Ted Nordhaus

Has There Been a Great Progressive Reversal? How the Left Abandoned Cheap Electricity

Editor's Note: From time to time we publish articles we don't necessarily agree with. We encourage differences of opinion, for the sake of open debate. AlterNet's environmental editor Tara Lohan replies to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger at the end of their article, and  we've added the authors' response to Lohan below it.

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Do Progressives Have the Wrong Idea About Change?

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have written a book -- Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) -- that challenges the way we are used to thinking about solving social problems. The conventional wisdom writ large, especially for progressives, is that when things are bad, people need to be scared into changing their habits, whether it is to protect the 50 million people who lack health care, or the behaviors that contribute to potential climate catastrophe. Most of us assume that we have severely limited resources, that growth is bad, and we need ever-increasing amounts of regulation to save the future.

In their book, Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest something very different. They argue strongly that scaring people is no way to make change. For example the 250 million people with health care will not be inclined to fight for those who don't have it, unless they feel confident in the future, and that the health system will improve for them too, since people don't want what exists to get worse in the process of expanding care.

The same for climate catastrophe: As Nordhaus and Shellenberger put it: "Cautionary tales and narratives of eco-apocalypse tend to provoke fatalism, conservatism, and survivalism among voters -- not the rational embrace of environmental policies. This research is consistent with extensive social-science research that strongly correlates fear, rising insecurity, and pessimism about the future with resistance to change."

Furthermore, they strongly argue that an enormous investment in green technology, including huge commitments from the military, as in supporting the Internet and computer chips development, combined with unleashing the best of the American "can do" inventive energy is a much more viable approach than the technological fixes, caps on pollution, carbon trading, and all the strategies that put constraints on human activity. This is controversial approach to say the least, and one that flies in the face of much of what progressives have come to believe about growth and regulation.

Needless to say, in a world with enormous problems and challenges facing all of us, and the radically different worldviews that dramatically divide this country, considering new, provocative ideas can cause anxiety. Many simply want to get the bad guys out of power. But if and when that happens, we still need to figure out how to fix the massive array of problems ahead of us. That is Shellenberger and Nordhaus's point. The old ideas are not going to work. We need a new vision, and the authors are offering one, and stirring the pot in the process.

In the end, many readers may not agree with the Break Through thesis, but the ideas the authors present deserve discussion and debate. Progressives are stuck with a lot of conventional wisdom that has not led us to change and the success we need.

What follows is an essay from Nordhaus and Shellenberger, based upon ideas in their book, followed by commentary from writers with strong opinions on the book. A second article on AlterNet today is a review by environmental writer and leader Bill McKibben of Break Through and Bjorn Lomborg's Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalists Guide to Global Warming.

-- Don Hazen, Executive Editor

***
American Power: The Case for an Energetic New Progressive Politics
By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Most progressives today are optimistic that, in 2008, Democrats will regain the White House and solidify their majority in Congress, largely on the basis of the country's anti-war sentiment alone. But down this path lies danger, for if Democrats fail to offer a vision for the future that is as large and positive as the war in Iraq is negative, we may take back the White House and Congress and fail to take back America.

A new politics should inspire Americans to grapple with certain existential questions: What kind of a country do we want? How can we achieve it? These questions implicitly contain a question about investment: how shall we invest our wealth and our labor?

With Iraq and the "war on terror," the conservative movement has defined American power as unilateral military force. Progressives have not yet offered a counter-argument and story about American greatness that is capable of challenging the (neo)conservative one.

A new story of American Power begins by acknowledging what our country is great at: imagining, experimenting, and inventing the future. First we dream -- and then we invent.

The time is ripe for progressives and environmentalists of all stripes to come together around American Power agenda for a major investment into clean energy. Not only is a large public investment crucial to bringing down the price of clean energy, an investment-centered agenda will serve the purpose of unifying Americans under a vision for energy independence and economic revitalization, one that will appeal to California and New England progressives and environmentalists and Midwestern Reagan Democrats alike.

