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It's Time for an Ideas Primary

By Harold Ford Jr.

It is time to put the New back in New Democrat. It is time to put new ideas back at the heart of American politics. And it is time to make clear the mission of our party and the purpose of America: to give everyone the opportunity to get ahead, demand a new responsibility from every American, and have America lead the world through the power of our example and our ideals.

The New Democratic movement's quest has been to find new means to advance enduring values, and new ideas to advance the credo that a Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, gave our party and our country: "equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none."

From Andrew Jackson to FDR, from JFK to Bill Clinton, the great tradition of the Democratic Party has been to recognize that new challenges demand new answers. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, "New conditions impose new requirements on government and those who conduct government."

Let me tell you what it means to be a New Democrat in the 21st century, and what new conditions we must face together as Americans in the years to come.

The core values of the New Democrat movement are the same as in 1992 when Clinton was elected president. We believe in equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. We believe in responsibilities as well as rights, and in every citizen's duty to give their country something back. We believe America must stand strong in a dangerous world, and America cannot be strong abroad unless opportunity and responsibility are strong at home.

But today, we face a host of challenges that seemed far off or unimaginable 15 years ago -- the spread of Islamist fanaticism, the rise of India and China, the acceleration of climate change. We have different problems to solve, and old problems that demand different answers. And thanks to the Bush administration, we face a political culture in Washington that believes the purpose of politics is to gain power, rather than to help Americans live better.

Today, our country desperately needs a healthy, honest debate about what we stand for, where we're going, and what a good president can do. This should be a proud time for that debate. Democrats have an outstanding group of candidates seeking the presidency. With no incumbent president or vice president running for the first time since 1952, we should be looking forward to an aggressive debate about how to deal with the challenges Bush's administration will leave behind.

But as state after state moves up its primary, candidates are more likely to be judged by their war chests than by their plans to solve our country's most pressing problems. We risk having a big money primary at the very time we should be having an ideas primary instead. That's wrong.

This isn't the fault of our candidates, many of whom have begun to put interesting proposals on the table. When Sen. Hillary Clinton proposes cutting unnecessary government contractors to put our fiscal house in order, or Sen. Barack Obama calls for political reform, or former Sen. John Edwards puts forward a plan to cut carbon emissions, or Gov. Bill Richardson announces an energy plan, their campaigns are lucky to get any national news coverage at all. By contrast, fundraisers and attack ads are treated as front-page news -- even though they won't make any difference in the lives of ordinary Americans, and won't even make the difference in this campaign.

In a political atmosphere that values process over purpose, anyone who cares about ideas has a responsibility to remind everyone how much ideas matter. In our democracy, presidential elections are the best chance to set a bold new course. The next eight months could define America's future for the next eight years. So today, we say to campaigns in both parties and to the press who cover them: The horse race, the money chase, and the in-your-face can wait. Let's turn the next 12 months into the Ideas Primary instead.

Over the next few months, I will hold a series of idea forums around the country with governors and other leaders to shine a light on the major challenges and new answers. The message of these forums will be that ideas matter most, and every voter in every state has a right to know what his or her next president will actually do.

To advance this cause, the DLC is also launching a new website,, to serve as a clearinghouse for new policy proposals throughout the 2008 campaign. We'll keep track of ideas the candidates put forward, offer plenty of our own, and invite elected officials and experts from around the country to weigh in on what does and does not work. The Web is rife with advice on political tactics, but we believe the Internet has far greater potential: to be an online laboratory of ideas.

To kick off this Ideas Primary, let me offer a few. As DLC chair, I will devote my efforts to six challenges: keeping America safe; giving Americans the tools to compete; holding government accountable for results; creating a hybrid economy; promoting family and values; and ending poverty for all who work.

Keep America Safe. To lead America in a dangerous world, we must be more than an "anti" party -- anti-Bush, anti- Iraq, anti-war. Democrats have a responsibility to offer what America and the world will need to rebound from the Bush years -- a positive plan to combat Islamist fanaticism, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, stabilize weak and failing states, and protect people in places like Darfur against mass murder. Where the Republican administration has divided our friends and united our enemies, Democrats must renew our strategic alliances and modernize old institutions to fight the new battles against terrorism, nuclear weapons proliferation, and genocide.

