Column: The Public Eye: One, Two, Three, What Are We Voting For?

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday October 31, 2006

When we go to the polls on Nov. 7, many of us will be voting against George Bush and a subservient Republican Congress. The majority of the electorate is outraged by Bush’s war in Iraq and the failure of his Administration to protect America. In many parts of America voters will also be protesting specific Bush policies that have depressed local economies, raised gasoline prices, and degraded the environment. Indeed, Americans have ample reasons to vote against George Bush and the GOP. Yet, it’s always healthier to cast a positive vote: to be for something. So, what are we voting for? 

It’s comforting to think we are voting for a change in Iraq policy. But it’s hard to believe that the White House will change their “stay the course” position on Iraq, even if Democrats retake the House and Senate. A Democratic majority could hold hearings and spur a national debate on Iraq. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely there’ll be a significant change until after the 2008 Presidential election.  

In a recent interview, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi promised that in the first 100 hours after Democrats regain control of the House there would be new rules to “break the link between lobbyists and legislation;” legislation to enact all the recommendations of the 9/11 commission; and a hike of the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour, among other actions. While important, these changes would not be earthshaking. 

If Democrats retake Congress, their primary actions will be defensive: They will block Bush initiatives such as further tax cuts for the rich. Perhaps they will be able to curtail further damage to the environment and erosion of our civil rights. A Democratic victory on November 7th will stop the US from tilting further to the right, but not effect a course correction. The election will produce a stalemate. 

Republican TV ads bemoan the possibility of an impasse. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing for the United States. A deadlock in Washington could promote a national debate between Conservatives and Liberals. A discussion not about specific legislation, but rather about the direction of America: what should Americans expect from the Federal Government? 

For the past decade this debate has been waged at the cliché level: Liberals have been mocked as the champions of “big government.” Conservatives have contrasted themselves as proponents of limited government; a stance epitomized in the Grover Norquist quip, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Yet, six years of the Bush Administration have not reduced the size of the Federal Government. In practice, the conservative ideology has produced a web of inconsistencies: It’s okay to have a bloated defense/security bureaucracy, but not okay to have the personnel and policies required to protect America from corporate abuse. Individual civil rights must be subordinated to the security concerns of the United States; however, the “rights” of big business get a free pass.  

Now is the time for Democrats to propose an alternative ideology. Not one driven by sound bites, such as “the era of big government is over.” Rather, a philosophy that’s based upon the common good. A progressive vision for America that articulates a positive role for the Federal government. 

To spur this discussion, here are five arguments Democrats might use: 

1. The American people are the best defenders of the United States. Therefore, Federal budget priorities must be changed. Funds should be shifted from the defense and security sectors to programs that strengthen the citizenry, such as healthcare and education. America spends too much on the military and this is weakening our democracy. 

2. The United States is not engaged in an international arms race, but rather a competition in the global marketplace that we are losing. Therefore, America requires a new vision in order to regain its competitiveness. Federal leadership is needed to provide this strategy. 

3. A cornerstone of this new vision for America is recognition that Democracy is best served by placing limits on capitalism. The interests of big business are not always consistent with the common good, such as protection of the environment and the rights of working people. The Federal Government must intervene to insure that Democracy is not subverted by big business. 

4. Fiscal solvency is another, essential component in a new vision. Federal leadership is required to balance the budget and stop America’s addiction to debt financing. 

5. Finally, the security and solvency of America requires a nation-wide program for energy independence. While development of non-carbon-based sources of energy should be part of this effort, a vital component will be conservation. Federal leadership must motivate Americans to engage common sacrifice, reduce fossil-fuel consumption for the common good.  

If Democrats prevail, there will be a stalemate in Washington. That’s not a bad thing. It’s an opportunity for Americans to consider what kind of government they want before they vote in the 2008 presidential election. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at