Massive investments in clean energy offers a way of defining the source of American power around our capacity to dream better futures -- and invent our way out of crises. Oil-funded terrorism, global warming, economic insecurity -- these are challenges that America will overcome through our ingenuity and our capacity to reinvent ourselves every fifty years.

Given all this, it is more than a little ironic that one of the lobbies most standing in the way of this vision of investment-centered vision of American Power is the Washington, D.C.-based environmental establishment itself.

An investment-centered approach

Our new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, was born from an essay we wrote in 2004 about the politics of energy and global warming. Before we wrote that essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," the two of us had spent all of our professional careers, about thirty years between us, working for the country's largest environmental organizations and foundations, as well as many smaller grassroots ones. Like most of our colleagues, we tended to see global warming as a problem of pollution, whose solution would be found in pollution limits.

In 2003 we started to break away from the pollution and regulation framework. With a small group of others we created a proposal for a new Apollo project. We proposed a major investment in clean-energy jobs, research and development, infrastructure, and transit, with the goal of achieving energy independence. The political thinking was that this agenda would win over blue-collar and swing voters and Reagan Democrats in the presidential battleground states of the Midwest, and excite the high-tech creative class at the same time. And by putting serious public investment on the table-$300 billion over ten years-we hoped we could break through the logjam that had divided business, labor, and environmental groups for years.

But more than any short-term political calculation, Apollo, we hoped, would be the vehicle for telling a powerful new story about American greatness, invention, and moral purpose.

After we created the Apollo proposal, we did what new political coalitions on the left tend to do: round up endorsements from other groups. And while we succeeded in getting endorsements and letters of support for Apollo's principles from businesses, unions, and most of the large national environmental groups, we were baffled, and then angered, by what happened next.

Environmental lobbyists told us that while they supported Apollo's vision, they would do nothing to support it in concrete ways, either in Congress or during the 2004 elections. Those of us who had created Apollo had made the decision to focus on jobs and energy independence, because they were far higher priorities among voters than stopping global warming. In particular, we discovered that investment in clean-energy jobs, to get free of oil, was more popular with voters than talk of global warming, clean air, and regulation. But environmental leaders thought our nonenvironmental and nonregulatory focus was a vice, not a virtue.

Fearing that it would distract Democrats' attention away from stopping the George W. Bush administration's energy bill, which included billions in new subsidies for coal and oil, environmental leaders eventually asked us to keep Apollo legislation from being considered by Congress. Still the good soldiers, we did as we were asked, and Apollo was, briefly, withdrawn. But it hardly mattered: the Bush energy bill passed anyway.

Today, four years after we were told to withdraw legislation to invest $300 billion into a new Apollo project for clean energy, the demand for action on energy independence and global warming have only grown. And yet environmental leaders continue to deny the need for major new investments and insist that new pollution and efficiency regulations are all we need.

In September 2007, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Breakthrough Institute conducted a nationwide poll of likely voters on global warming and energy. What we found was that global warming continues to rank dead last as a concern for voters. The poll also tested public support for a variety of global warming policy prescriptions. The investment-centered "New Apollo" program received substantially more support than the regulation-centered alternatives (cap-and-trade and Sky Trust). After voters were told of the negative consequences of each program, Apollo was the only program to maintain majority support of the electorate.

The politics of limits

The consensus today among climate scientists is that U.S. emissions must be reduced 80 percent by 2050 if we are stabilize emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change. But current regulatory approaches will result in modest, not deep, reductions in carbon emissions. That's because there simply do not yet exist the low cost, low carbon technologies that could be quickly brought to scale to replace carbon intensive energy sources. It is true that some strategies for reducing emissions, such as efficiency and conservation, can be scaled up immediately. But disruptive technologies like solar and carbon capture and storage -- mass quantities of which will be required to deal with global warming -- are still far more expensive than coal and gas.

