PRIORITY: Memo to Dean, Kerry, Gephardt, et al.

IT’S A YEAR until election day but Democratic presidential hopefuls are off and running, well in advance of the usual political timetable. It’s easy to see why. They are up against the most lavishly financed candidate in American history — a fellow who can swoop into a banquet hall, offer a few remarks to a cheering crowd of millionaires, and walk out with gobs more money for his reelection coffers.

This cash is immediately funneled into an awesome political machine that makes the Daley family of Chicago look like amateurs. Bush’s strategic mastermind Karl Rove believes that with enough money (a half-billion is a figure regularly mentioned) he can flood the campaign trail with all the paid messages and staged events necessary to keep the president’s approval ratings up and, more importantly, he can depict Democrats as foolish, un-American, and possibly traitorous. It’s a breathtakingly brazen step for American politics, and if Rove pulls it off our democracy will never be the same.

This helps explain Republicans’ head-over-heels zeal for tax cuts and other generous offerings to the richest ranks of Americans. What at first looked like a boneheaded political move, disgruntling the 95 percent of Americans who will not benefit from Bush’s economic policies, makes sense when you remember that money matters more than votes in today’s elections. The wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers will shower Bush with so much monetary gratitude that Rove is confident he can repair any political damage with a blitzkrieg of attack ads, and have tens of millions left over to win big in Congress.

Will it work that way next November? Not necessarily. But Rove’s fearsome electoral engine, (the power of which we saw in 2000 when Bush’s operatives so expertly outflanked the Gore campaign in the post-election battle for Florida) is already working overtime with focus groups and marketing masters to spin any events that could conceivably arise over the next 13 months, from another terrorist strike to a prolonged drought, to Republicans’ best possible advantage.

The differences between George W. Bush and the Democratic candidates are as dramatic as in any presidential race of recent memory. It’s hard to think of an election with more clear-cut and explosive issues than this one. Pre-emptive military invasions. The fate of environmental regulation. The limits (if any) on corporate power. Reproductive rights. Jobs and a struggling economy. Civil liberties. The future (if any) for social programs. Protection from terrorism. If Democrats want to beat Bush and congressional conservatives next year, they must speak out boldly on these issues — with far more passion than most of them have shown so far. At the same time, the party must inspire voters with fresh ideas on important aspects of American life that Republicans ignore.

Make no mistake, the big questions of war, environment, and economic fairness are as important as any choices we’ve faced as voters since the Great Depression. Yet the campaign against Bush can’t depend totally on the fact that his administration and its congressional allies (of both parties) are militarily reckless, environmentally ignorant, and economically callous. Rove and his lieutenants successfully deflected those charges in 2000 and again in 2002.

Democrats would be wise to take a page out of Republicans’ playbook and portray BushCo as out of touch with the concerns of average Americans. The administration seems particularly vulnerable in this regard, devoting nearly all its energy to making war in the Middle East and catering to the whims of CEOs and Wall Street.

What if next year’s Democratic nominee made a big issue out of keeping American communities vital? The nominee (any of them, from Kucinich to Lieberman) could say with complete credibility that the Bush administration cares little about what happens to the places we all call home. Out-of-control sprawl destroys open space, weakens our cities, and fuels long commutes. Increasing traffic means dirtier air, more congestion, and dangerous streets. Middle-class flight from city neighborhoods heightens the problems of poverty, racism, and urban decline. Wrongheaded agricultural and rural development policies increase poverty and hasten the emptying of small towns. All these problems are getting worse under Bush, due to his instinctual opposition to regulating corporations or funding public services.

On the positive side, this pro-community agenda would help Democrats embrace a host of all-American values: small businesses, local self-reliance, civic volunteerism, environmental restoration, citizen involvement, community empowerment, historic preservation, and good old-fashioned neighborliness. Even the most right-wing Republicans would never attack such deeply held ideals, of course, but the party’s policies do. Letting executives in faraway boardrooms call all the shots in American society means that what people want for their neighborhoods and towns matters very little. This should become a rallying cry for Democrats everywhere: Bush and his allies care more about corporate profits than the health of your community.

These issues are ultimately local, as is all politics, the savvy Democratic leader Tip O’Neill reminded us. But the fate of the places we live are significantly affected by national policies and funding priorities. A new president and a new Congress fired up by new ideas (let’s call it The Good Deal) could change the face of America by creating pro-community policies in transportation, housing and urban development, environmental protection, economic development, agriculture and rural development, education, and other federal programs.

Does this sound far-fetched: People who want better playgrounds for their kids shifting the direction of American politics? Well, Jim Hightower tells a story (see page 82) from Colorado Springs, which is headquarters to literally dozens of conservative political organizations. You couldn’t find a more right-wing place this side of Generalissimo Franco’s Spain. But a group of local citizens decided they needed more parks, trails, and open space — a proposal that was openly ridiculed as socialistic by some city council members. In the end, after an outpouring of support from ordinary people, the park activists got what they wanted. If it can happen in Colorado Springs, it can happen anywhere — and everywhere.

As much as I crave happy endings, let me add that we are far from one at this point. Many Democrats don’t have much better records on these issues than the Bush administration. For Democrats to become the “community party,” in sharp contrast to Republicans’ “corporate party,” they must articulate a sincere new set of principles and loosen some of their own cozy ties to corporations and big-time funders.

That will take guts, knowing that Bush sits on top of a half-billion-dollar war chest. But in any battle of money vs. money, Democrats will find themselves outgunned by the GOP’s limitless firepower. But advocating a pro-community platform, and then linking it to larger issues of environmental protection and economic fairness, allows Democrats to pursue a more powerful political strategy, based on voters’ genuine enthusiasm rather than contributors’ big donations.

That would be the best sort of happily ever after, for “small-d” democrats as well as the Democratic Party.

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