AN AGENDA FOR THE DEMOCRATS?
I don't normally do this, but I'm probably not going to be posting much between now and Sunday night (houseguests again), so what follows is a long post/document dump. The usual ranting and snark will return soon.
I'm posting in response to this Washington Post story about the latest study by the Democracy Corps:
...The study is based on focus groups of rural voters in Wisconsin and Arkansas and disaffected supporters of President Bush in Colorado and Kentucky. The good news for Democrats: All the groups expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and with the leadership of the president and the GOP-controlled Congress.
Then came the bad news: "As powerful as the concern over these issues is, the introduction of cultural themes -- specifically gay marriage, abortion, the importance of the traditional family unit and the role of religion in public life -- quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the national level," the study said.
Many of these voters ... see the Democrats as weak on national security, and on cultural and moral issues, they view Democrats as both inconsistent and hostile to traditional values. "Most referred to Democrats as 'liberal' on issues of morality, but some even go so far as to label them 'immoral,' 'morally bankrupt,' or even 'anti-religious,' " according to the Democracy Corps analysis....
I've read through the report and, yeah, it's pretty disheartening. (Go to the Democracy Corps Web site and click on "Download the August 2005 Focus Group Report from Democracy Corps"; it's a ten-page PDF.) Voter after voter accuses Democrats of undermining this Christian nation and siding with the forces of immorality.
But they think the Republicans are screwing up, and they're ready for the Democrats to do something. The report concludes with a list of issues voters really, really want the Democrats to embrace.
So here's the list of issues -- and I agree: The Dems really might get a second look from a lot of disaffected voters if they talked more about these problems and recommended some solutions:
* Health care – It is almost impossible to overstate how concerned voters are with the spiraling cost of health care services and insurance. Health care is seen as both the fastest rising expense for most families and businesses and the greatest threat to a secure retirement. And health care is raised again and again as the issue where both parties have most dramatically failed to deliver on their promises for many years. In thinking about possible solutions for the growing health care crisis, three ideas gained the greatest support among participants in these groups.
- Price caps for prescription drugs – There is no greater villain in discussions of the economy and domestic issues than the pharmaceutical companies, who voters see reaping record profits while wasting billions of dollars on unnecessary advertising, gouging American consumers, and conspiring with Congress to deny Americans access to cheaper drugs. Rather than simply negotiating lower prices or allowing imports from Canada, voters want hard price caps that allow companies to remain profitable while ensuring seniors and other Americans aren't forced to choose between food, rent, or the medicines they need to stay alive.
- Preventative health – Voters decry the pennywise, pound foolish approach of many insurance companies toward Americans’ health, particularly younger and healthier Americans who could benefit from basic preventative health measures. As more and more Americans embrace elements of holistic health and local governments demonstrate the financial and programs, voters want to see their own insurance companies focus on long-term health rather than just short-term profits.
- Linking health care premiums to income – This very progressive idea – setting health care premiums at a certain percentage of each employee's income (perhaps somewhere between 5% and 10%), so that higher income employees pay a greater share of a company’s overall costs and employees pay more only as their income rises – gained surprising support from Bush voters in Colorado and Kentucky.
* Ethics and lobbying reform – Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the current mess in Washington for most voters is the complete lack of accountability for members of Congress, from out-of-control deficit spending to ethics violations to a retirement plan that frees them from dependence on the Social Security trust fund they deplete each year to pay for other priorities Add this to the unfettered power of lobbyists in securing favors for their corporate and special interest clients at the expense of American taxpayers, and you have a system that is viewed as completely out of touch with average Americans. It is a system begging for any enforceable reforms that can break the current perception of pay-for-play cronyism and make members of Congress live by the same rules they place on their constituents.
* Veterans' benefits – Participants in these focus groups were surprisingly cognizant of Republican efforts to cut veterans' benefits and reacted very angrily, calling such efforts 'unreal,' 'an absolute travesty,' and 'beyond all my comprehension.' This issue is magnified by current frustration with the course of events in Iraq and the failure of the Bush administration to advance any real plan for success. Attacks on John Kerry and other Democrats in 2004 for voting against body armor and other supplies for troops in Iraq, however unfair they may have been, played a role in current questions about Democrats' commitment to the armed forces and the country's defense. A sustained effort to keep the promises made to America's veterans would not only demonstrate Democrats' commitment, it would highlight the twisted priorities of the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress.
* Stem cell research – Polling has consistently demonstrated the broad public support for stem cell research, and these focus groups clearly reinforced those findings. However, the real power of this issue is its ability to confound many voters who otherwise align themselves with Republicans on cultural issues and to change the very definition of 'moral values' from the narrow classification of abortion and gay marriage advanced by the religious right and its allies.
While much of the debate in Washington and in the media has been focused on the science, voters discuss stem cell research in strictly moral tones. They don't differentiate between existing and new lines, nor do they discuss embryonic vs. cord blood; they simply see the opportunity to develop new medical breakthroughs as a moral imperative.
* Energy conservation and alternative energy sources – Along with the outrageous prices of prescription drugs, the failure of Congress to enforce stricter fuel efficiency standards on automakers stood out in virtually every group as a prime example of the power of lobbyists to promote an agenda clearly antithetical to the public interest. While a few participants insisted that we could simply drill our way to a solution, spiraling gas prices and America's dependence on foreign oil combined to create a firm commitment among the vast majority that we must decrease our demand for oil in the short run and invest heavily in alternative fuel sources for a long-term solution.
This is a pressing economic issue and a matter of national security, but it is also a challenge to American ingenuity. Just as we invented the telephone, launched the Internet revolution, and were the first to put a man on the moon, it is unfathomable to these voters that America would not be the country to lead the way in developing the next generation of energy production, and they are clearly open to an ambitious effort that combines public and private resources toward this urgent goal.
* Pension protection – Skyrocketing health care costs, concerns about the future of Social Security, and rising prices for everything from gas to groceries have increased concern about retirement security for all working Americans. Adding to this concern are the growing number of cases in which companies, including massive employers such as United Airlines, are defaulting on their pensions, leaving millions of workers and retirees without the income they worked for their entire careers. Once again, voters see this as a case of major corporations and greedy executives run amok and blame government for allowing such blatant corporate mismanagement to persist unpunished. They are looking to Congress to protect pensions and to hold corporations and executives accountable for their handling of pension funds.
Yup -- the "values voters" support alternative energy and embryonic stem-cell research. The social conservatives who think Bush is a stand-up guy also think he shafts veterans.
There are openings here. But these aren't just potential wedge issues -- they're important issues. These voters are right to care about them.