We must rebuild the oldest institution on which our national security rests -- America's Armed Forces. Iraq is not the last war America may have to fight. If we find ourselves at war again, we must not abandon America's soldiers, as the current administration too often has done. We need a new Army -- bigger, stronger, and certain that it will always go to battle with the armor it deserves and come home to the heroes' welcome it has earned. We should give the new Army the soldiers it needs so guardsmen and reservists aren't forced to serve endless tours they didn't sign up for. We should ensure that the ROTC can recruit on every college campus, and pass a new GI Bill of Rights to guarantee every soldier and veteran the true thanks of a grateful nation.

As the 2008 presidential debate begins in earnest, it's time for Democrats to look beyond Iraq and offer their own positive plan for defeating Islamist extremism. As Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy understood, and the Bush administration does not, the only way to win a battle of ideas is with better ideas. We need a smarter strategy to discredit jihadist extremism and strengthen Muslim moderates and reformers. Our strategy should draw on all of America's might -- a dynamic economy, smart diplomacy, and the moral example of a thriving, multi-ethnic democracy. America should lead the way in launching a Greater Middle East prosperity plan to spur investment and growth in the world's most dangerous region, and bring it into the world trading system. We need to tap the talents of Muslim-Americans to tell our country's story and challenge fanatics who murder innocents in the name of Islam. And we need a patient, peaceful plan to support Muslim aspirations for greater individual liberty and democracy -- even if that puts us at odds with friendly autocrats.

As progressive internationalists, we should push to reinvent collective security for the 21st century. Every crisis shouldn't come down to a choice between unilateral U.S. action and a United Nations that doesn't have the strength or coherence to intervene. If an expanded and reformed Security Council can't or won't do the job, we'll have to look for another forum, such as a worldwide Democracy Coalition.

Finally, in recognition of the great sacrifices our soldiers have made, and to show the world what we're made of, we should give all Americans the chance to serve their country. Since 9/11, citizens of every age have yearned to do more for America. We should dramatically expand Americans' opportunities to serve by expanding AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Experience Corps, and statebased Civilian Defense Corps. And we should make service universal by asking every young American to perform three months of civilian service by the age of 25.

Give Americans the Tools to Compete. To be strong in the world, we must be strong at home. The U.S. economy is growing, but working Americans aren't getting their share of the gains. At the same time, the safety net of the industrial era is coming apart as corporations shed health and pension benefits. We can't stop change, but we can write a new social contract that gives Americans the tools to compete and take charge of their economic security.

We need a national strategy to compete and win in the global economy. To start with, we need to provide universal health care, as well as universal college and lifelong education. The current president has ignored both those needs, but the next president can make both happen. We can cut the cost of health care by modernizing the system, reforming it to reward results instead of procedures, holding down chronic costs, and curing chronic disease. With the money we save, we can achieve universal health care built on universal responsibility. Government should be responsible for making sure everyone can afford health care. Every person should be responsible for making sure his or her family is covered. The health care system should be responsible for delivering affordable results.

We need a new sense of responsibility in education as well. The United States used to rank first in the world in the percentage of young people with a college degree. Now we've fallen to seventh. We send more students to college, but we lag behind in graduating them. A college degree is more than an economic imperative -- it is the essence of the American Dream, the test of whether we are living up to our promise as a land where anyone can rise as far as his determination and God-given talents will take him. When children grow up thinking college is beyond their reach, we have not lived up to that promise. When young people can't afford to go, we have not lived up to that promise. And when students give up on themselves and don't finish, they will not live up to their promise.

Today, we need to scrap the old, bloated system of subsidizing banks to offer student loans and use the savings to help states make college free for any young person willing to work or serve. We can reform and simplify the tax code to give every college student and worker a single, refundable, $3,000 credit to pay for education and training. We must ask responsibility from colleges and students alike, by making aid performance-based, so that the best college system on Earth once again produces the most college graduates.

And for America to compete in the world, we must put innovation first here at home. We need to reform the nation's tax, regulatory, and investment policies to build on America's advantages -- from skilled workers to open, dynamic competition to the world's most efficient capital markets.

