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Voters Want Ideas, Not Ideology

By Harold Ford Jr.

The November election results have been called everything from a Democratic landslide, to a mandate on the war in Iraq, to a searing rebuke of President Bush's policies. I believe these conclusions miss the broader and far more compelling point.

From the veteran I met in the Little Rebel bar in Jackson, Tenn., to the glass plant manager I met on the other side of the state in Kingsport, people in Tennessee viewed the 2006 election as being, first and foremost, about change. But this wasn't simply about trading a Republican majority for a Democratic one. And it wasn't about who holds the gavel in committee hearings or which party has the power to issue subpoenas. It was about something much simpler and far more profound -- forcing government to live up once again to the social contract that we put in place more than two centuries ago.

Above all, this election was about making government work again.

A campaign of ideas, not ideology. No matter where our campaign traveled in Tennessee, the stories were the same -- and the new Democratic majority in the Congress must understand that. People want a solution in Iraq. They want lower taxes. They want better schools for their kids. They want access to high-quality health care that they can afford. They want to buy energy from people who aren't bent on our destruction. And they want to place their trust in leaders who will be honest with them in return.

Put simply, they are tired of ideology and incompetence. Instead, they want good ideas and sound implementation.

This is not to suggest that politics as usual did not play a role in our race for the U.S. Senate. Predictably, the other side once again tried to capitalize on traditional "wedge" issues -- such as gay marriage, gun control, and abortion -- that have plagued our party in recent elections. But their effect was muted by two key factors. First, most voters understood that our positions were squarely in the mainstream of Tennessee voters. Second, in the face of almost 3,000 American troops killed in Iraq and skyrocketing debt and deficits here at home, voters saw the GOP's wedge issues as divisive diversionary tactics to hide the appalling governing failures of the last six years.

No doubt, the Tennessee Senate race became one of the dirtiest and sleaziest in recent memory. While disappointing, this is not altogether surprising, given the stakes. But even as my opponent's campaign reached the gutter in the closing days, my campaign stayed focused on ideas and answers.

This was obviously a sound strategy. By presenting a platform of ideas rooted in Tennessee values, we won 48 percent of the vote, falling short by only 50,000 votes out of more than 1.8 million cast. In fact, on a percentage basis, our vote outperformed the 2000 and 2004 Democratic presidential candidates. We won 13 counties that John Kerry did not. We even beat my opponent, Bob Corker, in his hometown, Chattanooga.

From the beginning, we were given little chance of being competitive -- let alone winning. Yet the race was so close that the Republicans were forced to spend more and work harder than anyone expected. Still, we entered this race to win, not to make a statement. While we are disappointed, we are not discouraged. We will run again one day, and we will win.

Turning to the future. Our greatness as a nation lies in our values. When America is strong, the world is strong. For generations, we have been an inspiration for good, liberty, democracy, and tolerance. Our moral authority, when intact, lifts people up and makes them aspire to be something more.

But we face serious challenges going forward -- two wars, the rising threats of Iran and North Korea, two growing Asian economic superpowers with energy appetites that will rival ours in the 21st century, and a government that continues to borrow and spend at historic levels while it is about to absorb the largest-ever influx of Americans at one time into the Social Security and Medicare programs.

Serious challenges demand serious answers. And Democrats have always answered. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Social Security and the Tennessee Valley Authority to meet America's needs during the Depression. President John F. Kennedy cut taxes to stimulate growth. President Lyndon Johnson created Medicare and Medicaid to care for the neediest among us. And President Bill Clinton balanced the budget to force the government to do what every American family must -- live within its means.

Now the country is depending on Democrats for serious answers in these serious times. But we cannot be so arrogant as to assume that the only good idea is a Democrat's idea. We must have the courage to stress outcomes over processes. We must lead by eschewing politics as usual in favor of the politics of the possible.

