Friday, February 04, 2005

Feb 3, 2005

NO is Not a Policy

President Bush likes to point out that the insurgents in Iraq are nothing but rejectionist forces that offer resistance to change, but no solutions of their own.

As I watched the State of the Union address and the (so called) Democratic rebuttal, I was struck by the similarity between the insurgents and Democrats. While I oppose much of Bush’s proposals, all I heard out of Sen. Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi’s rebuttal was “no.”

There in a nutshell is the problem that continues to plague the Democratic Party. Is it enough to be simply against? Shouldn’t the loyal opposition also be able to lay out their own coherent alternative proposals?

Sure they should. But on almost every major reform issue being aggressively pushed by Bush Republicans, Democrats offer - no. That was not an incomplete sentence. It is what you get from the Democrat party positions once you boil the rose water out of their rhetoric.

Current Democratic Positions:
Social Security private accounts? They’re agin’em.
Civil litigation reform? They’re agin’it.
Keeping US troops in Iraq? They’re agin’it.

But what are Democrats FOR? Some voters -- though nowhere near enough to produce a win -- think they might know, but can’t be entirely sure. Unlike Republican voters, poor Dem voters can’t cite chapter and verse on their party’s positions.

And so the Republicans have become America's new majority party. Why? How did this happen?

First, because the old saying, “fortune favors the bold,” is at work here. Notice that the saying does not delineate between the smart-bold and the dumb-bold, and for a reason -- because, at least in the short run, it seldom matters. There are so few politicians who are bold that when one comes along who is he is able to sweep stunned prevaricators and triangulators aside with relative ease.

“Fools barge in where angles fear to tread,” is another bromide at work in the Bush administration. While the thoughtful busy themselves trying to figure out the right way to do things, and the connivers plot how to please the most with the least personal risk, the “fool” barges ahead and steals the march from them all. The fool, by default, grabs the lead.

That’s why Democrats lost the election. Bush unabashedly laid down a bold and simple to understand rendition of his neo-conservative visions. Democrats polled, triangulated, pussyfooted, calibrated and recalibrated. Voters knew where Bush would take the country, but did not have even the fuzziest idea what Kerry would do if elected. Would Kerry be tougher on terrorists, before he was softer? Would he finish cleaning up the mess we made of Iraq, or slither away? Would he do something about the long-term problems facing Medicare and Social Security or.. ? Who knew?

Last night was another lost opportunity for the desperate Dems. They could have.. no, they SHOULD have .. used that golden once-a-year opportunity to lay out their own clear, unequivocal, detailed, non-mealy-mouthed alternatives to Bush’s proposals. Instead their message boiled down to just another uninspiring Gore/Kerry moment.

(Footnote: And just when I thought no one could be a worse Senate leader than Tom Daschel, Dems replace him with Harry Reid, the Mr. Rogers of the US Senate.)

Instead what Dems did last night, this is what they should have done:

On Social Security
They should have said, "We agree, Social Security is not perfect and can be made better." Then they should have gone on first to explain why it is people get such lousy returns on their SS savings (1% .) It’s because both parties have been dipping into the SS cookie jar up to their elbows, taking your money out and replacing it with low-interest bonds. (That’s what you get when the borrower and lender are one and the same. Duh.)

So, let’s start by knocking that off. If we must borrow money from the trust fund, then at least pay a fair, market rate of return on it. That’s only fair to all the wage earners who will have to depend on SS in their old age.

Also take a portion of the money Bush wants to use to set up personal accounts and instead invest it in something that provides both a better rate of return and does some good. For example, low income housing bonds and GINNIE MAE. Doing so would put the money to work creating construction jobs as well as providing historic returns of 6 to 8 times that of what SS is getting now. And, since these investments would carry a government guarantee, they would be secure as well.

The unconscionably low return we get on SS now is Bush’s strongest argument for personal accounts. And since so many Americans are now invested through their 401Ks in stocks and bonds, they understand what a fair return is, and they know they are getting screwed in Social Security.

Also, when Bush says he will not stand from increasing the payroll withholdings for SS, Dems need to explain that he is not talking about refusing to raise current workers withholding but rather getting larger contributions from high income earners. What Bush means is he is against raising the ceiling on income subject to SSI taxes. Dems should explain that so lower wage earners aren't mislead into thinking Bush is fighting for them. Then they should propose that the earned income ceiling be raised to $250,000. The nation’s big earners would not be so wealthy without the labor and services provided by millions of workers below them who earn less. So why should they not contribute the same fair share to SS just like everyone else? That should be easy for even the mealest mouthed Democrat to explain and defend.

Dems better come up with a plan – a real one - or they will lose the Social Security fight.

On Litigation Reform
I bet even Democrats on The Hill get a big belly laugh from lawyer jokes. Everyone does. Why would that be, do you think? Jokes only work when the audience GETS the punch line? I mean really GET it. And these days, we all get lawyer jokes.

Voters also get it comes to abuse of civil process by a growing number of attorneys and their clients. That’s why all the trail lawyer money in the world could not get the Dems back into the White House or majority status in Congress. The national collective consciousness is primed for this issue, ready and anxious for reform.

So, it’s not be that we either get litigation reform or block it. We will get some kind of litigation reform because voters are primed for it. Right now Bush has grabbed the lead on this issue as well. And, if Dems want to have any impact on this debate they better come up with a coherent set of litigation reforms that resonate as fair and balanced with the public.

Here’s a place for Dems to start. Punitive damages -- Criminal courts are the place where punishments should be handed out, not civil courts. The job of civil courts should be to redress grievances and compensate victims for their losses – “make them whole” again. So, civil compensation should be limited to actual loses, plus expenses, plus a maximum of $250,000 in “this-is-for-being-such-a-putz-and--pissing -us-off ” damages - now referred to as "punitive damages."

If a person or company did something that was so wrong it warrants a financial punishment over and above that, then they probably also need to be prosecuted criminally. In criminal court they can be fined as much as the judge or jury thinks will get the point across and sent to the clinker to boot.

Dems should also seriously consider adopting the British “loser pays court costs,” system. And when trail lawyers claim that will ruin the country all Dems have to do is point to Great Britain and ask why then that country remains happy, healthy, wealthy and unruined. (Thanks to that system pub patrons can actually drink their beer standing out front on the sidewalk! Imagine the litigation that would follow here if an American bar patron tripped over the curb after a couple of beers.)

If Dems fail to come up with their own list of litigation reforms they will lose again. And so will the rest of us because what we will get instead are reforms written by and for corporations that will replace the current civil litigation crisis with a “buyer beware,” consumer protection crisis.

The War(s)
When Bush attacked Iraq he set into motion forces that must now be reckoned with. Had NATO agreed to all this we would be in a different place right. Instead, against almost all the advice our traditional allies, Bush decided to go ahead and beat the bejesus out of the wasp nest. Now that the hive is swarming there’s nothing to do now but try to figure out how to get the mean little bastards calmed back down.

The war is poses a special problem for the Democrats, a problem for which there now no longer any easy or painless solutions. The fool barged in and now the options are few and all hard. What Dems can do is make sure none of them get snookered into voting to attack Iran or Syria until Bush first proves his theory in Iraq. And, since it was HIS theory, if he fails, hang that dead chicken around his neck until it rots. That’s how we cure chicken-killing dogs on the farm.

Hopefully when Howard Dean takes over the helm of the Democrat party he will ban Bob Schrum, Carville, Begala and the rest of tired, corrupt and valueless Democrats from the building forever. Then set out real ideas, real alternatives.

Hope springs eternal. But then, Karl Rove does too.

Raconteur at Large

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