Environmentalists suggest that setting some pollution limits and a price for carbon will be enough to move gradually -- emissions reductions of just two percent per year -- to achieve 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But the price of carbon would have to be set at exorbitant levels for today's clean energy alternatives to become cost-competitive with coal, especially in China and the developing world, which will contribute 70 percent of new emissions between now and the middle of the century. And if action on global warming depends on voters and politicians accepting higher energy prices, there will -- as we have seen -- be very little action on global warming.

Recognizing that voters care more about the cost of energy than global warming, the policies under consideration in Congress would limit pollution so little that the price for carbon would be very low, around $7 to $10 per ton. At that price, firms required to reduce their emissions will invest in the least expensive emissions reductions possible, such as burning methane from landfills, purchasing forest land for carbon sequestration, shifting from coal to natural gas, or retrofitting power plants and buildings so they operate more efficiently. Private investment would not, for the most part, go to technologies like low-cost solar energy and carbon capture and storage, which are required to displace coal-based energy.

Meanwhile, China and India long ago rejected any approach to addressing climate change that would constrain their greenhouse gas emissions or their economic growth. For years, energy experts had expected that China would overtake the United States as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter by 2025. It turns out that China will gain that distinction by the end of this year. The governments and the people of China and India are increasingly concerned about global warming, to be sure, but they are far more motivated by economic development, and to the extent that the battle against global warming is fought in terms of ecological limits rather than economic possibility, there's little doubt which path these countries will take.

The only way the Chinese government will be able to substantially reduce its emissions is if the price of clean energy and carbon capture technologies come down enough to get within striking distance of the price of fossil fuels.

The dramatic and rapid breakthroughs in price and performance that we need will not be primarily driven by the private sector. Private firms will play an important role in bringing new technologies to market -- and carbon pricing will play an important role in making market conditions more amenable to clean energy technologies. However, private firms will not make the large, long-term investments in R&D and deployment, nor can they create the public infrastructure (e.g., new transmission lines bringing wind power from rural areas to cities) needed for the new energy economy.

Given all of this, it's odd that environmentalists ever viewed global warming as fundamentally similar problem to things like smog in L.A., acid rain, and the hole in the ozone, much less one that won't be hard to fix. Granted, both problems are consequences of human pollution. But whereas dealing with the ozone hole required a simple, inexpensive chemical substitute, global warming demands a totally different way of producing energy. We were able to fight smog without replacing oil. We dealt with acid rain without dismantling our power plants. And we will phase out ozone-depleting chemicals without affecting any of our energy sources. But to deal with global warming, we will need an almost entirely new energy infrastructure -- one that will first require the creation of an almost entirely new politics.

American power

In the dark depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt became a radical experimentalist, inventing various New Deal programs to overcome hunger and joblessness. During World War II, America defeated fascism as much through our ingenuity and manufacturing muscle as through our fighting GIs. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Defense Department made a series of large and strategic investments to create the Internet, and it guaranteed the market for microchips, thereby creating the conditions for the electronics and information revolutions.

Today we launch a new campaign called "American Power," one aimed at persuading Congress to generate the $30 billion annual investment we need to make clean energy as cheap as possible, as quickly as possible. American Power will provide a vital peacetime role for the military. Just as the Department of Defense guaranteed the nascent market for silicon microchips in the 1960s, bringing the price down from $1,000 to $20 per chip in just a few years, the Pentagon must today do the same with silicon solar panels.

There are no silver bullets when it comes to energy, but solar panels, like microchips, have their own kind of "Moore's Law": the price of solar comes down roughly 20 percent every time production capacity is doubled. Experts say that for a total cost of $50 to $200 billion, we could bring solar panels down to the price of natural gas or even goal. It might be the best $200 billion ever spent by the U.S. military.

Our new book, Break Through, is a call for a new positive politics, one that puts a vision of a better world -- not ecological apocalypse with its view of humankind's sins against nature -- at the center. At the very moment when we find ourselves facing new problems, new social and economic forces are emerging to confront them. Internet-empowered grassroots activists, high-tech entreprenuers, and the new creative class may become the force behind a new politics of possibility.

