How the Democrats can win 

The thought that life could be better Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains. —Paul Simon


It’s a bit hard to imagine today, but the Democratic Party once realized that people wanted to believe in a better future. Not only that, the party knew people were drawn to leaders who could convince them that they could help the nation get there.

That’s what politics at its best should be — using the system to make life better. John F. Kennedy knew that. Bobby Kennedy knew that. Even Bill Clinton knew it, at least when he was running the first time. Franklin D. Roosevelt knew it best of all. Those men had something else in common: They moved people, and they won elections.

Now if you are normal, you are not paying much attention to the presidential campaign yet. Even I deliberately try to take only occasional notice, partly to try and feel what impression the candidates are making on the voters.

So far, how many of them are stirring people’s hopes and dreams? So far as I can tell, none. Essentially, they all seem to be running on the slogan “not as bad as Bush.”

Howard Dean is a partial exception in that he is a new face, a little brash, more willing to bash George Bush than the rest, and has created some excitement. Some of this is because he evokes the old days with his now-famous line (appropriated from the late Paul Wellstone) that he represents “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Yet his main appeal is essentially negative. He’s fast become the favorite of liberals, who these days mostly call themselves progressives. But next time you meet somebody hot for Howard, ask what is the most exciting thing about their man. Does he make them see new frontiers? Does he promise an end to poverty, a health care crisis solution, an idea of what the hell to do now in Iraq?

Well, he may have positions on some of these issues, engraved on his Web site somewhere, but few of his supporters know exactly what they are. After they finish hemming and hawing, the odds are they really like Dean because … he isn’t Bush.

Yes, there are millions of voters for whom this in itself would be enough. Based on my analysis of past election returns, they amount to about 41 percent, and have enough muscle to carry the District of Columbia and maybe three states.

Anyone who really wants change has to move beyond this. What the Democrats have to do if they are to have a prayer of winning this election — and, more importantly, of ever becoming the majority party again — is very radical.

Ready for this? What they have to do is inspire people and give them hope. Especially, perhaps, the young. Last week there was an article in The Nation by Thomas Geoghegan suggesting Democrats might want to start appealing to young voters, who are the future, and who now mostly do not vote at all.

He suggested they ought to campaign in favor of forgiving student loans, and possibly for making college free. That’s worth considering, but any successful movement can’t appeal only to one group.

How’s this instead? Democrats should develop a party platform and take it seriously for the first time in decades. They don’t need to worry about covering every little ornament on the tree, just pledging themselves to three or four big and important things that everyone can understand and, hopefully, buy into.

First of all, they should announce that they are committed to getting America working again — in every sense of that term. Accordingly, they should pledge themselves to finding a way to provide minimal health care for the uninsured.

They should come up with a program that would give young people — those who don’t go to college and those who do — reason to be excited about their future, and to feel that this time, it really will matter which party wins.

Finally, they should set as a goal creating a more safe and secure (and therefore peaceful and prosperous) world. That’s what the cause of mankind should be, but in narrow political terms, that is also the only way to guarantee a more secure America.

Don’t turn the campaign into a referendum on past wars; if Bush and his crew have registered foreign policy successes, say so, and astonish the nation with magnanimity.

Even if they do all these things, and run a decent, hard-fighting and appealing candidate, it is possible the Democrats won’t win. But they will have lost fighting for something, and will be far readier for the next battle than they’ve been for decades.

That alone would be worth it.


Talking trash: Brad van Guilder, who has a doctorate in physics, is into trash these days. As in, how to stop the entire region from sending their garbage here. The former Peace Action staffer is now a community organizer for the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, and will give a talk — “Don’t Trash Michigan” — at the Green House, Nine Mile and Woodward Avenue, Ferndale, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 16.

He is irked that for years, Michigan has suffered from policies “that have favored the profits of waste industry giants over the health and safety of Michigan residents.” That means there is no landfill surcharge for garbage-hauling trucks, for example, and so it is far cheaper to dump solid waste here than in most states.

Exposing all this makes enormous sense, and van Guilder has done some enormously important work. Yet even if the rules get changed, that won’t get rid of the vast amounts of garbage each of us generates. Nor will making it harder to dump trash in Michigan do anything to reduce the total amount of trash.

What do we do about that?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail

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