The following is a rather lengthy manifesto I banged out in response to a request that I tell the inside-the-Beltway sister of a friend “how highways are a national security issue,” by which I assumed he meant my ongoing rants about how the Democrats can seize this moment to bring back their program and ideals. Here it is:
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shocked the nation by revealing that four years after 9/11 and a decade after the end of welfare as we knew it, there was no plan at all for handling a major and entirely predictable disaster in a significant American city, and that the Americans most severely affected by this disaster were suffering in large part because they are very, very poor. The subsequent revelations of cronyism have disgusted the American people (and the DeLay indictment will have a similar effect), and the shock over the mismanagement of New Orleans has rebounded to make people question anew the cronyism and chaos in Iraq. Republicans have responded by blaming local authorities and by turning the New Orleans reconstruction effort into a swamp of corruption that will make Iraq look like a dress-rehearsal.
This is a moment when the Democrats need to speak up about the things that are freaking the shit out of Americans. That does not include a fear that Chief Justice Roberts will roll back abortion rights. It does not include a worry that Social Security will be privatized. It does include a fear that if a terrorist sneaks a nuclear bomb through our unsecured ports and into Seattle or New York or anywhere else and blows the thing up, the survivors will not be evacuated until they’ve been exposed to so much radiation that their skin falls off. Americans are scared that gas shortages will mean we won’t have the privilege of paying $5 a gallon to fill our tanks and flee from whatever disaster the government can’t protect us from, and that when we die, our jobs will go to Bangladesh because our children can’t do long division.
There are three main points that I think the Democrats need to emphasize coming out of Katrina and the revelations of Republican cronyism: that infrastructure, poverty and education are national security issues; that cronyism and corruption are national security issues; and that Democrats are the party of fiscal responsibility, meaning jobs and a future.
Katrina made the first point obvious. In a major emergency, people died because infrastructure was neglected, and they died because they were poor. The war in Iraq is not something we should simply abandon, but we should recognize that if we want to be secure at home, we need to focus on the home front. This means not only beefing up airport security and police forces, but investing in stronger, smarter infrastructure.
A great example of this kind of thinking is the interstate highway system — a Republican big-government project that was originally conceived by President Eisenhower when, as a WW II general, it took him over 60 days to bring a convoy from one coast to the other. In other words, the superhighways were a defense project, meant to ensure that military and logistical transport would be quick in the event of a national emergency. But they had a secondary effect of being an enormous economic boon, helping to maintain our status as the richest nation in the world. The Internet is another defense infrastructure project that brought enormous economic gain.
What we need now is innovative thinking about and substantial investment in infrastructure improvements that will make us safer and richer. Improved ports and container tracking systems is one project that could greatly reduce our chances of being hit with a smuggled nuclear weapon while also making our ports the most efficient in the world. Investment in alternative energy sources is another way to strengthen national security while putting America at the forefront of an emerging industry. Bush is telling us to conserve energy; Democrats should be arguing that if we put our minds to it, we won’t have to conserve because we’ll have plenty of clean, affordable energy. If we built the national highway system and went to the moon, we can develop a clean, affordable source of fuel.
Another focus should be poverty, and particularly the effects poverty has on mobility and health. Having 40 million uninsured Americans is not just a travesty but a national security risk. A greatly enhanced medical infrastructure, including accessible basic care for all, would substantially reduce our exposure to bioterrorism, as well as to emerging pandemics like bird flu. It would mean that unusual health problems would be caught early, before they spread into the population at large. It would also mean that in case of a serious bio, chemical, nuclear or conventional attack on a major city, we would have the doctors and facilities in place to cope. We also need to make sure that poor people are not simply abandoned to whatever comes: violence, crime, natural disasters, etc. When people are so poor that they lack transport and access to services, they are at terribly increased risk of dying or being hurt in a catastrophe. This must change.