Policy-wise, we should make big investments into clean energy and take action to restrict greenhouse gases. But in our politics -- and our vision for the future -- we will be in a far stronger position if we put this energetic definition of American Power at the center.

Only time will tell whether Washington-based environmental groups will ever come around to this new, investment-centered agenda. The first test could arrive as early as next month. That's when Congress may take up global warming legislation. What matters most about the legislation under consideration is how much money it will raise for investments into clean energy.

But this isn't just about what we do over the next several months. It's about the politics we need for the next several decades. What's needed isn't so much a new policy or a new message but rather a new movement, one that embraces human power and ingenuity and public investment and puts these forces to work to creating a new energy economy and a more prosperous, secure world.

The good news is that, at the very moment when we find ourselves facing new problems, from global warming to the insecurity born from globalization, new social and economic forces are emerging to overcome them. High-tech businesses and creative "knowledge workers" may become a political force for big clean energy investments. And Democrats and progressives, looking for a positive vision every bit as big and bold as the war in Iraq is negative and awful, could put this new vision of American power to work for the good of the world.

***
Comments on "Break Through" from Chris Mooney's De-Smog Blog.

You probably heard already: The "Death of Environmentalism" guys are back, once again explaining the follies of the green movement.

Their new book, Break Through, has created a lot of chatter with its argument that enviros are too darn pessimistic, and repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot with command-and-control regulatory thinking and doom and gloom talking.

I decided to check out the Cliff notes version of Break Through -- published in article/excerpt form recently in The New Republic. What I read was both quite sophisticated and yet, at the same time, a bit grating. You see, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are really arguing against a state of mind, a zeitgeist even, rather than anything very specific. Which is fine -- especially if you attack the right zeitgeist (which they do). The approach, however, allows them simultaneously to rebuke greens and yet also outline a clean energy policy agenda that most environmentalists--at least as I understand the term -- would probably agree with.

It's a matter of emphasis, really. It's a matter of framing.

And indeed, it's on the subject of framing environmental messages where Nordhaus and Shellenberger make their most resonant point. Let's say it again: Doom and gloom = bad messaging. This is not exactly a new observation, and it happens to be grounded in tons of social science research and public opinion data. As American University professor Matthew Nisbet and I have argued repeatedly, you don't want to frame global warming as a "Pandora's Box" of untold catastrophes. Not only does this lead to a temptation to oversell the science about many still uncertain climate impacts. It also makes people feel helpless, or worse. As Nordhaus and Shellenberger put it:

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Chronicle of a Life Untold

Ask any first-year film student about script writing and she'll tell you it's all about narrative arc. Whether it's Sophie's Choice or There's Something about Mary, the screenwriter understands that information about where the lead character is coming from is crucial to creating tension about where he's going.

What's true for film is as true for presidential campaigns. Unfortunately for Democrats, President Bush's handlers understand the power of narrative arc far better than John Kerry.

By now George W.'s story is fairly well known. It goes like this:

As a young man he was a prankster and goofball. Never the brightest of Daddy's kids, George fell into drinking and maybe even drugs. His business deals always fell apart. And, because of his drinking, his marriage was on the rocks.

And then he found God. He became a family man. He became close to the evangelical community in Texas. And he helped his father politically. Just as he made the cut-and-dried decision to quit drinking cold turkey, George Bush is decisive about what's right and what's wrong because he's a man of principle. His decisiveness and moral vision has been especially important post 9/11.

At the center of it is a moment of redemption – a surrender to God. Being born again anchors Bush's appeal to the solid third of the country that self-identify as fundamentalist or evangelical Christian. And for voters who don't pay much attention to "the issues" – that is to say, the swing voters who may determine the election - George Bush's story appeals because it positions Bush as a man of principle.

