What it Means to be a Democrat
I remember talking to Nydia Velasquez at a similar holiday party right after the Democrats retook Congress in 2006. She was hugely enthusiastic to get back to work and enact some good bills and get things done. And her enthusiasm was justified as the Democrats went through the first 100 days of 2007 enacting, over Republican obstructionism and Bush vetoes, dozens of excellent bills raising the minimum wage, supporting life-saving stem cell research, enacting the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, etc. The exuberance of this period is summed up in this Democratic Party Press release from 2007:
With the Senate recently completing their 100th work day, it's worth taking a look at all they have already done to improve the lives of Americans. Unlike the do-nothing Republican Congress they replaced, Democrats have already pursued a positive agenda and gotten things done.
Early on, Democrats replaced the Republican Culture of Corruption with the most significant ethics reforms in more than 20 years, reigning in the influence of lobbyists and tightening the ethics rules that govern Congress. The legislation banned gifts, meals, and travel funded by lobbyists, and has been called "the most significant ethics reform since Watergate."
The House and the Senate also passed a bill to raise the minimum wage for the first time in a decade. They made America safer by passing all of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. They passed a bill to promote stem cell research by expanding federal funding by lifting restrictions, which should soon reach the President's desk.
The Senate has held 58 oversight hearings on the war in Iraq, compared to the last (Republican-led) Senate holding zero. In addition, Democrats have crafted legislation to remove our troops from the civil war in Iraq so that we can change the course. No longer will the Congress simply being a rubber stamp for the Bush administration.
That "no rubber stamp" rule doesn't just apply to Iraq, as Senate Democrats are also investigating the conditions at Walter Reed. Our veterans deserve the very best treatment, and so it is vital to determine what went wrong. It also applies to the hearings to determine the White House's involvement in the firing of several U.S. attorneys.
On top of it all, House Democrats have passed legislation to make college more accessible by lowering the interest rate on student loans. They've passed bills ranging from making America more energy independent to making health care more affordable.
Yet while Democrats continue to get things done, Republicans in Congress continue to attempt to block positive reform at every stage on many of these issues. So far, Democrats have come out on top. That's not just a victory for us, but a victory for America.
I remember Congresswoman Velasquez's enthusiasm and optimism just before and just after this period. And this was while Bush was still occupying the White House, doing his best to defeat every bill. Now, Nydia's optimism seemed to have become a somewhat discouraged but grim determination. And yet we hold better majorities in Congress and we have one of the most inspiring, most brilliant Presidents in my memory in the White House.
What is the difference? The difference is unity. The Democrats, though facing the same obstructionist, unified and shrill Republicans, stood together and accomplished precisely what they promised to accomplish in their first 100 days of the 2007 legislative session. Now, Democrats have lost that unity. Instead of standing together, we are preparing to hang each individually.
I often comment, based on what I have seen in my lifetime and reading of history, that lack of unity is endemic in the left. From the French Revolution until today, the history of the left all too often is one of factionalism leading to defeat by a more unified right wing. Both NY Senator Squadron and NY Assemblyman Brodsky fervently disagreed with my view, citing 1935 and 1965 as periods of left wing unity. I might argue that these are exceptions that prove the rule, but their point, made by people immersed in one of the most frustrating legislatures in the country, is well taken. They are, in essence, pointing out precisely the value of unity on the left. At least the example of 1935 (perhaps not so much 1965, even though it is the year of my birth) shows what a unified left can do. Whether my more cynical view of leftist effectiveness or Squadron and Brodsky's more optimistic view is the more historically accurate is irrelevant. The lesson either way is we gotta get our damned act together, one and all.
Progressives and Blue Dogs...Southern Dems, Mountain Dems, North East Liberals, and West Coasters...we are all Democrats. And, like America when it was founded, and like the left from the French Revolution on, we can stand united or hang divided. The right generally stands united no matter how shrill, how destructive their message and no matter how corrupt they get. Yeah, I know about the idiot teabaggers. And they majorly fumbled an election recently here in NY State, betraying a solid Republican, picking a wing nut, and handing the election to the Democrats. But when push comes to shove, they are better at standing united, even when it means standing behind sex offenders and blatantly corrupt criminals.
I am proud that the left does not stand behind sex offenders and, usually, corrupt criminals. We did not stand behind William Jefferson when he was caught with bribe money in his freezer. Republicans have stood behind their most corrupt members. I am proud we do better, in general, on that. But I am not proud at how often good, solid Democrats fail to stand together. Liberals, progressives, moderates, conservatives...what is it that makes us Democrats?
I am going to turn to Georgia for one good answer to that question. Many of my fellow liberals have a tendency to look askance at our fellow Democrats from places like Georgia, forgetting that Nobel Prize winner and former President Jimmy Carter, one of the first major politicians to advocate a foreign policy based more on human rights, an economy based more on alternative energy, and a Mideast Policy based on diplomacy like the Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel, came from Georgia. So for our answer to what makes us Democrats, I turn to another Georgia Democrat. Here's a letter to the editor published Thursday, November 19, 2009 in the Newnan Times-Herald that does a great job describing what the Democratic Party is all about:
Democratic revolution in Georgia
My fellow Georgians, you are in the midst of a revolution. But let me be clear: We ain't socialists. We're Democrats. If my conservative brothers in Coweta County are having a hard time raising your blades against the grass along Highway 34, then I think you'll find it more challenging to cut down the progressive movement in the country as a whole.