Education is the third big area where national security thinking needs to be extended. We are worried about jobs going overseas. We are worried about our lack of Arabic and Pashto speakers to gather intelligence. We are worried about our economic future. If America is to remain strong and secure, then the gains we’ve seen in primary education need to be extended to secondary education. This means paying teachers more, and it means forcing teachers to accept accountability for their performance — in other words, making it possible to fire failing teachers. This will mean alienating the Teachers Union, but so be it. If we don’t start producing our own engineers and intelligence operatives, that’s a threat to national security.
So these are the things America needs to be secure — along with a strong military, of course, which we don’t have any intention of dismantling. Now, who do you trust to undertake major infrastructure projects, look squarely at solutions to poverty and revamp American education? The Republicans are ideologically opposed to using the federal government to tackle big problems. They are ideologically opposed to public schooling. And they are frighteningly out of touch with the problems of America’s poor and working classes. (“Isn’t this fun?”) The Democrats are the party that believes in working together for the common good, in sharing the promise of America with all our citizens, in using our national resources to build a greater America for the future. We are, in short, the party that believes in government.
Notice, however, that I didn’t say “big government.” That will be the first accusation thrown at the Democrats when they start proposing actual solutions to America’s problems. We need to go on the offensive here, accusing Republicans of being the party of big, swollen government and casting Democrats as the party of smart, working government. The Republicans are the party of no-bid contracts, indictments for campaign finance abuse and government waste. They cut taxes for the super-rich and give money to their friends and appoint their unqualified cronies to important posts. The government now is bigger than ever, and the deficit is sky-high — just as it was under Reagan and Bush Sr., and in sharp contrast to the balanced budgets under Clinton. We’re not a party of fat cats, and we know the value of a hard-earned dollar that we didn’t inherit tax-free from our rich daddies. We don’t think public money is an entitlement program for ourselves and our cronies. The Democrats should declare themselves the party of “working government” or “smart government.”
So how will we pay for all these infrastructure investments and the rest? A three-pronged approach: we will win the war in Iraq so that we no longer bleed money there, we will ask America’s wealthiest citizens to pay their fair share by rolling back the Bush tax cuts (but not the cuts for the middle class), and we will eliminate bloat and corruption so that resources can be focused on the things that really matter.
The war in Iraq costs billions, and we’re not winning. Winning means defeating the insurgency to the point that it is no longer the dominant political reality in Iraq. To achieve this, we need a better strategy than trying to shoot insurgents until there aren’t any left. That will mean following the oil-spot approach of securing areas and then expanding out from them. It will also mean training the Iraqi security forces — really training them by sending qualified people to do the job, not cronies — and providing the kind of reconstruction that gives Iraqis a reason to support their new government, again by dropping the cronies and sending in people who know how to help. I’m sure there are a zillion policy papers on how to do this, but the key point is that I don’t think the Democrats should be shy about saying that we will win, or about linking the cronyism that made Katrina so bad with the failure of reconstruction in Iraq.
The other two aspects of the budget plan are more straightforward. Democrats should state frankly that we will raise taxes: we have a huge deficit, the war in Iraq is costly, and we need to rebuild after Katrina. That means that the wealthiest Americans will need to pay a larger share, comparable to what they paid under Clinton, in order to get us back to the growth and security that we need as a nation. It also means ending the free ride for corporate donors and cronies. It doesn’t mean that middle-class people will have to pay more, though. And as for government bloat, I’m sure many examples can be found. For starters, take a look at how much Homeland Security money has gone to buying enormously expensive rescue equipment for tiny little towns that clearly don’t need it. That turns budget bloat into a national security issue as well.
And finally, remind people that the last time we were in power, the Democrats, through fiscal responsibility and investment in the future, gave us the longest economic growth spurt in American history. Sure, the economy has been growing lately, but real wages for most workers have been flat. We plan to tighten budget discipline and make the long-term infrastructure and education investments that will mean jobs and growth well into the future. That growth will increase tax revenues over time.
So there we go. That’s my little manifesto on how everything is a national security issue and how Katrina proves that Democrats can do everything better.