Swing voters pick candidates based not on their position on Medicare or prescription drugs and but rather on whether or not they identify with – or look up to – their values. These voters decide which values candidates hold not just by their catch phrases and slogans but also by the stories their lives tell.

The Kerry campaign isn't so much telling a story about Kerry as it is making a 30 second TV ad. There is no narrative arc, there's just imagery of Kerry in Vietnam winning medals. The problem is that "Kerry in Vietnam" is nowhere nearly as powerful as "John Kerry: The Life Story."

Here's a guy who was born with privileges most of us can only dream of. After standing out in boarding school and college, Kerry does something radical: he volunteers to go to Vietnam. That act is not simply about patriotism (however blinding). It was also Kerry's way of expressing that, despite his privilege, he didn't consider himself to be any better than any of the working-class Joes stuck doing America's dirty work in Vietnam.

In his speeches, his ads and his PR, Kerry doesn't mention his privileged childhood. For the Kerry campaign, the Senator's life began the moment the plane landed in Saigon. Ironically, it's the campaign's fetishization of "Kerry in Vietnam" that made the Republican swift boat attack on Kerry's veracity so powerful. If we can't trust Kerry to be telling the truth about his war record, what else is there?

The Kerry team needs to tell the full story of Kerry's life to establish the man's credibility after nearly a month of controversy about Kerry's Vietnam service. The Kerry team should start by more directly contrasting Kerry's decision to go to war with Bush's decision to evade service. That singular act of courage would provide a much needed balance to Kerry's second great courageous decision, made just four years after the first: to testify in front of the Senate about the horrors of war.

Kerry's privileged background stripped away from his decision to go to Vietnam is as unappealing as Bush's pre-atonement alcoholism. If the public is to understand and identify with the core beliefs that have motivated Kerry all his life, they need to know as much about Kerry before Vietnam as they now know about him during and after.

Truth and Denial in Venezuela

The Amazon may be South America's longest river, but denial, to borrow the old gag, is today the longest river in Venezuela. On Monday opposition leaders were reported to be "shocked" and "stunned" upon learning from former President Jimmy Carter and the Organization of American States that the referendum to recall President Hugo Chavez had been defeated in a landslide, 58 to 42 percent.

While a mass popular rejection of President Chavez and his policies may have appeared likely when viewed from the comfortable confines of Caracas' fashionable Los Mercedes neighborhood, any clear-eyed examination of the Venezuelan electorate and Chavez's past electoral successes would have suggested that such an outcome was unlikely.

What has been clear since at least the end of May, when the referendum qualified for the ballot, is that the underlying dynamics in last Sunday's vote would not look fundamentally different than those at play in President Hugo Chavez's earlier electoral victories. In a nation in which the overwhelming majority of the population is poor, most of the poor believe that Chavez had their interests at heart.

Our polling consistently showed that significant majorities of Venezuelans believed that President Chavez "cares about people like me" and "cares about the poor" while few Venezuelans believed that these phrases accurately described the opposition. Poor and working class Venezuelans, who make up almost eighty percent of the electorate, were rejecting the referendum by a margin of almost twenty points from the moment it qualified for the ballot.

It came as no surprise to us, nor to just about anyone else who took a hard look at the polling, the results of past elections, and the basic demographics of the Venezuelan nation, that Chavez defeated the recall by almost exactly the same landslide vote that had elected him twice before.

That an out of power, out of touch, and anti-democratic elite might find the result shocking is perhaps not groundbreaking news. What is a good deal more disturbing is that U.S. and international media outlets consistently swallowed the opposition's unlikely claims of certain victory hook, line, and sinker.

News stories in the months leading up to the referendum consistently referred to Chavez as "closing the gap" even when most credible polls showed him winning. As the election drew closer and polls showed Chavez's advantage widening dramatically, news stories insisted that the polls predicted a "close election." Not until former President Carter confirmed the results of the election did the media acknowledge the overwhelming mandate won by President Chavez.

