09/04/2012 08:46 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

How Democrats Can Get Back on Offense

With GOP policy, language and funding in the grip of far-right regressives -- and its national ticket too -- now is the time for Congressional Democrats to sharpen differences to win and govern. Here's our Open Letter to 10 Congressional Leaders signed by 20 leading Democrats.

Robert Frost once wrote that a liberal is someone who won't take his own side in a debate. However humorous, that's now a bad joke in an era when there's a) a TV cable network that is a conveyor belt of falsehoods, b) a reactionary Tea Party tail wagging the GOP dog, c) billionaires flooding elections post-Citizens United and d) a national party paying homage more to Ayn Rand than Abe Lincoln -- with malice towards all and charity for none.

Space does not permit a complete chronicle of GOP rhetoric and policies that are more extreme than mainstream: e.g., climate change is a hoax, voter fraud is a menace justifying voter suppression, regulations only impose costs never benefits, Solyndra is like Watergate and the American President hates America. Given such continuing regressive nonsense, where are the Democrats? The surprising answer -- often defensive, defeatist, and reactive.

While President Obama is now pushing back daily and vigorously, too often the (fat) cat's got Democrats' tongue. Many of us have raised millions to run campaigns and understand the cross-currents in seeking votes and dollars. But though slandered as a group, Democrats rarely respond as a group. Instead of Russell Crowe saying to his fellow gladiators - "whatever comes out of those gates, we've got a better chance of survival if we work together" -- it's everybody-for-himself. Because money shouts, must get to calling time to hit up big donors.

So individual Democrats are left to fend that, well, we're not anti-defense, anti-business, anti-family or pro-big government. But since wars are won not by Dunkirks but by Normandys - and since 2012 is shaping up as a clash of core beliefs -- we urge Democratic Party leaders to show leadership in at least three ways:

- Frames: Let's reframe issues so that platitudes and metaphors don't pass for analysis. Recall when southern racists of both parties would argue that they were only defending property rights and state rights? Today, it's CEOs and their apologists arguing that they are just champions of the first amendment when arguing that unlimited money is speech and corporations are people.

The opportunities are endless to retake the offensive. If corporations are people, can they run for office? To stop Republicans from buying or stealing elections, a viral mantra should be MoneyOut/VotersIn - overturn Citizens United, enact public funding and expand the franchise. More jobs now reduce deficits later - and if Republicans are opposing the Pentagon sequester because military spending creates jobs, presumably so does spending on public works projects. Because consumer demand is the real job-creator, it would reduce economic growth to increase the tax burden on middle class families to finance cuts for the rich. Here, President Obama's "RomneyHood" hit its intended Achilles Heel.

We know the Republican political slogan - free markets, not big government. What's the Democratic big idea? Not quite as much government? Split the difference with an extreme GOP position? If you asked 10 people on the street what each party stood for, most could answer for the Republicans but not the Democrats.

Party leaders need to declare that the issue in 2012 isn't the size of government but our common purpose. Which is democracy, prosperity and security. In America, you can't love your country and hate your government since we are the government, as the Oklahoma City bombing made fleetingly obvious. Yes the issue is freedom... freedom from e coli bacteria and from health care bills that bankrupt families.

With Romney-Ryan's unpopular views on tax cuts for the wealthy and "VoucherCare" for the elderly, now's the perfect time to frame this election as between John Galt and Modern Family - the 1% who believe "we're all in this alone" (Sen. Durbin's phrase) versus "everyone's better off when everyone's better off." With reactionaries dominating the policy, language and financing of the GOP, the best way Democrats can win is to hit the gas not the brakes.

- Record: A weekly RepublicanReignofError could explain what would happen if those running on a right-wing-and-a-prayer actually got their way. Not just facts but stories: nieces without Pell Grants; class sizes of 50; women being criminally prosecuted for abortions; free riders overwhelming hospital emergency rooms; sea levels flooding coastal downtowns. Not many independent voters want that.

- Ideas. Among the things that make Democrats exceptional is FDR's axiom that we pursue "bold, persistent experimentation." Where are the successors to Social Security, GI Bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act? To help Democrats win and govern, what can be our positive mandate?

JFK wanted to "throw our hat over the wall of space." We can do that here on earth with a living wage, a carbon tax, a Mortgage Refinancing Trust agency, progressive tax reform, filibuster reform, corporate pension reform, public funding for public elections, universal voter enrollment - and with clear explanations how inequality retards the GDP, education investments advance growth, and a high-tech Pentagon can be smaller and more effective.

At stake then is not only winning this congressional seat or that but the very American experiment itself. With an iceberg dead ahead this Fall, it's time for congressional Democrats to not just explain but to expose and propose. The negative frame is "GOP Extremism Takes America Back." The positive vision is a Progressive Patriotism that lives up to Walt Whitman's promise that "America is always becoming."



*Institutions for identification purposes only; all public offices previously held; no books listed.

James Abourezk, U. S. Representative and Senator from South Dakota.

Joan Claybrook, Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; past president, Public Citizen.

David N. Dinkins, Mayor of New York City.

Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University; political commentator, MSNBC.

Peter Edelman, legislative assistant, Senator Robert Kennedy; assistant secretary, Health and Human Services; professor, Georgetown Law School.

Christopher Edley Jr., Dean and professor, UC Berkeley School of Law; Civil Rights Commission; OMB.

Fred Harris, U. S. Senator from Oklahoma; chairman of Democratic National Committee.

James K. Galbraith, Executive Director, Joint Economic Committeee; professor of economics, University of Texas at Austin.

Jennifer M. Granholm, Governor and Attorney General of Michigan; host of "The War Room" on Current TV.

Mark Green, Consumer Commissioner and Public Advocate for New York City; president of Air America Radio.

Gary Hart, U.S. Senator from Colorado.

Jim Hightower, elected commissioner, Texas Railroad Commission; editor of The Hightower Lowdown.

Nicholas Johnson, Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

Norman Lear, TV producer, "All in the Family"; ActIII Communications; Founder, People for the American Way.

Ron Reagan, Commentator, MSNBC; co-host, Both Sides Now radio show.

Robert B. Reich, U.S. Secretary of Labor; Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley.

Russell Simmons, Founder of Def Jam Records; Chairman/CEO Rush Communications.

Derek Shearer, U. S. Ambassador to Finland; director of Global Affairs and professor of diplomacy, Occidental College.

Stanley K. Sheinbaum, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions; president, Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.

Eliot Spitzer, Governor and Attorney General of New York State: host of "Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer" on Current TV.