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7 Winning Issues for Democrats (If They Only Had the Guts to Fight)

It's not enough for progressives to count on Republicans to lose in 2012. Democrats need to find some issues to fight for. Here's a few suggestions.
 
 
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The 2012 election is still a while away, but the horse race stories have already begun and new Republican candidates seem to be jumping into the fray every week.

Meanwhile, the debt ceiling debate is the political fight of the summer, and since President Obama floated the idea of Social Security cuts as part of the “grand bargain” he's seeking, the progressive base has been expressing its anger. Seventy-six percent of MoveOn's membership said they would not donate to or volunteer for Obama's reelection effort if he allowed cuts to Social Security benefits. And Jim Dean, of Howard Dean's Democracy for America, said “Cutting Social Security to reduce the national debt is like attacking Iraq to get Osama Bin Laden -- the two things are not related."

Friday's jobless numbers also prompted several writers to note that Obama could well lose a reelection bid if unemployment remains at the same level into election season. John Nichols rightly pointed out that “Americans are not that into the debt-ceiling debate. Polling has suggested that less than a quarter of Americans are 'closely following' the fight.”

As the election comes closer, it won't be enough for Democrats to count on unpopular right-wing politicians to lose fights for them—they will need to find some winning issues to campaign on. And it's not actually that hard to do.

There are a few issues, after all, that are consistently popular in public-opinion polls, not to mention with that same Democratic base that was depressed in 2010 and is angry now at the idea of cuts to the social safety net. For Democrats to make gains in 2012, not just hold the White House and the seats they've already got, here are seven winning issues to fire up the base and convert swing voters. It won't be easy, but it would be real progress.

7. Get out of Afghanistan and Libya and oh yeah, all the way out of Iraq.

Obama positioned himself to the left of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton on the wars back in 2007 and 2008, proclaiming his opposition to the war in Iraq from the beginning and touting diplomacy, not violence, as the solution in the Middle East. His rhetoric at the time won him a Nobel Peace Prize.

But it's 2011, and not only are troops still in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan ongoing, but we've got a “kinetic military action” in Libya and drone strikes most recently in Somalia as well as Yemen and Pakistan.

And Americans aren't feeling it. A New York Times/CBS News poll released in June found that 58 percent of the public thinks we shouldn't be in Afghanistan and 59 percent think we shouldn't be in Libya. (It's worth noting that the poll didn't even ask about Iraq, lending fuel to the belief many have that the war there is “over.” It's not.)

Some Democrats have pushed for a real end to the war in Afghanistan. Most recently, a group of Democratic senators introduced a bill, coordinated with a push from Democracy for America, calling for “Safe and Responsible Redeployment of United States Combat Forces from Afghanistan.”

With the economy still the biggest issue on most Americans' minds, the wars are an unwanted expense and a huge force contributing to the deficit. Smart Democratic politicians will link these issues together on the campaign trail and call for an end to wars that are costing us too dearly in lives as well as dollars.

6. Push for a comprehensive employment non-discrimination act (ENDA).

Nearly three-fourths of voters believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people should be protected from discrimination in the workplace.

What's the problem, then?

This:

”The survey also found that 9 of out 10 voters erroneously think that a federal law is already in place protecting gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination. A similar number of voters also did not know whether their state had a gay and transgender workplace discrimination law. These numbers show the huge disconnect between voter perceptions about workplace protections and the realities that gay and transgender people face on the job.”

How do we pass a law when the vast majority of the public thinks a law is already in existence? The Center for American Progress pointed out that anywhere from 15 to 43 percent of gay people have faced some form of discrimination or harassment on the job—and that figure is a staggering 90 percent for transgender workers. In a good economy, the fact that 44 percent of transgender people report being passed over for a job because of their gender identity or expression, and 26 percent report being fired, would be cause for alarm.

In the current economy, where every job opening yields far more qualified applicants than can possibly be hired, it's a tragedy.

Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, is basking in the glow of having passed a marriage equality bill that was extremely popular with his constituents. Progressive Democrats should be making the point that no, there is no federal workplace protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers—and then fighting like hell to pass one.

5. Pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Wait, immigration reform is a horribly contentious issue, isn't it?

Not, actually, as much as you'd think.

The numbers of immigrants from Mexico are down and states like Georgia that have passed draconian anti-immigrant laws are actually suffering from a lack of willing farm workers.

But while Jan Brewer and other right-wing governors have passed horrific immigration bills on the state level, a Daily Kos poll a few months ago showed 69 percent support for comprehensive immigration reform that included increased border security and a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers, as well as a path to citizenship for undocumented workers who apply for legal status, learn English and pay back taxes.

Jed Lewison at Kos noted:

”Those numbers are pretty emphatic, but what's even more remarkable is that every single demographic and ideological group in the survey would support immigration reform based on the principles outlined in the question. In fact, the right is more supportive of the approach than the left, presumably because it would require immigrants to pay back taxes and learn English before becoming eligible for citizenship.”

If that's still too messy a fight (or concedes too much to the right), the DREAM Act also polls with majority support—54 percent are in favor of a law that would give legal status to those who attend college or join the military.

4. Increase environmental protections.

The right wing loves to trash environmental laws as job-killers and claim that progressives and environmentalists are attacking private industry when they push for regulations. But despite years of that sort of rhetoric and a miserable economy, Americans still want their air, water and land clean. Seventy-one percent still want the Environmental Protection Agency funded, and as of last year, 56 percent chose protecting the environment over keeping energy prices low. Fifty-six percent also want the government to regulate private companies' energy output to control global warming.

Erik Loomis, environmental historian and blogger at Lawyers, Guns and Money, argues that environmental policies that put people first are winning issues. He says:

“Go to Louisiana and talk about the BP oil spill, talk about how we need an oil industry that provides jobs and doesn't destroy our coastline. Go to Arkansas and talk about how we need energy, but we also need to make sure that the natural gas industry doesn't cause earthquakes underneath us. Go to rural New York now and argue the same thing since that's a big issue there. Go to West Virginia and talk about how we can create a coal industry that doesn't remove mountains and provides more jobs to people. Not to mention pushing green jobs and alternative energy projects that put people back to work.”

Once again, with the economy the main concern for so many voters this election cycle, it's time for politicians to think smart about linking jobs to new and alternative energy technologies. Deeply unpopular conservative governors may be rejecting money for high-speed rail transit, and progressives running in their states (Florida and Ohio, for a start) can turn that anti-environmentalist job-killing argument right around on them.

3. Fight for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

It's depressing that with a Democrat in the White House and Democrats in charge of at least one house of Congress, this should even be an issue.

However, these programs are consistently immensely popular—even when the public thinks they could be administered better, 88 percent think Medicare has been good for the country, followed by 87 percent for Social Security and even 77 percent for Medicaid, the program that provides health services for the poor. (And a new study confirms with research what public opinion already believes—that Medicaid provides concrete benefits for its recipients.)

So why is Barack Obama floating the idea of cuts—or of raising the eligibility age for Medicare?

As Joshua Holland wrote for AlterNet last week:

This administration has certainly shown itself to be enthralled by the idea of scoring big, “bipartisan” legislative victories on what the chattering class considers the most pressing issues facing the country, and a Beltway consensus has (unfortunately) gelled around the idea that reducing the deficit in the near term, rather than getting people back to work, is a top priority.

This simply doesn't gel with public opinion. Sixty percent at least want benefits to remain unchanged from these programs, and according to one poll, 22 percent would cut the defense budget first, and 42 percent would rather raise taxes on the rich than see cuts to Social Security.

Which brings us to the next point...

2. Tax, tax, tax, tax, tax the rich.

It should be a no-brainer by now, right? One of Barack Obama's biggest applause lines on the campaign trail was the one about letting the Bush tax cuts expire for those who made over $250,000 a year—and he even won a majority of votes from that same income bracket. The grand compromise late last year to keep those cuts angered many and drove Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to a fiery eight-and-a-half-hour speech on the Senate floor, where he concluded:

"If the American people stand up and say, we can do better than this, that we don’t need to drive up the national debt by giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, (if) the American people are prepared to stand – and we’re prepared to follow them – I think we can defeat this proposal.”

