Democrats Are Back -- But...

Today's presidential candidates navigate a partisan landscape strikingly more Democratic than that in 2004 and even 2006. Poll after poll confirms the president's low job approval and the public's contempt for the Republican Party. For the first time since 1989, the Pew poll shows a majority of voters now call themselves Democrats, and polling for Democracy Corps (of which I'm a co-founder) shows a Democratic advantage that's grown even larger since the 2006 election.

Yet there is a new reality that Democrats must deal with if they are to be successful going forward. In their breathtaking incompetence and comprehensive failure in government, Republicans have undermined Americans' confidence in the ability of government to play a role in solving America's problems. Democrats will not make sustainable gains unless they are able to restore the public's confidence in its capacity to act through government.

THE FAILURE OF CONSERVATISM

Over the past six years, the world has watched the conservative revolution die an ugly and painfully slow death. A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner study found favorable feelings toward conservatives have dropped by 10 points since 1994, and conservative policy proposals are dead on arrival in poll after poll.

We can look at almost any of the core principles that underpin conservatism and see the degree to which they have fallen from public favor. Our research for Democracy Corps finds that a majority of voters are looking for an America that promotes the values of strong community and a sense of togetherness over individualism and self-reliance. In its periodic "Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes" studies, Pew has tracked responses to a question asking whether "government should care for those that can't care for themselves." In 1994 the number who agreed with that statement stood at a mere 57 percent, confirming the arrival of the "conservative revolution." Since then, however, as the public has witnessed conservatism in action, the percentage agreeing that the government should take care of people has steadily mounted, now reaching almost 70 percent.

The Pew surveys also ask a question that has registered the declining support for social conservatism: whether school boards "should have the right to fire homosexual teachers." In 1990, 49 percent of Americans thought that schools should have that right, but today, now that the public has weathered the debate over "moral values," only 28 percent favor this stance.

In the realm of foreign policy and in the wake of the war in Iraq, Democracy Corps polling shows that Americans overwhelmingly reject unilateralism as the way to protect ourselves at home and assert our values abroad. In fact, after the 2006 election, nearly six-in-ten respondents favored the multilateralist perspective that building strong ties with other nations was the better way to make America secure.

The scale of the shift away from the conservative ideology and its policies is breathtaking. The public has given up on Republicans and conservatism as the answer to America's problems and they have turned to -- and are desperately waiting to hear from -- the Democrats.

A ROADBLOCK FOR PROGRESSIVES?

The failed conservative revolution has left behind a deeply frustrated electorate. Two-thirds of Americans say the country is going in the wrong direction, and a solid majority says the country faces big problems rather than manageable ones. In response to these problems, a majority of Americans now say they want a more active government.

People want government to get serious about addressing the challenges we face as a country. Huge majorities want the government to be more involved in a range of issues including national security, health care, energy, and the environment. To tackle global warming, two-thirds of Americans support stronger regulation of business. When it comes to health care, the results are dramatic. By a two-to-one margin, people opt for a universal health care system rather than separate reforms dealing with problems one at a time. A majority even goes so far as to say it's time to establish a Canadian-style health care system.

All of this sounds like the opening that Democrats and liberals have been waiting for. Years of failure by Republicans -- from the Enron debacle to the catastrophe in Iraq to the non-response to Hurricane Katrina, from congressional corruption scandals to wasteful spending and ballooning government debt -- have taken their toll on the American people. Americans are rightfully angry and impatient with a government they see as having achieved almost nothing for them in years.

But there is a perverse consequence brought about by the scale of conservatives' failure. The problem -- the very substantial problem -- is that conservatives have failed in ways that have undermined Americans' sense of collective capacity. Their failure has communicated not just their own incompetence, but also the message that government in general is incompetent. By failing so dramatically, conservatives have created a significant roadblock for Democrats: They have undermined people's faith in the very instrument that we as progressives want to use to solve problems.

The scale of damage done to people's belief in government is enormous. The results of a February study we conducted for Democracy Corps that assessed people's attitudes toward government stunned us. By 57 percent to 29 percent, Americans believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life instead of helping people. Sixty-two percent in a Pew study said they believe elected officials don't care what people like them think, and the same number believe that whenever something is run by the government it is probably inefficient and wasteful. The Democracy Corps study found that an emphatic 83 percent say that if the government had more money, it would waste it rather than spend it well. The government receives a job approval rating of more than 50 percent on only one issue -- national security. On nearly every other issue, a majority of Americans disapprove of government's performance.