Hold Government Accountable for Results. To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must first restore responsibility to government and accountability to Washington. Over the past six years, the national debt has more than doubled, the federal bureaucracy has ballooned, and special favors for special interests have cost us dearly in resources and results. By holding government accountable again, we can cut the deficit, make long-term investments, and, most important, earn back Americans' trust.

We must get rid of the Bush boondoggles. We should cut the number of federal contractors by 750,000, cut the number of political appointees by half, and break up the mammoth Department of Homeland Security. It is too bloated to manage, too open for business to trust, and too big to fix. Now that Congress has restored "Paygo" rules, we should crack down on wasteful corporate subsidies, so that Washington is an example of fiscal discipline, not a cash machine for narrow interests. We must reform the political system by creating a democracy endowment to finance federal campaigns and by ending the partisan manipulation of congressional districts.

After an administration that has larded the tax system with special breaks for those who need them least, we must take the lead in passing tax reform that rewards work, not just wealth. We should give Americans a progressive tax code again. And even though the deep fiscal hole the Bush administration has dug will make it harder to strengthen Social Security and Medicare for the long term, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about this debate. We owe it to our children to be candid and frank about the real choices before us, even if it means making some in our own party uncomfortable as we talk about it. We owe it to children and to everything we stand for as a party to talk about this honestly and forthrightly.

Create the Hybrid Economy. A clean energy future has become a new economic and security imperative. For my generation, this is our legacy issue. America has to curb an oil appetite that is helping pay for the spread of Islamist extremism. We need to usher in a new "hybrid economy" that will make new energy technologies our greatest source of new jobs in the next decade.

First, we should set a goal that every American household can own a hybrid car or its equivalent by 2015, and do whatever it takes to make sure that those hybrids are made here in America, not somewhere else. Second, Al Gore is right: We need to cap carbon now. We need to create a market in clean energy with a cap-and-trade system that raises the cost of burning and emitting carbon, and establish a new tailpipe trading system to increase the fuel efficiency of American autos. Third, we should use this year's farm bill to phase out subsidies for wealthy farmers, and create a new system of energy subsidies that reward small farmers for new, renewable energy sources instead.

Make America the Most Pro- Family Country on Earth. The older our country gets, the more dependent we will be on a thriving new generation. In the decades to come, we need to make America the best place to raise children and the most pro-family nation on Earth. We should reward parents for choosing to bet on America's future. Every parent should have access to three months of paid leave. Major employers should promise parents who leave work to raise a child that their jobs will be waiting for them any time over the next five years. And for kids' sake, we should bring the same enthusiasm we've shown in going after corporate polluters to going after companies responsible for bombarding children with cultural pollution.

End Poverty for All Who Work. This will be the first presidential election since the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, which reminded us that the progress we've fought for isn't finished. As New Democrats, we ended a broken welfare system. Now we must pledge to end poverty as we know it by keeping a simple promise -- in America, no one who works should be poor. We need to ask as much responsibility from poor fathers as we've asked of poor mothers. Every low-income father should have the opportunity to work, but also the responsibility to do so. We should launch a national campaign to cut teen pregnancy by half. Finally, we should take a great step forward toward a more equal society by passing the America Saving for Personal Investment, Retirement, and Education Act. It will give low- and middle-income couples Baby Bonds that will close the asset gap and provide their children the resources they need to make the most of their lives when they grow up.

We must not forget what sets America apart as the greatest experiment in human history. Here in America, it shouldn't matter where you're born or what you look like. All of us have the same dreams, and every one of us should have the chance to reach them -- to make the most of what God gave us, and give our children a better future and a stronger country.

Those are just a few ideas to start the debate. With the talent in our party, around the country, and in this presidential race, the fount of ideas will be overflowing. I don't know which candidate will win the Ideas Primary, but I know the American people will be the winners, and so will the Democratic Party. If we think anew, and get the ideas and the values right, the country will be stronger for it, and so will we.

When we do all these things, we will see once again that the only sure and lasting solutions are those that tap the most enduring values of our country. To realize the hope of this new century, we must keep America's great promise: to give every citizen who is willing to make the most of it the opportunity to get ahead. No force on Earth can match the strength of that common purpose.

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

Blueprint Magazine

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