundbite?

Of course, the Free-Universal-Health-Care-For-All wing of the party isn't going to like it. They'll never be happy with anything short of Canadian-style socialized medicine. But the "HillaryCare" fiasco should be a warning that the country isn't yet ready to make that leap.

Still, it seems to be a pretty limited list when the stated goal is making health care more affordable. Fixing the Medicare prescription drug plan's problems and funding stem cell research are admirable goals, but they aren't going to lower health care costs for the average American worker.

A better idea with wide appeal is universal health insurance for all children (under 18). That's a nice soundbite -- who can be against helping sick kids? And yet it's still only an incremental step towards health care for all.

On the bright side, the issues chosen are specific and targeted to seniors, who can be counted on to vote. And election time will come just as many seniors on the new prescription drug plan hit the "donut hole" in their coverage. Democrats can exploit this by reminding them of the drug plan's Republican-concocted weaknesses.

When I initially read this item, the stem cell bit at the end seemed kind of haphazardly tacked on. Then, right after the document was released, there was a breakthrough in stem cell testing on mice. Harry Reid even pointed this out on the Senate floor last week. If further breakthroughs happen during the campaign, this could turn out to be the main issue and not just an afterthought.

Overall this is a good issue, although weakly presented. I'd grade it: "B."

Lower Gas Prices And Achieve Energy Independence
Crack down on price gouging; eliminate billions in subsidies for oil and gas companies and use the savings to provide consumer relief and develop American alternatives, including biofuels; promote energy efficient technology.

A bit timid. Doesn't "Free America From Foreign Oil By 2020" have a better ring to it? Or perhaps "Stop funding terrorists by paying outrageous oil prices to corrupt governments"?

Democrats are missing a huge opportunity to spin this as a national security issue. Brazil recently announced it had freed itself from all foreign oil, largely as a result of a program they initiated in the 1970s to transition to "flex-fuel" vehicles (which run on gasoline, or alcohol, or a mixture of the two). They planted a lot of sugar cane, and now their cars (sold by the same manufacturers who sell cars to Americans) are almost all flex-fuel. If a South American country can manage to do this, why can't we? Aren't we supposed to be the world's technology leader?

This is a great issue, because it resonates with everyone who is annoyed at high gas prices (virtually every single voter everywhere). Unfortunately, by the time the campaign is in full swing two things will happen: (1) gas prices will come down from their summer peak; and (2) Americans will be more resigned to paying higher prices and may have little faith in politicians to solve the problem. This can be countered by Democrats reminding everyone "Two oil men sit in the White House," every chance they get.

The ideas are good, but the title or soundbite needs work. Having said that, it's still a solid "A."

Help Working Families
Raise the minimum wage; repeal tax giveaways that encourage companies to move jobs overseas.

This one is a brilliant juxtaposition. Democrats need to tie these two issues together every time they open their mouths. Hammer Republicans mercilessly as being the party that ships jobs overseas, and it will resonate in the heartland -- especially the red-state heartland.

In a previous article, I advocated going further on the minimum wage issue. If I had an ego the size of your average Fox News commentator, I would assume that Harry Reid read my article. He recently defended the minimum wage increase by threatening to block Senate pay raises.

I have to admire Minority Leader Reid's chutzpah and media savvy by using this tactic to shine a light on the issue. My proposal for a minimum wage COLA is a fight that can wait until after the Democrats actually become the majority party.

An "A+" if there ever was one.

Cut College Costs
Make college tuition deductible from taxes; expand Pell grants and cut student loan costs.

Once again, good ideas but poorly packaged. Why is it Democrats are incapable of coming up with snappy slogans?

Sloganeering isn't rocket science, it's actually pretty easy to do. "Cut College Costs"?!? The federal government can't cut college costs, as they are set by public and private colleges. What they can do is "Make College More Affordable For All."

Wordsmithing aside, the ideas are good ones. Making all college tuition tax-deductible would be an enormously popular campaign issue. It's something that affects millions of families, and (importantly) doesn't need to be explained. This alone would be a big motivating factor for suburbanites who have voted Republican in the past few elections but who aren't party ideologues, because the benefits to their family budget would be immediate and easy to see.

However, it's only a winner if it means what it says. The reason for this qualification is the vagueness of the first clause, and what the talking points on ANDFA's second page say:

. . . the Majority has cut $12 billion from college student aid, increasing the costs of loans; has frozen Pell Grants for higher education; and has failed to extend the college tuition tax deduction.

So are Democrats just advocating the extension of President Clinton's Hope and Lifetime Learning Credits, or are they truly proposing making all college tuition fully deductible from taxes? The former is a nice thing to do (to counter cold-hearted elitist Republicans), but the latter is a bold new policy initiative.

Since they leave this crucial fact unclear, I have to give this one a "B-." If they truly mean the latter, I would raise that to an "A+."

Ensure Dignified Retirement
Prevent the privatization of Social Security; expand savings incentives; ensure pension fairness.

What the hell is "dignified retirement" anyway? Seniors have to dress for dinner at the retirement home? Boiled shirts and spats for creamed spinach and meatloaf?

Preventing privatization is nice, but it doesn't "fix" Social Security. And there's a ticking time bomb with the government's pension insurance fund (the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation) that should be addressed proactively, and not just with the lip service of "ensure pension fairness" (whatever that's supposed to mean).

Democrats can use the turkey of a plan Bush was pushing to make some political hay. Remind voters over and over of the Republican failure to do anything on the issue. Repeat the "do-nothing Congress" refrain when talking about the issue.

Hammer the message home: The GOP wanted Wall Street to take over Social Security, and Democrats refused to let that happen. As I said before, old people vote. Reliably. In droves.

But although these are all good ideas, I have to give this only a "C+" for its extreme timidity.

Require Fiscal Responsibility
Restore the budget discipline of the 1990s that helped eliminate deficits and spur record economic growth.

Not an issue that will have people dancing in the streets or shouting from rooftops perhaps, but it is very targeted to fiscal conservatives, many of whom are starting to feel the Republican party is ignoring them.

Social conservatives aren't going to vote Democratic in a zillion years; but fiscal conservatives (especially in the Northeast) may be more open to the message. Promoted successfully, it could turn a traditional GOP strong point into a GOP liability. Counter the tired refrain "Democrats want to tax and spend and have Big Government" by appropriating their issue, and outflank them on the right:

"Remember when Republicans were fiscally responsible? Since they've been in power in Congress and the White House, the federal budget has grown umpty-billion dollars. We have to stop the borrow-and-spend Republicans!"

This issue seriously chafes a lot of old-school conservatives, and if Democrats position themselves as more fiscally responsible than the current Congress, they could pick up votes -- even in red states. I'd give it an optimistic "B+."

Looking at ANDFA's final report card, we have a B, an A, an A+, a B- (possibly an A+), a C+, and a B+. Averaged out, that gives a high B, which is what I gave the document overall in my previous column. Whether it will prove to be enough depends on what the Democratic candidates do with this platform.

My fear is that the document is too cautious and does not have bold enough policy initiatives to break into the mainstream media's horse-race mentality -- and therefore will never get heard by the vast majority of voters. This would be a shame, since the ideas are good. It's the execution that's weak. Fix this by hiring talented advertising or PR professionals to punch up the soundbites and slogans.

I remain guardedly optimistic the Democrats can effectively use ANDFA to campaign on and win some seats this fall. But at the same time, I'm not holding my breath. I've seen them snatch defeat from the jaws of victory too many times in the past.