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by Robert Borosage
Tuesday Jun 8th, 2004 6:29 PM
You know what problems hold our nation back, but what would America look like if progressive leaders grabbed the reins of power? Here, veteran political activist Bob Borosage talks about his vision for an America where the “blessings of prosperity and growth are widely shared."
We meet at a time when the bankruptcy of the right that dominates our politics has become apparent.

Thirty years ago, when Reagan took office in the United States, Thatcher in Britain and Kohl in Germany, right-wing ideas captured the commanding heights of the industrial world.

Their mantra was clear: less government, lower taxes, deregulate corporations, privatize, corporate trade rules, rollback environmental and consumer protections, scorn for international law and institutions combined with a big stick global policy.

They have advanced this agenda over two decades, with citizen movements and liberals in Congress limiting the damage and the Clinton presidency cleaning up some of their mess. But over the past three years, they have pretty much had their way.

George Bush campaigned as a moderate, compassionate conservative, but he turned his administration over to the most extreme elements of his party—the anti-government zealots, the neoconservative fantasists, the social reactionaries and the right-wing judicial ideologues. And remarkably disciplined majorities in the Congress were able to push through much of this crowd’s agenda.

The results are in. The stench of failure is inescapable. They have left us weaker, more indebted, more divided, more isolated and far less secure.

They are weakening America and it is time for them to go. It is time for progressives to build a movement that can take back America.

Consider: George Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression to lose jobs on his watch. His reckless top-end tax cuts contributed to record budget deficits, soaring debt and a staggering reversal of our financial position, from a $4 trillion projected 10-year surplus to a $5 trillion projected deficit—a loss of 9 trillion dollars.

His feckless trade polices and those of his predecessors contributed to record and unsustainable trade deficits, soaring foreign indebtedness; good jobs shipped abroad. We now are in the bizarre posture of exporting our jobs to China, while it loans us the money to buy the products it makes.

Deregulation and privatization fueled Gilded Age inequality and corporate corruption and scandals, with tax avoidance turned into a billion dollar industry. Hell, the IRS' own website is managed by a company headquartered in Bermuda.

At a time when the nation yearned for unity, this administration chose instead to pursue a divisive attempt to roll back civil rights and women’s rights, to write bigotry into the Constitution, while using 9/11 as a partisan club.

And on national security, where this wartime president stakes his claim for re-election, the results have been tragic. Emboldened by America’s military prowess, led by neoconservative ideologues touting the benefits of empire, the administration abandoned 50 years of bipartisan consensus on alliance, containment, investment in international institutions and law. In a few short months, they squandered the global solidarity the United States received after 9/11.

They scorned our allies and spurned the UN in the rush to a pre-emptive war in Iraq.

And everything they said about that war turned out to be false. Iraq was not a threat. They didn’t know where the weapons of mass destruction were, since there were none. Iraqi oil could not pay the cost of reconstruction. Undermanned U.S. forces were reviled as occupiers, even as parents scrambled to buy body armor the Pentagon had failed to supply. Their cynicism about international law led directly to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, putting U.S. troops in greater risk.

Their own counterterrorism czar opposed the war as a distraction from the war on terror. Their own Middle East emissary, General Zinni, described the failures as heading over a cliff. The establishment International Institute for Strategic Studies reported that the occupation in Iraq had provided Al Queda with a recruiting rallying cry across the Muslim world. Across the world, we are more isolated and less admired. Our military force has never been so dominant; our moral influence seldom so weak.

Americans are just beginning to get a sense of the extent of the failures. But Americans already understand that this operation doesn’t work for working people. The president touts the recent pickup in growth and jobs and says his plan is working. The pundits assume he’ll get a lift from the economy. But Americans think the president is out of touch. We view the economy not from Wall Street or corporate boardrooms, but from our kitchen tables where we gather to talk about our concerns after the kids go to bed.

And there things are getting worse, not better: jobs are scarce and less secure, health care costs are soaring, schools are cutting teachers and after-school programs, college coasts are spiraling out of reach, a secure retirement is a fading dream.

We don’t actually expect government to solve our problems. But in every case, Bush’s policies are making things worse, not better.

Take jobs. Bush mortgaged the store with his tax cuts, but didn’t even produce enough jobs to replace those that were lost. And the jobs that are being created don’t have the pay or benefits of those that are being lost. His top end and corporate tax cuts weren’t tied to producing jobs here in America. They generated more work in Shanghai than in Saginaw. If we had taken some of that money and invested it in building schools, fixing sewers, on homeland security and energy independence, we would have employed far more people without running up deficits as far as the eye can see.

Or take health care. Costs are soaring. We pay the highest drug costs of any country in the world. But Bush pushed through a prescription drug benefit that actually prohibits Medicare from negotiating a better price for drugs. Consumers Union concludes that most seniors will end up paying more for drugs, while the drug companies make out like bandits.

Rob McKribben suggests we distinguish between problems that can be managed and situations, which are problems so out of control that only fundamental change will avoid calamity. A trade deficit can be a problem. Unsustainable trade deficits, record foreign indebtedness, accelerating jobs moving abroad—that’s a situation.

Pollution is a problem. Constantly warming temperatures, with the polar ice caps starting to melt and the Pentagon warning that catastrophic climate change is a clear and present danger—that’s a situation.

By that definition, this is the most situational president we have seen since the Depression. And we’re not going to be able to deal with those situations unless we resituate this president and the movement conservatives that surround him.

