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Minority Retort

A two-tiered strategy for Democrats fighting the GOP majority: Obstruct in Washington and speak up for state and local rights.
 
 
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We all know the situation. At the federal level, we are now living under a one-party system and that party has demonstrated a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for brutally exercising power. Republican control of the House is so complete that Democrat representatives are not even privy to discussions about policy before a bill is introduced. The last election sufficiently widened their control of the Senate that only a 100 percent party solidarity by the Democrats and a willingness to filibuster could prevent a bill from becoming law.

The Democrats are not only a minority party. They are, at least in Washington, a distant minority party.

Given this bleak state of affairs, what should the Democratic Party do? Here’s a two-tiered strategy, one focused on Washington, the other on the states.

In Washington, Democrats must, above all, obstruct. Doing this successfully requires two elements: a willingness to obstruct and a clear message explaining why obstruction is necessary.

A few days ago Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid made a good start on the message part of the strategy when he responded to charges of obstructionism by accusing the Republicans of being "destructionists." That's the message. The Democratic Party is preventing evil from happening. It is fighting to preserve the essential values of America from destruction: liberty, mercy, justice, compassion.

This message works only if the Democratic Party is willing to put its actions where its rhetoric is. That means actually obstructing. It means abandoning the idea that they should strive to make a perfectly horrid piece of legislation a tiny bit better, or tag onto a catastrophic tax giveaway a few goodies for their own constituents. It means being principled, being willing to take risks and be called bad names by the media.

Doing this will demonstrate to the American people that Democrats have backbone. Americans like backbone. Equally important, it will show people that the Democratic Party is acting as if it truly believes we are at a historical moment of genuine constitutional and democratic crisis, one in which people need to stand up and bear the personal and political risks of doing the right thing.

To successfully obstruct, of course, the Democratic Party must be disciplined. Which means abandoning the famous Democratic tolerance of dissent and even treason within its ranks. No longer can the Party allow a person to make a keynote address at the Republican National Convention and continue to be a member. No longer can a person say he would support Antonin Scalia as chief justice of the Supreme Court and be allowed to hold a high rank in the Party.

If this means the Party loses a few members, so be it. There is far more deterrent power in a coherent and committed 40 senators than in a fractured and incoherent 44.

The second tier upon which the Democratic Party should fight is for the right of states and communities and individuals to make their own decisions. This will be difficult. Liberals have long believed that it is necessary for the federal government to impose itself on states and communities in order to increase the public welfare. But today's political landscape argues for a different approach.

First of all, federal pre-emption of state and local authority and a centralization of power in Washington is occurring at an unprecedentedly rapid rate. The enlargement of the state in both power and reach under President George W. Bush has been both startling and terrifying. And this pre-emption is occurring not to make people more secure but less, not more democratic, but less.

By arguing that authority should be devolved to the lowest possible level, that wherever possible decisions should be made by those who will feel the impact of those decisions, the Democratic Party will open up a dialogue with many members of the Republican Party and many more independents who fear the growing power of the state. We might recall, for example, that far more Republicans than Democrats broke ranks to vote against the No Child Left Behind legislation, and the reach and power of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act frightens at least as many conservatives as liberals.

As a first step in this direction, the Democratic Party should support the right of states to decide whether people should be allowed to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. By direct vote, the people of eight states, both conservative and liberal, have voted overwhelmingly to allow this.

The Bush administration has responded by sending federal agents into California to arrest a woman who was using marijuana grown in her backyard to reduce chronic and debilitating pain, even though what she was doing was perfectly legal according to the good citizens of California. In a few weeks, perhaps sooner, the Supreme Court is going to rule on whether the federal government has this right. Before it decides, the Democratic Party should declare, as a Party, its belief that the power to make the medicinal marijuana decision should rest at the state and local and household level, not in Washington.

Arguing for devolution has both a negative and a positive element. While the Democratic Party argues against Washington making improper decisions, it also can, at the grassroots level, work to encourage states and communities to make proper decisions.

Nothing good will come out of Washington for the foreseeable future. Thus any actions the Democratic Party takes in Washington must by their nature be defensive, oppositionist, negative. But at the state and local level its strategy can, and should be, proactive and positive.

Unlike at the federal level, in many states and cities and counties, Democrats still wield considerable authority. Indeed, in the recent election, the shift in control of state legislatures and governorships tilted slightly in favor of Democrats.

And it is at the local and state level where the rubber meets the road, where the policies of Washington, for good or for bad, have their impact. It is at the state and local level that we can most clearly make the case that politics largely concerns making decisions about the allocation of scarce resources. We make choices. And in cities and counties and states, in neighborhoods and farms, the process can be made much clearer and transparent and accessible.

And to tie the two tiers together, the Democratic Party can explain how decisions made in Washington are affecting the ability of small towns and large cities to make the right decisions.

In essence, this is a three-step plan: Stop Washington from doing evil; Work to devolve authority, and; Ally with those with different ideologies who are also working for those goals. And work to exercise local and state authority to build institutions and programs and communities that make concrete the principles and values of the Democratic Party.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn. and director of its New Rules project.