We don't condemn gays.
We don't mind folks of any religious persuasion, so long as they commit to non-violence.
We speak some Spanish and want our brothers from the deep, deep South to hop aboard our bandwagon.
We love black people and white people, and we're willing to tolerate greens.
We rely on Keynesian economics, not trickle-down.
We don't judge folks who've had pre-maritals.
We will not legislate against drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or marijuana.
We don't mix religion with affairs of state.
We prefer to leave trees intact, as both the environmentalists and sportsmen in our ranks rely on the preservation of the great outdoors.
We believe a federal health care plan, while in competition with private plans as well, is nothing to be feared.
We believe it's time for America to wind down her wars.
But above all else we still believe in democracy and that the great experiment of our federal union must be preserved.
It's time to man up to the plate and join the winning team. We don't discriminate, and we need the help of the Georgia's Ty Cobbs as much as her Hank Aarons. Remember that the Democrats were in charge for the state's entire history until Sonny's governorship, except during reconstruction. There's no reason why it can't be in the hands of Democrats again.
Time to remember what we really stand for, and to stand united behind those excellent values. I don't have to agree with each and every word Mr. Buck Alford of Newnan Georgia writes to realize he is expressing, by and large, what it means for me to be a Democrat. And they are pretty bold words, even in California and New York. And they are words that some Blue Dogs need to study up on. Yet they are simple, moral, beautiful, DEMOCRATIC values. You may add some lines. For example, a woman's choice was left out by Mr. Alford. You may alter some lines. I would personally go beyond merely not condemning gays and advocate equality. But the general ideas are, I am sure, quite familiar to you. We should all write such letters to the editor to our local papers, perhaps with our own variations but the same positive, simple message.
And we also have to remember how just about all of us, liberals, moderates and (most) Blue Dogs alike, hold most of these same values, even if we differ on some details.
Liberals and progressives have got to stop belittling compromise in the name of purity. When did compromise become a bad thing? Sure, compromise can go too far, but purism is far more damaging than compromise when it comes to actually getting things done. I have seen as many disasters come of excessive purism (like George Bush's entry into the White House, caused partially by some feeling Gore was not pure enough for them) as I have due too much compromise (Don't Ask, Don't Tell, for example).
Blue Dogs have got to stop enabling the dysfunction in America that Republicans foster. Trickle-down economics with its inane mantra of "cut taxes for the rich, cut taxes for the rich" is NOT a sound economic policy and has failed out country repeatedly. Healthcare reform is NOT some communist plot, and emulating our allied democracies like Canada, Sweden, Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in applying stronger and better social programs is NOT a bad thing. Liberals and progressives are too quick to reject compromise and Blue Dogs are too quick to adopt the ideas and rhetoric of the right even when still solidly endorsing most Democratic values. But the truth is, the liberals and progressives and Blue Dogs can't accomplish much alone. It is only together that they can win.
And to Obama: we desperately need that inspiration you are so good at. I suspect that Obama has become so immersed in the day to day hard work of being an effective administrator that he has forgotten that one of the main jobs of the President is to inspire the people, inspire the members of his party, inspire all of us. Obama has the skill to be the unifying element in our party. But he hasn't yet done it. We expect perfection from our Presidents, and none of them have been perfect. Obama has done an amazing job given the unmitigated, horrible mess he inherited. But he cannot ignore the need to keep inspiring us. That was, from all I have been told and read, the magic of FDR, the secret to 1935. In the face of hardship, in the face of the hard work of his job, FDR continued to inspire. And that unified America.
I do not think we should emulate the Republicans and stand behind our corrupt members. I am glad William Jefferson is out of office. He was an embarrassment. Here in NY State we have sleaze like Hairam Monserrate (who was caught on film abusing his girlfriend) and Pedro Espada (possibly the most corrupt person in the state legislature) who are embarrassments to the Democratic Party and who should be rejected. Here in NYC we have a corrupt machine that also needs a serious house cleaning and one leftist ally, the Working Families Party, has decided to emulate the corrupt machine rather than sticking to progressive values which, at their heart, are anti-corruption. Rejection of corruption is key. Rejection of those who differ with us on some issues but agree on most is NOT a sane way to run a movement.
I chose the words of a Georgia Democrat because they hit the nail on the head, but also because it comes from a Georgia Democrat, and I am a Brooklyn liberal who mostly rubs shoulders with other Brooklyn liberals. We all have something to learn from each other. Georgia and Brooklyn Democrats can and must learn from each other and hold together, standing behind a great Democrat born in Hawaii and elected Senator from Illinois then President by almost every state in the Union. Iowa can teach New Jersey a thing or two about marriage equality. New York City can teach much of America about how wonderful multiculturalism is. We have to learn from each other. We stand together or we hang separately. Now is damned well the time to stand together and you and I are part of that process. You and I along with President Obama and every elected Democrat must rise to occasion.