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Why the Democrats Are Happy Warriors

5 minute read
Joe Klein

Congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois had a nice moment on Meet the Press about a month ago. He said Democrats would run on their “ideas” in the 2006 congressional elections. “But what are the Democratic ideas?” moderator Tim Russert asked skeptically. Emanuel proceeded to rattle off five big ones, which seemed to shock Congressman Tom Reynolds of New York, his Republican debate opponent. “Those are the first solutions that have come out of [any Democrat’s] mouth,” Reynolds said.

No doubt “solutions” was a slip–but the notion that “Democratic ideas” might not be an oxymoron represented one small step forward for the perpetually benighted Donkey party.

And so, on Election Day of 2005, I checked in with Emanuel at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) offices–he’s the current chairman–and asked him to elaborate. He responded with a rat-a-tat of ideas and expletives, a joyousness unknown to Dems in recent years. But then, Emanuel, a former ballet dancer and Clinton White House capo, has always seemed a human amphetamine. I kept asking him to slow down as I took notes. He wouldn’t, but here’s the general idea:

•Expand support for higher education. “Make college as universal in the 21st century as high school was in the 20th”; three out of four jobs in the new, high-tech economy require two years or more of higher education.

•Create a National Institute of Science and Engineering, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Funding for the NIH has quadrupled since the 1980s, from $7 billion to $28 billion. “That’s why we lead in pharmaceuticals and medical technology.” Funding for science has been stagnant–about $5 billion–during that period. “I’d quadruple it and concentrate on nanotechnology, broadband and energy.”

•Promote energy independence. Reduce foreign oil by 50% in 10 years. Create a hybrid economy. Use government contracts and tax incentives to boost solar and wind power.

•”You got a job, you got health care.” Give the uninsured vouchers–“I’m not afraid of vouchers”–for use in the insurance system that covers federal employees. Basic coverage, nothing fancy.

•Organize a bipartisan summit on the budget. Balance it. Everything on the table–loopholes, pork, Bush tax cuts. “And then you gotta have a reform piece,” Emanuel hydrofoiled. “Actually, that should come first. Clean up the relationship between lobbyists and legislators, same way we did donors and candidates. This place is a cesspool–gotta address the gifts, free trips, the revolving-door lobbying jobs for staff members.”

Whew. None of the ideas were exactly new, and there weren’t many details, and none of them addressed the Democrats’ weakest issues, national security and foreign policy. But they had the virtue of matching the public mood, which seems to be shifting back toward Clintonian moderation after a season of Republican neglect of long-term economic and social planning. The current corporate jitters over health care and pension costs indicate that it may be time to revive discussion of a national universal-coverage plan; the public annoyance with high oil prices and the endless war in Iraq suggest that a real energy-independence plan–and a larger effort to regain our scientific edge–might be popular too.

“We want to have a big election next year,” Emanuel told me. “Big ideas. Everything on the table.” He was alluding to the party’s recent tendency toward mingy, small- bore campaigns. In 2002, many Democratic consultants advised their candidates not to dispute the President on his tax cuts and plans for war in Iraq–and limited the campaign to ho-hum topics like prescription-drug plans and blaming Bush for the economic downturn without offering a remedy. As a result, the Democrats lost ground in the House and control of the Senate; and they gave up still more seats in John Kerry’s wishy-washy 2004 presidential run. This time the model is Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America campaign of 1994, in which Republicans across the country ran on the same 10 reforms and took control of the House after 40 years. “We’re going to have all our candidates on the Capitol steps” just as Gingrich did, Emanuel says, “and we’re going to put ad money behind it.”

There are problems. These are Democrats, after all. They remain muddled on Iraq. Their special-interest groups, especially the teachers’ unions, were strengthened last week by the defeat of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California reform initiatives. The teachers spent a shameful $7 million to defeat a mild proposal to delay eligibility for tenure from two to five years of classroom experience. Worse, congressional districting reforms failed in both California and Ohio; two decades of questionable gerrymandering deals, especially between white Republicans and black Democrats in the South, has increased minority representation but decreased the number of House districts where Democrats can expect to compete. A Democratic House or Senate in 2006 remains a long shot, at best. Still, it’s fun to watch Rahm Emanuel in full flight, riffing at warp speed, bouncing off the walls–a Democratic operative as happy warrior for a change. •

To see a collection of Klein’s recent columns, visit time.com/klein

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