The proposal passed, and even though Obama promised it would be for the last time, the GOP is determined not to raise taxes on its own base in any sort of debt deal.

But it shouldn't matter. Democrats should take note instead of a poll that hit swing states Ohio, Missouri, Montana and Minnesota and asked voters about raising taxes on large incomes to reduce the deficit. The higher the income proposed for taxes, the more willing voters were to increase the tax burden.  Sixty-six percent of Ohioans were willing to raise taxes on those who make over $150,000 a year, while 78 percent of them would tax millionaires more.

More importantly for Democrats looking for an issue for the campaign trail, 48 percent of Ohioans would be more likely to vote for Senator Sherrod Brown (who, it should be noted, joined Bernie Sanders in his Senate floor speech) if he led the fight in Congress for a millionaire's tax. Forty-seven percent of Minnesotans would be more likely to support their senator, Amy Klobuchar, and 42 percent of Montanans would be more likely to support Jon Tester.

Overall, some 72 percent of voters support higher taxes on those who make over $250,000 a year, including some 54 percent of Republicans. The rich are getting richer and the unemployed aren't getting any closer to employment. We've had years and years of tax cuts under the false claim that they create jobs. It's time for Democrats to point out that those wealthy job creators simply aren't creating jobs—and then raise their taxes and...

1. Create some jobs.

Right-wing columnist Michael Medved's worst nightmare goes something like this:

”In the president’s rousing vision, the new jobs program, designated 'America Works,' would hire people immediately for desperately needed federal projects while simultaneously providing money from Washington for positions at the state and local level, as well as partially subsidizing new jobs in the private sector.

Warming to his message, Obama declared: 'Cynics will respond to this plan the way they always react to new ideas and fresh starts. They will say, “You can’t do that” or claim that “we can’t afford it.” But Americans know better. They know that we can’t afford not to act, or to protect a stale, shabby status quo at a time of national crisis.'

'How can we say we can’t afford to start hiring again, to do all the jobs that desperately need doing, when all around us we see accumulations of wealth unprecedented in human history?'”

It's funny how Republicans' worst nightmare looks like a progressive dream. Putting millions of Americans back to work? Subsidizing jobs by taxing the corporations that have so far failed to hire? Where do we sign up?

Medved wrote this in a plea to his fellow conservatives to wake up and do something about jobs. When even one of the nation's far-right voices sees the need for a jobs program—even if only to forestall the impact a real jobs program might have on the progressive vote—and the Democratic president is doing nothing, what's wrong?

Democrats need to get out in front of terrible jobs numbers and right-wing critique. They need to articulate a jobs program now. Thirty-nine percent of the population thinks that this recession isn't a recession—it's a permanent decline for the country and the state of all of our lives. Forty-seven percent think that unemployment benefits should be extended even if it means increasing the deficit (44 percent think they should not be) and 60 percent are either “somewhat” or “very” worried that someone in their household will soon be out of work.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, called for a renewal of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps on Friday when jobs numbers came out. Michael Medved desperately fears a bold move by the administration on job creation.

The conventional wisdom says that the president and the Democrats spent their political capital on the first stimulus bill, but now even former members of the administration's economic team are calling for more. It's time to put the conventional wisdom to rest. Jared Bernstein summed up the argument on Friday:

”Washington needs to quickly and aggressively shift from its long-term debt obsession to the much more immediate jobs problem. To do otherwise at this point would be deeply irresponsible.”

The problem, of course, with these seven issues is that almost all of them pit everyday Americans against corporate interests. With the Citizens United decision allowing open season for corporate cash in the upcoming campaign, politicians can kiss that money goodbye if they strike out too far against the will of big business.

Progressives will have to organize and bring pressure like never before on Democratic politicians who count on votes, dollars and volunteer hours from them—but that's how we got the New Deal, isn't it?

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.