By the end the opposition, led by government-financed activist group "Smate", twice resorted to circulating bogus polls in an attempt to prop up the fiction that Venezuelans were prepared to reject Chavez's presidency. The last of these, a bizarre "exit poll" conducted at polling places by anti-Chavez activists and, unconscionably, endorsed by and attributed to the New York-based pollster Mark Penn, was nothing more than a transparent attempt to discredit the results of the election.

Thankfully, the news media has finally recognized the depth of Chavez's popularity and is starting to treat the Venezuelan opposition with the skepticism that it deserves.

Now it is time for North Americans to look beyond the hysteria surrounding Chavez's friendship with Fidel Castro and his antagonistic stance towards President Bush and understand that the political turmoil of the last five years in Venezuela has really been a fundamental struggle to determine who will control the nation's oil wealth and who will benefit from it.

The overwhelming rejection of the referendum to recall President Chavez gives eloquent testimony to the emptiness of the opposition's rhetoric. Calls for reconciliation and negotiation too will ring hollow unless all involved accept that Venezuela will not go back to the way it was before Chavez. Venezuela's poor majority, for the first time, has a real voice in Venezuelan politics and will continue to demand that the nation's substantial resource wealth be used to better their lives. No popular movement in Venezuela, nor any attempt at reconciliation, will succeed that fails to acknowledge this reality.

Dems Miss Out On Values

When John Kerry gives his speech at the Democratic convention tonight he's sure to use the word "values" as often as possible. Demonstrating his commitment to values is important, but the question remains: Which values, exactly, does Kerry stand for?

Republicans have spent the last 20 years speaking clearly about the values they represent. They have even developed a brand – "family values" – to represent a range of conservative proposals, from promoting prayer in school to restricting abortion to banning gay marriage.

By contrast, liberal or "progressive" groups and Democrats have spent the same period of time defining themselves against conservative values – without ever articulating a coherent morality they can call their own. Part of the problem is that many of the intellectuals who staff progressive think tanks and the Democratic Party are so repelled by the religious right's use of "family values" that they have assiduously avoided examining the values that underlie their own politics. They see values as a distraction from "the real issues" – namely their technical analyses of social and environmental policy.

The consequence of this anti-values mindset is that progressives and Democrats have unwittingly accepted how conservatives have set the terms of the debate: "values issues" are seen today by the media and the public alike as synonymous with "social issues," including abortion and gay marriage. Meanwhile, issues like the economy, health care and foreign policy are framed as unrelated to values.

But for social scientists who study and measure them, the term "values" has a totally different meaning. Values refer to deeply held beliefs that determine our political positions and our political identities (e.g. Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive). These scientists understand that some values are traditional, like conservative "family values," others are modern, like "liberal" enlightenment values, and others (like a whole world of consumer values) fit into neither category. These values inform how individuals develop a range of opinions, on everything from the war in Iraq to sex education, to what's the best SUV on the market.

What strategists within the Republican Party and conservative think tanks understand better than Democrats is that values are not another "issue" but rather are core beliefs that underlie all political positions.

For example, Republicans framed across-the-board tax cuts around the value of fairness and the notion that all Americans, no matter how rich or poor, deserve equal treatment. Those values of fairness and equality are also linked to the value of individual freedom. In the words of President Bush, "It's your money – not the government's money." This strategy allowed Republicans to focus voters' attention on the proposal's principles – fairness, freedom and equality – instead of the proposal's impact, a $112,000 tax cut for individuals making more than $1 million per year versus the median tax cut of $470.

In contrast, while Bush talks about individual freedom and equality, Kerry promises to create jobs through "International Tax Reform" and fix health care through technical policy solutions like a "25 percent health care tax credit for people ages 55 to 64 whose salaries fall below 300 percent of poverty."

It has become fashionable among many liberals to explain this difference in approach as a difference between conservatives who see the world in simplistic, black-and-white terms and liberals who see the world in all its complexity and who understand that the solutions aren't simple. Ironically, this explanation grossly oversimplifies and underestimates the conservative mind.