Here are a few specific ideas that can help make the possible a reality:

First, on the most urgent challenge, Iraq, Democrats should not adopt an "I told you so" approach after the Iraq Study Group's central finding that the situation in Iraq is dire and that we need to change course. Positive and concrete options are needed -- including careful consideration of partitioning the country -- to bring enough stability and security to Iraq to convert it from civil war to independence. The Iraq Study Group's 79 recommendations are a good start, but we should not be afraid to be even bolder if that is what it takes to get things right. Any solution in Iraq may require sending more troops in the short-term to stem the violence -- but we should do so only if Iraqis demonstrate the willingness and the ability to rebuild their own country now. With a consensus plan in place and a realistic endgame in sight, the American people will unite behind a greater short-term commitment.

Second, Democrats should implement all of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. More than five years after 9/11, we have yet to achieve interoperability among police, fire, and Emergency Medical Services communications systems. Gaping holes remain in border and port security. We have made little progress in securing nuclear materials and keeping dangerous technologies beyond the reach of terrorists. Perhaps most troubling for the future, America's image as a beacon of freedom has suffered. Democrats must revive our historic tradition of promoting innovation at home and strength and engagement around the globe.

Third, our long-term national security depends on ending our addiction to oil. The world's most dynamic and creative economy need not remain beholden to oil sheiks in the Middle East or dictators in places like Venezuela. To achieve our generation's greatest legacy challenge -- energy freedom -- Democrats must step into the vacuum of leadership to encourage and unleash American innovation and ingenuity. We cannot be afraid of the potential of science and technology to break us of old habits and antiquated ways.

Fourth, Democrats should make middle-class tax cuts permanent and make the tough choices needed to balance the budget. The party cannot rest on our past reputation as defender of middle-class and working Americans. That reputation was hard-earned. Raising the minimum wage, passing association health plans, and allowing Medicare to bargain down the price of prescription drugs are necessary first steps. But Democrats need a more comprehensive vision to empower the middle class. College tuition in exchange for national service; real vehicles for building wealth and opportunity for middle-class families, including savings accounts for every child born in the United States; and simplifying the tax code for small businesses should also be part of the middle-class growth agenda.

Fifth, Democrats should finally pass a serious ethics and campaign finance bill that holds elected officials to the highest standards of decency and integrity.

Finally, Democrats and Republicans need to have honest conversations about the power of faith, religion, and evangelism to heal and make our country whole. For too long, Republicans have misappropriated faith and religion, and Democrats have resisted their importance in shaping public policy. Eradicating poverty, promoting responsible environmental stewardship, and caring for those who sacrificed for our country should form the basis of a 21st century faith-based agenda.

Both parties would also do well to be guided by Ephesians 6:12: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but principalities and powers." Then we can determine public policy based on what's best for Americans, not political parties.

I'm reminded of Robert McCain, a World War II veteran I met on the campaign trail. While I toured the Veterans' Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Mr. McCain told me about the day he was dropped into France to fight the Germans. He told me how scared he was, but said he went because it was his duty to go and he couldn't let his fellow soldiers down.

I thought a lot about Mr. McCain throughout the campaign, and I think of him still. I think about how most of the boys he served with must have felt exactly the same way. They were all scared, and they probably would rather have been back at home, safe with their friends and family, than fighting the Nazis in Europe. But they didn't flinch. They fought and won together.

Together. It's a concept that sometimes gets lost in today's partisan environment. Yet, our history teaches us that we are stronger as a nation when we act together, rather than as a collection of individuals. When the Great Depression hit and a third of Americans were out of work, we came together to rebuild our infrastructure and our dignity by putting people back to work. When fascism threatened all freedom-loving nations, soldiers like Mr. McCain risked the ultimate sacrifice together, to protect our way of life. Even in our nation's darkest hour, when brother fought against brother to make sure every American could live free, we united, in the end, to move forward. President Lincoln was right: A house divided against itself cannot stand.

We need to recover that sense of togetherness. The country is depending on Democrats to lead and deliver for all of us. Leadership, at its best, can solve, inspire, and heal. Too often today, our government only creates cynicism and division. There is a gap between what is -- and what is possible. My campaign was motivated and informed by a simple premise -- that together we can shape a future worthy of fighting for. Democrats, it is our time to shape that future.

Ultimately, that is why I ran for the U.S. Senate and why I will remain in public service.

Harold Ford, Jr. is chair of the DLC and a former congressman from Tennessee.

Blueprint Magazine

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