The Return of Energy

Mr. Kerry, after four years of slothful leadership, the American people may be ready for the quality that the Framers referred to as “energy in the executive.” That energy, of course, can't be solely of your own making. Since the nation's founding, the eras that have decisively advanced democratic purposes have been built around a dynamic interplay of presidential leadership and popular movements. The transformational presidents have drawn energy from below even as they created energy of their own. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson--not all rose to power out of the great movements of their time, but as president they articulated and championed the movements' aspirations and turned their ideas into enduring institutions.

Fortunately, you have a lot more to work with than Bill Clinton did. In the 1990s, after decades of decline, progressive organizations and the Democratic Party were unable to supply the combination of support and pressure that helped to drive earlier transformative presidencies. Today, however, as a result of the anger about the 2000 election and Bush-administration policies, there is more passion, activism, and outrage at the progressive base than there has been in a long time. The chances for genuine political renewal, Mr. Kerry, depend on your taking the “negative energy” of the revulsion against George W. Bush and transforming it into a positive force for public remedy.

The Democratic Party has rarely been so united in what it is against--or so unspecific about what it is for. Ever since the defeat of the Clinton health plan in 1994, major reforms have been off the agenda. In this election, the deep political differences between Democrats and Republicans over Bush's record will so dominate the campaign that the specific initiatives you propose may seem almost beside the point, except as illustrating your vision for the country. But if you win, strategic policy choices will matter a great deal.

I admire both the courage and the discretion you've shown in putting health-care reform at the top of your list of priorities. Courage, because in taking on health reform, you're taking on the forces that initially brought Clinton down. And discretion, because you've chosen a program that would achieve 95-percent coverage by expanding and subsidizing forms of insurance that already exist (Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Plan, employer-provided plans).

The political advantages of this approach are clear. Because it's not an all-or-nothing proposition, the program could be enacted in steps, much of it as part of a budget (which would require only 51 votes in the Senate). And far from threatening those with good insurance, the proposal would make their plans cheaper. Still, the opponents of reform will fight it with the same ideological weapons they used 10 years ago; your only defense will be your own eloquence and relentlessness in awakening an electorate that has become familiar with the ways of conservative deceit.

During the Bush years, measures to limit poverty and inequality have dropped out of the national conversation. The response to John Edwards' “two Americas” speech shows how resonant these concerns nonetheless continue to be. Many of your proposals on education, jobs, and taxes begin to address the great divide, and you're right to say that you'd pay for health care by rolling back the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Every initiative ought to be paid for in a way that exemplifies the need to establish a fair balance of obligations in an America that's been tilted much too far in favor of privilege.

Continued Republican power in Congress makes it virtually impossible for you to achieve these and other objectives in a 100-day blizzard of legislation. Much of what you propose must be seen as laying the predicate for 2006 and 2008. You will have your hands full undoing Bush's mistakes--most of all, extricating the United States honorably from Iraq. But your supporters will cut you a lot of slack if from the start they know where you're headed. So far as domestic policy is concerned, the key is to make early and effective use of the powers of your office in issuing executive orders, making appointments, and enforcing environmental, labor, and health regulations that the Bush administration has ignored. The presidency is our central political energy source. Exploit it.

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