THINKING ABOUT 2004….All this talk about moderation vs. extremism has got me mulling over political strategy for the Democrats, so I think I’ll do a little thinking out loud about it just to clear my head a bit. Besides, it keeps my mind off the war.

We Democrats have a real uphill battle in 2004, and to have any chance of winning I think we need three things: (a) a positive domestic policy proposal of some kind that can become a real rallying cry for the party, (b) some way of instilling genuine fear toward some aspect of Bush administration policy, and (c) a serious and credible national security plan.

We all have our favorite domestic policy proposals, but here are a few that I happen to like for one reason or another:

  • Gay rights, including support for federal employment protection, civil unions, and gays in the military. I like this for a few reasons: (1) Fighting unwarranted discrimination is a core part of the liberal agenda. This is our fight. (2) It’s a cause that’s moving in the right direction. Public opinion has been shifting toward increased tolerance of gays slowly but surely for 30 years, and we might be at the right moment in history to really win a serious mandate for legislative change on this issue. (3) The main opponents are going to be the Christian right, which holds out the hope of causing a real rift in the Republican party. It’s also likely to bring out the worst kind of homophobic rhetoric among the opposition, which in turn makes the Republican party look scary and intolerant to the average voter.

  • Social Security and tax reform. I think it’s well past time to abandon the fiction of a Social Security trust fund and admit the reality: Social Security and Medicare are simply federal programs that are paid for out the general fund. We should propose that the payroll tax be done away with and the revenue replaced by changes in the income tax, with the overall goal of making funding for Social Security both more secure and more progressive. This ought to have a lot of appeal to moderate voters once they figure out how much they pay in payroll taxes, and could be a tough proposal for Republicans to fight.

  • National health insurance. I think this is inevitable, and I’d like to see us start talking about it again. Unfortunately, I suspect that the American public is not yet pissed off enough about healthcare to make this a winner. It’s a good idea, but maybe not for a few more years yet.

Next, we have to find some way of making Republicans look scary. I’m not quite sure what the right issue is for this, but the more I read about the neocon agenda, the more I think this might be the one to target. After all, Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964 by making him look like he was set to plunge us into World War III, and I suspect that a really vigorous campaign to associate the administration with the neocon program might do the same in 2004.

This has to be done in a credible way so that it doesn’t just sound like liberal carping about the use of military force, but I bet some smart strategist could figure out how to do this. There’s plenty of scary stuff on the record about the neocon plan, and attacking it would either force Bush to repudiate it, which would hurt him with some of his core supporters, or else accept it and end up looking reckless and war hungry. I’m not sure the neocons realize just how scary their plans sound to moderate voters, so this has the potential to be a winner.

Finally, whoever wins the Democratic nomination desperately needs to be credible on national security and needs to have a plan that distinguishes him from the Bush administration. Somehow, in easily digestible soundbites, it needs to include an attack on Bush’s homeland security record, a compelling argument for multilateral cooperation, and a sense that the candidate truly takes the threat of terrorists and rogue states seriously. Unfortunately, I suspect this rules out people like Howard Dean, even if he does get lots of applause from Democratic activists, and limits the serious candidates to people like Kerry, Edwards, and maybe Lieberman.

So that’s it, a little bit of thinking out loud about 2004. We now return you to your regularly scheduled war.

UPDATE: More here.

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