THE BLOG
11/25/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

An Intervention for the Democratic Party

If I read one more opinion piece saying the Democratic Party needs to embrace big ideas, to tackle stagnant middle class wages, or that the reason the party lost in 2014 is because it didn't have a message that connected with working class voters, I'm afraid my head will explode. Listen, people -- don't hold your breath. IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. Left to its own devices, the party's strategy and tactics will not change in 2016.

I say this because, for more than thirty years, I've had a front-row seat and watched as in election after election the labor movement and other progressives have been arguing that to be successful, the Democrats must run on an aggressive, populist, economic message. But the cross-pressures the party feels from its big moneyed corporate donors, over-caution, and too many campaign consultants using the same old play book and stuck in the mud of negative ads prevent it from happening.

So, I'm calling for an intervention - and unions and progressive organizations, which have been acting as the Democratic Party's main enablers, should lead it. The only way to help the party that won't help itself is to stop giving it all your campaign money. Instead, unions and progressive groups should lead the way -- stop preaching and start practicing what we have always said the party should do: invest in a national campaign aimed at mobilizing millions of Americans committed to voting only for candidates who support a new, populist, all-inclusive American economic agenda. If we start this parade, other progressives - and the Democratic Party and its candidates -- will follow.

Imagine millions of voters committed to an agenda. The candidates will then be forced to run on that agenda, because that is where the voters will be. You see, we've had it backwards for decades; you can't give the party and its candidates a blank check and then keep your fingers crossed, hoping they will run on a program that you - and, by the way, a vast majority of Americans -- want. You have to demonstrate for them that this is what America is demanding, and then they will move to it. "Build it and they will come."

In the 2012 presidential election, unions and progressive groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars on politics- most of it to support candidates with a D after their name. This was an enormous amount of money, but a small fraction of the total raised and spent by the Obama campaign, the party, its candidates and committees, and independent efforts in support of Democrats. That total is somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 billion. I'm proposing that instead of spending the money on the party and candidates directly, unions and progressives commit to a $200 million campaign for a New American Agenda. It could include items like: raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour; cutting taxes on the middle class and raising them on corporations and the wealthy; rebuilding our roads, schools, bridges, highways, rail systems and airports; reducing student debt and making college more affordable; creating a public education system for all our kids with strong neighborhood schools; and trade policies that put American workers first.

The agenda should be well thought out, well researched and clearly articulated. It should be made publicly available to all who want to see it. The agenda will deal with both federal and state issues. And it should be a plan, not a message. Voters are smart and can see through empty promises. Let me be clear: this is not building some new organization or spending more money on elections. This is about redirecting money and spending it in a more strategic and meaningful way by using existing infrastructure. This is about building something more permanent, something that addresses the problems Americans have and getting them invested in solutions.

America is yearning for answers -- and we've got them. For years, majorities of voters have supported everything included in the New American Agenda. Whether it's increasing the minimum wage, creating a fairer tax system that lifts everyone up -- not just the wealthy, improving our infrastructure while creating jobs, and creating educational opportunities for all Americans that lead to high-paying jobs, voters are on our side. Sixty-three percent of voters - including 35% of Republicans in the 2014 exit polls -- said the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy. Just 32% said it is fair to most Americans. The 2014 election produced an electorate in state after state that was far more progressive on social and economic issues than the candidates who were elected.

The New American Agenda fund will be used initially in carefully selected 2016 presidential primary/caucus states to influence the campaign discussion both there and in the 2016 general election (federal government and state governor and state legislative) battleground states. The NAA campaign will inform voters -- in detail -- about the agenda and what it means for them using every means available to communicate the plan. The NAA will then begin to ask voters to take a pledge to only support candidates who support the NAA. Not a penny from the NAA fund will be spent supporting any candidates in the first phase of the campaign. We need to get back to the issues and voters driving the elections, not the candidates.

Additionally, the Right Wing knows that, with their control of so many state legislatures and congress, they can force us into countless, wildly expensive defensive fights. For them, these are all win/win fights; it costs them little to raise the issues, it costs us a fortune to defeat them. Unions and progressives will not be able to take on all the fights at the federal and state level over the next few years. The NAA campaign provides a way to go on the offensive and to wage a winning campaign around a set of issues that will encompass many the Right will be countering with. It is a way for progressives to parlay our resources in a huge single fight.

In the second phase of the campaign, the focus of the work will shift to candidate support, but only for those candidates for federal and state office who have signed on to the NAA platform and pledge to act once elected. The campaign will mobilize the millions of voters who have taken the NAA pledge to support NAA candidates using every means at our disposal.

The NAA will condemn the use of negative advertising, and it will only run positive campaigns. It will encourage its candidates to work with their opponents to sign a People's Pledge similar to the one signed by Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown in their 2012 Massachusetts U.S. Senate race. We cannot expect to build America's confidence in government and expect people to participate in elections if we barrage them for months with messages about the candidates' incompetence and corruption and otherwise make the case that they are ill-suited for office.

Phase three will begin immediately after the election and consist of a campaign to hold politicians who signed on to the NAA accountable to the agenda and to continue to build public support for the NAA around federal and state legislative fights.

This cannot be a one-shot/one election cycle campaign. It has taken us decades to get into this mess, and we will not get out of it overnight. A vast majority of Americans are on our side and yearning for candidates and campaigns that will address the problems they face day-to-day with real, smart, thoughtful solutions. The answer isn't tweaking what we are doing; the answer isn't coming up with a new script that will increase voter turnout by .05% over what we are turning out now. The answer is a fresh approach - a new approach that connects with the American majority who understand that the political process as it currently plays out stinks and doesn't speak to them.

Voters understand the system is rigged against them, and that by and large, the parties and the candidates aren't addressing their problems or concerns. We can wait for the Democratic Party and candidates to change -- but we've been waiting for decades and it hasn't happened yet -- or we can take it into our own hands.