At the same time that Republicans have tarnished, corrupted, and degraded the efficiency and reputation of government, they have also produced an economy of stagnant wages, even as the cost of living has increased steadily. This has major consequences for the debate over what government can and should do. Americans are angriest at government over the issue of wasteful spending and the lack of accountability with which money is spent. People see government wasting their tax dollars -- money that would make a real impact on their ability to pay grocery, gas, and medical bills.

Their anger is creating a serious challenge for Democrats who want to get heard on a pro-active, investment-based agenda. Although people may favor government action on critical issues like health care, education, and energy, their lack of trust in government's capacity to spend money properly means that their first priority actually is to cut wasteful spending and make government more accountable. People are desperate to see accountability from Washington -- not just in the spending of tax dollars with no discernible results, but also in politicians' behavior. Two-thirds believe that politicians put their own interests before the public's.

As we attempt to turn this into a progressive period we need to understand the consequences of the era of conservative government and stagnant incomes that America has just lived through. It has deeply affected what Americans perceive government as doing, its capabilities and its role. While it is true that the plates have shifted toward the Democrats and that conservative principles are being abandoned, it is critical that Democrats recognize that America has lost faith in government and desperately wants Washington to change its ways.

GETTING HEARD

Progressives might well think that the public should get past all of this now that there is a Democratic Congress. But, although things got off to a strong start with the 100-hours agenda and ethics and lobby reform, people are still waiting to see real progress from Democrats. Life is not a game, and Democrats have to rise to the challenges posed by both the war in Iraq and the social and economic pressures on families.

While the country is supportive of the direction Democrats in Congress have taken on Iraq, people are impatient for visible progress on that and other issues ranging from the minimum wage to health care and political reform. If Democrats are to be an effective and engaging progressive force, they will have to act to change not only the war's course but also better people's social and economic chances.

In 1992 when we were shaping Bill Clinton's campaign for the presidency, Clinton was polling third going into the Democratic convention, and Ross Perot was ahead in the polls. We wanted the campaign's core message to focus on economic investment, but we could not get people to listen to us on the economy until people heard that we "got it" -- that we understood the value of people's tax dollars, that we criticized corruption and waste in government. Making it clear that Clinton comprehended people's frustrations with government was a precondition for getting heard on the rest of our message.

In all likelihood, we are going to have a year of gridlock going into the presidential election, which will only increase voters' frustration with government. The longer people see their real problems going unaddressed by the two main parties, the greater the likelihood that the electorate will fragment, and an independent and anti-politics candidate will emerge. The odds are high that both Republicans and Democrats will end up staring down the barrel of a real third-party movement or a Perot-like candidate, which could dramatically impact the races for the presidency and the Congress in 2008.

To have any chance of getting heard on their agenda, Democrats need to stand up and take on the government -- not its size or scope, but its failure to be accountable -- and deliver the results that people expect for the tax they pay.

Restoring the credibility of government to lead, to deliver solutions for America's problems, is the major challenge facing progressives. Whether we can succeed on this critical measure will, in a large way, determine whether we are able to build a governing majority or even take control of the White House.

Here are five things that Democrats need to do if they want to restore faith in government and turn to their advantage the dangerous situation they find themselves in now:

  • Resist the temptation to remain the protector and defender of the federal government. Instead, seize the mantle of change and accountability. Demand that government performs and produces results that improve people's everyday lives.
  • Be real, stay authentic, say what you mean, and stand behind what you say and do. Perhaps the biggest reason the public no longer trusts politicians is their depth of disgust for double-speak and for politicians hiding from their mistakes.
  • Establish accountability as a core element in everything you propose by always including a specific set of performance measures. Voters will not, for a second, listen to what Democrats want to do on health care, education, or energy if you do not demonstrate that these proposals have tough accountability measures to ensure results.
  • Advance a strong fiscal-accountability agenda to cut waste and make government more efficient and results-oriented. That includes auditing every federal department and agency to make sure funding is going to meaningful projects and to people, not the bureaucracy; eliminating no-bid contracts; creating an inspector general for Iraq to oversee U.S. spending there; and reducing energy costs by requiring all federal buildings to meet modern energy-efficiency regulations.
  • Go much further on anti-corruption, ethics, and lobbying reform. Institute new whistle-blower legislation to protect government employees from retribution if they report waste or corruption. Create a permanent independent commission outside of Congress to investigate and enforce ethics rules for members of Congress and their staffs, rather than continuing to allow Congress to police itself.

We are entering a new period shaped by the failure of the conservative revolution, putting Democrats in a position to advance progressive ideas. Voters are abandoning conservative principles and are increasingly open to progressive values. Yet conservatives have created deep skepticism about government's capacity to solve the major problems that the country is facing. The future depends on progressives' capacity to overcome voters' distrust of government. Should we fail, the future may belong not to progressives, but to the next Ross Perot.

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