The president now says that this election poses a great choice—a choice between two visions of government. A choice, he says, between an ownership society in which you have greater control over your own retirement, your own health care, your own education and a society in which they take your money and make your choices.

But what the president is talking about is cutting Social Security to pay for private risk accounts, cutting Medicare to pay for Medical Savings Accounts, raking scarce public school funds for private school vouchers. He would eliminate taxes on wealth and inevitably raise them on work.

He wants to dismantle what is left of shared security for a society where you’re on your own. Replace a society that builds with common purpose for a society where the few have the party and the many get stuck with the bill.

If the election this fall is a referendum on the Bush record and that proposition, the president will be in trouble. He knows that. That’s why he will campaign as a war president, and wrap himself in the troops that he put at risk. That’s why he unleashed $70 million in mostly negative attack ads on a Democratic candidate who hadn’t even received his party’s nomination yet. That’s why he’s posturing on the Patriot Act and pushing for a constitutional amendment on gay marriage. Bush knows he has little upside, so he must peddle fear, sow division, and scare the hell out of Americans about the "threat" posed by John Kerry.

But for this country, the fate of this administration is not the sole question. Whatever happens this fall, we must challenge the ideas, the policies and the power of the so-called movement right that dominates our politics.

And to do that, progressives will have to move on up. For the last years, we’ve been called upon to oppose—mobilizing to block one lame-brained initiative after another. We rallied against the tax cuts. We stopped them from packing the courts completely. We mobilized millions against the war before it started. We exposed their attempt to further media consolidation. We stopped their big oil energy plan. We helped defend affirmative action. We’ve won significant victories against great odds.

But the vast majority of Americans are looking for a different direction. And they aren’t clear what the choices are.

So we’ve got to go from opposition to proposition. We’ve got to start mobilizing about what we are for, not simply what we are against.

Frankly, this won’t be easy. They have left a lot of ruin behind them. Worse, the conservative grip on our politics has not simply circumscribed our choices, it has crippled our imaginations.

When fighting off another tax cut for the wealthy, it is hard to imagine having the resources actually to revive our schools. Small ideas and small steps seem more plausible. Changes commensurate with the size of our challenges seem beyond us.

We have to move on up. Offer Americans a clear vision of what could be, an agenda that deals both with kitchen table concerns and our national “situations” before they become calamities.

No single political leader or candidate can do this. Bush is wedded to the right-wing agenda because he has little choice. The right provides the ideas, the organizers, the leaders and the energy for his party. They built independent institutions — think tanks, political action committees, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition to mobilize the base, coalitions across issues, and a message and attack machine that is unparalleled in our politics.

Now progressives are starting to build that independent capacity. You’ll hear reports on various aspects of it—the new Center for American Progress; the expanded Institute for America’s Future; the ground operations at Americans Come Together and the AFL-CIO; the coordination of America Votes/ the stunning creativity of, as it tries to reinvent our democracy for the Internet Age; Progressive Majority's new efforts to recruit and support the next generation of Paul Wellstones. This conference both reports on that effort and is a part of it.

We should do this in the confidence, as Stan Greenberg will demonstrate, that a majority of Americans are ready. If we provide them with a clear choice—between the politics of hope and the politics of fear — they stand with us:

For investing in schools rather than tax cuts on the rich;
For health care as a right, not a privilege;
For defending Social Security, Medicare, the public school, the national parks;
For an America that leads, that finds its security in collective security, not as a 'globocop' seeking to police the world;
For raising the minimum wage, empowering workers and holding corporations accountable;
For fair trade rather than corporate free trade;
A renewed democracy over crony capitalism and big-money politics;
Energy independence over big oil subsidies;
Choice, equal opportunity, civil rights, environmental protection — these are mainstream values now.

We can build an America where full employment comes first, and the blessings of prosperity and growth are widely shared.

We can build an America where every child gets the nutrition and health care and pre-school needed to make equal opportunity a reality from the start.

We can build an America that guarantees its citizens affordable health care and the highest quality public education.

We can build an America that builds a democracy that is a beacon to the world. That secures its people without trampling their liberties. That celebrates voting and service, and guarantees that every vote will count and be counted.

We can build an America that addresses its situations before they become calamities.

This is not an impossible dream. Last weekend, we celebrated the sacrifice of the Greatest Generation in World War II. That generation, raised in the Depression, steeled in the war, shared service and sacrifice. The wealthiest paid taxes of over 90 percent to help pay for that war. African- Americans left segregated communities and Japanese Americans left intern camps to fight for this country. They came home and passed the GI bill opening up college and training to an entire generation. They subsidized housing to create the American dream. They organized unions to insure that profits and productivity were shared. For 25 years, they built the broad middle class that made America strong, and we all grew together.

The contrast between that generation and the current crowd is apparent. After 9/11, when Americans yearned for unity and clamored to serve, the president could have challenged all of us. He might have said as we track down those who committed this act, we will act to eliminate our dependence on Persian Gulf oil, announce a 10-year Apollo New Energy program to invest in renewable and efficiency, and enlist every American to join in that effort.

Instead he told us to hug our children and go shopping. And then pushed to bailout the airlines while doing nothing for the workers that they laid off.

Americans deserve better than this. The Right has failed. Our time has come. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go. It is vital that you leave this conference emboldened to continue building the independent citizens movement that can forge a majority for progressive reform in this country.

There is much to be done and the time is now. It surely is time to take back America.

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