News & Politics

The Party of New Ideas

Americans may know what group we stand against -- Republicans -- but they do not know what ideas we have for change or what principles and moral values we share as a party. An open letter to Howard Dean.
Chairman Howard Dean
Democratic National Committee
Washington, DC

Dear Chairman Dean,

Congratulations on your election as Chairman of the Democratic Party. While your acceptance speech discussed your goals for rebuilding the party, it did not address the biggest problem we face. Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe Republicans know what they stand for, but only 47 percent of Americans can say the same for the Democratic Party (Democracy Corp Survey March 15-21, 2005).

The American public has it right -- it is not clear what Democrats stand for. Americans may know what group we stand against -- Republicans -- but they do not know what ideas we have for change or what principles and moral values we share as a party.

They don't know because we Democrats have not, in fact, agreed on these things for years. Our party has nothing comparable to the big ideas and value themes Republicans have been running on. The Republican ideas may be bad, however they are big and bold and driving the debate in America. Not just in Washington, D.C. but in state capitals as well.

Americans give Republicans a ten point advantage for their ability to "think long term, not just short term" leaving them suspicious that Democrats stand for the political defense of the status quo. Similarly, our party lags behind in the public's estimation of our strength (nine point deficit) and moral values (13 point deficit). Part of being strong and having moral values is "having the courage of your convictions" to stand up and say, this is what we believe needs to be done and we are going to fight for it.

The ideas, big ideas, I am confident are there. They exist in Congress, State Houses, City Halls and County Commissions. They exist in think tanks, progressive organizations, labor unions, academia, the business world, on blogs, and perhaps most importantly, among loyal Democratic supporters. What the Democratic Party needs is a process to identify, choose and commit to the ideas for progressive change in the 21st century.

Our practice, for decades, has been to leave issues and ideas alone until the presidential election cycle starts. By then it is too late to shape the public's image of our party. In the last cycle we nominated a man based on the perception that his resume made him the strongest "horse" against President Bush. Now less than six months after the election who can name the big ideas of the Kerry campaign?

We need to start now. You can make it happen now. Specifically, I urge you to convene a Democratic National Committee mid-term convention, next year, as a Convention for America's Future. Define the agenda of this convention, now, as having a debate about ideas -- for the United States, at home and abroad. Set up a process focused on getting ideas, collecting data that determine whether these ideas are good or bad, and invite people from all ranks of the Party, to debate those ideas as participants.

Next summer the DNC should host this convention of ideas in a city in the center of America, away from the "blue coasts." Let Denver and St. Louis compete to host this event as both are located in what certainly will be battleground states in 2008.

The conventional "inside the Beltway" wisdom is that Democrats are now an "opposition party" and that we need to be uniform and "stick together" in our fights against the Republicans. When it comes to legislative tactics congressional Democrats must be united in opposition to bad Republican ideas. But as Democrats strive to reach agreement on core ideas for change, ideas that we are willing to stand up and fight for, we need to debate not in backrooms among ourselves, but in the open.

An open process will allow us to reach agreement on big ideas for change that will stand up to informed and motivated criticism. This is how we will show America we have what it takes to be the party of the future.

A mid-term convention will create an opportunity for the media to report on Democratic ideas in addition to the horse race for the Party's nomination. This event will also showcase leaders who are not candidates for President, and big ideas for change that require state, not federal, legislation.

Finally, a Convention For America's Future is tailor-made to the world you have helped create in cyberspace dedicated to political ideas. The Internet and blogs are a good place to start this debate and to follow it post-convention.

You can make this happen. I look forward to your leadership.


Tom Cosgrove

Cc: Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Charles Schumer, Rep. Rahm Emmanuel and Democratic Activists
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