The Republicans' successful tax cut proposal demonstrates how well conservatives understand that Americans vote not according to their economic self-interest but rather according to their values. Despite all the brave new talk about values, Democrats continue to frame their proposals around policies, not values.

If John Kerry hopes to connect with voters on values then he must start using core American values to frame his positions on the issues. He must avoid the tendency to see "values" as a single position in a long list of them, from health care to the war in Iraq, or as a way to respond to the conservative "family values" agenda. Rather he should start seeing his own values as central to what motivates and guides his politics. Doing so is crucial if Kerry is to position himself as a strong leader who stands up for what he believes in.

In Search of a Democratic Future

While it is tempting to dismiss Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory as testament to California's bizarre recall system and our unending fascination with celebrity, doing so misses the larger message of this election for the Democratic Party.

A closer look suggests that California is not the Democratic stronghold that many think and that the Democrats' electoral success in recent years has masked deep weakness within the Party.

Recent elections and the California Democratic Party's voter registration advantage have led many, Democratic Party leaders especially, to conclude that California is and will continue to be a solidly Democratic state. But the Democrats' voter registration advantage is not nearly what it seems when turnout and party loyalty are factored in. Democratic success in the last three elections has been more a function of Republican weakness than Democratic strength.

Former Attorney General Dan Lundgren, who lost to Davis in 1998, and President Bush, who lost the state to Al Gore in 2000, were well to the right of the California electorate on social issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights. The strong economy during those elections allowed Democrats to run and win on social issues instead of bread-and-butter economic issues. In 2002, faced with political neophyte and social conservative Bill Simon, but also with a less robust economic climate, Gray Davis barely won reelection and failed to garner a majority vote.

Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger; a socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican married to a Kennedy. Schwarzenegger might have defeated Davis in 1998 and almost certainly would have defeated him in 2002. Schwarzenegger combines the moderate politics of Pete Wilson (excepting Wilson's rightward lurch on immigration in 1994) with the celebrity and charisma of Ronald Reagan. In both temperament and politics, Schwarzenegger is similar to the long line of Republican governors who have governed California for most of the last 100 years.

Faced with a credible candidate and a bad economy, Democrats lost the recall because they failed to articulate -- while governing and while campaigning -- their central political belief that government is a social good, that investments in schools, infrastructure, health care, and social services are worth making, and that everyone should pay their fair share.

From the perspective of public opinion, the Democratic economic agenda is in fact quite popular with voters. The problem is that, for at least the last decade, Democrats have effectively abandoned a coherent or consistent articulation of that agenda while Republicans have continued to hammer away at the voting public with a disciplined message about the perils of "big government." As a result, when California elections turn on the core issues of government, taxes and spending, as in 1990, 1994 and 2003, Democrats have lost.

To their peril, most high-profile Democrats continue to tout Clinton-era policies such as middle-class tax cuts and reinventing government. These initiatives, while on occasion effective tactically, end up reinforcing the core Republican message that government is corrupt and ineffectual, that taxes are immoral, and that private enterprise -- not collective endeavor and shared investment -- is responsible for our quality of life.

Now, in defeat, Democrats have the chance to put forward new and compelling ideas about the role of government and how it can better our lives. Some Democrats are beginning to talk about a major state investment in clean energy jobs to make California the hydrogen and solar capital of the world through a "New Apollo Project." Others are discussing the idea of a universal K-14 education in California, to prepare our workforce for the 21st century and a "Smart Highways" infrastructure bond to fund a statewide network of Express Lanes to increase carpooling and mass transit services.

Democratic leaders should explore these big ideas and others in the coming months to better define their governing vision, because without a compelling and distinguishing vision of their own, Democrats will continue to find themselves on the wrong end of "throw the bums out" upheavals like those that cost the Democrats control of Congress in 1994 and 2002, and the Governor's office this year.

Ted Nordhaus is a democratic pollster and strategist at Evans/McDonough Company, an opinion research firm based in Oakland and Seattle.

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