Center for American Progress Action

Get This Party Started : How Progressives Can Fight Back and Win

Get This Party Started : How Progressives Can Fight Back and Win

Chapter 6: Crafting Policy and Message by John Podesta and John Halpin

Get This Party Started : How Progressives Can Fight Back and Win

Chapter 6: Crafting Policy and Message

An effective message is short, clear, memorable, and resonates with voters. Message does not drive policy, it explains it; it is an accurate summary of and explanation for policy. Policy, in turn, is the product of contemporary challenges and firm, fundamental values.

With the emergence of modern polling techniques and precision targeting, progressives face the growing temptation to craft a message first, and then back-engineer in search of a compatible policy. This is a failed strategy: messages expressed outside of real values, without being rooted firmly in realistic policies, are both ineffective and meaningless. Our values and our history should provide the basis for effective policies that advance the progressive agenda, and for a message that makes progressive policy accessible and compelling to the voting public.

This chapter looks at those values and roots, and the history of successful progressive polices, to help frame an overall progressive message and to begin connecting our core principles to the real problems Americans now face. We aim to suggest themes and policy ideas—grounded in time-honored progressive principles—for an emerging progressive agenda. We do not attempt to propagate a universal message for all progressive activists and leaders. Although we sympathize with the notion of creating a progressive “bumper sticker” to battle the right, our experience has taught us that anyone endeavoring to uncover the Rosetta Stone of progressive messaging is on a fool’s errand.

Progressives throughout history have always differed on the key priorities, principles and political strategies necessary for social change. Similarly, the conservative movement’s political success is as much a result of the competition of deeply held convictions and policy prescriptions as it is a function of ideological tenets and goals repeated ad nauseum. If we want to move forward, progressives should focus less on message litmus tests and more on creating a robust climate for intellectual exchange, the development of new ideas and genuine collaboration.

In this spirit, we suggest the following themes of as a starting point for a more detailed look at progressive policy and message today:

Progressives believe that America is prosperous and strong when we provide opportunity to the middle class and have a system that rewards work and is open to all regardless of one’s station in life. Our diversity is our strength and all Americans should have the opportunity to realize their aspirations and ambition through a meaningful and dignified life.


Progressives believe that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction pose a real and present danger to our nation, and that an aggressive national security strategy is required to defeat those dangers. We believe in a military that is second to none, but that strength only grows when we engage the world through alliances with our friends abroad. We are serious about sharing and spreading American values and rebuilding America’s economic strength as essential to safeguarding our nation.


Progressives believe the privileges of American life for all must be accompanied by responsibilities from all and a genuine commitment to serve the larger community: citizens owe something to their families and localities; public officials to the national interest; and corporate leaders to shareholders, employees, consumers, and communities. Progressives recognize the responsibility to use the commonwealth for the common good and believe Americans have a duty to manage wisely the national and natural assets we hold in trust for future generations.


Past as Prologue

As we study the challenges of the twenty-first century, our history as progressives points us in the direction of solutions. The progressive impulse arose in response to disturbing trends in American life associated with rapid industrialization and the emergence of a powerful and uncontrolled capitalist economy during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Progressive reformers sought to improve conditions for Americans by harnessing the power of the national government to assist the needy and vulnerable; to regulate and balance a rapidly developing capitalist economy; and to challenge totalitarian forces across the globe who threatened to undermine democracy and freedom.

The progressive response to insecurity and exploitation was a politics rooted in the core virtues of fairness, global leadership and community:

Fairness. Progressives worked to create the legal, political, and economic conditions that would allow individuals to use their abilities and aspirations to make the most of their lives. Fairness required government action to protect basic rights and liberties for every American, to level the economic playing field, and to provide basic services and opportunities. But citizens had obligations as well: to treat people with respect, understand different backgrounds and views, and avoid self-interested actions and beliefs that unfairly harm others. Fairness did not guarantee that everybody will be the same, think the same, or get the same material benefits in life. It simply attempted to guarantee a fair shot at success.

Global leadership. Progressivism focused on protecting American interests and extending American values on a global scale, with economic power, military might and moral strength. Progressives led the fight to make the world safe for democracy by opposing fascism and communism on every continent. Progressives relied on military power, but had an integrated national security strategy that included moral leadership, alliance-building, burden-sharing, and strong public diplomacy.

Community. Progressives believed community strength is more important than narrow economic self-interest. The focus on community provided progressives with a sense of national purpose and placed citizenship at the heart of successful democratic governance. It asked business and corporate interests to recognize the impact of its decisions on workers, localities and the environment. The progressive focus on community also recognized the importance of bringing politics back to the people, and on creating an active and engaged citizenry imbued with a sense of duty and sacrifice to society and country. Most importantly, progressives believed that citizens and leaders alike must give something back by staying involved in the affairs of their community, voting, voicing opinions, volunteering, and placing the country’s needs above narrow self-interest.

With these values as a platform for a political agenda, progressives set the stage for America’s emergence as a global power.

As the challenges in early twentieth century American life grew larger, progressives—primarily through the philosophical analysis of Herbert Croly and the political leadership of Teddy Roosevelt—harnessed expanded federal influence as a means for bettering society and balancing corporate dominance.[1] The progressive ideal of using “Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends” was carried out to create a strong national government that promoted democratic values and increased economic opportunities for all citizens.

The New Deal, the Fair Deal and other domestic progressive initiatives allowed citizens, through their national government, to correct severe economic and racial injustices that individuals and the private economy alone could not address. Just a short list of major progressive accomplishments includes: dramatically expanding public education; developing fair and safe working conditions; supporting unionization and the minimum wage; building public transportation and highways; establishing national parks and protected lands; cleaning our air and water; expanding voting rights; weaving a social safety net anchored by Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; ensuring safer food and drugs; funding world-class medical advancements and scientific achievements; writing the GI Bill; embracing the Civil Rights movement; and launching the space program.

On the international front, progressive presidents like Wilson and Truman supported strong military and diplomatic intervention to make the world safer for Americans, to defend our values, to promote freedom and democracy, and to improve the conditions of people around the globe. Progressives’ foreign policy accomplishments include fighting and winning two world wars and the Cold War; creating the Marshall Plan; building the post-war international trading system; pushing for international human rights treaties; and helping to liberate tens of millions of people worldwide from poverty and oppression.

But as John Judis points out in the New Republic, progressive reformers in the twenty-first century face different challenges from their predecessors: a global economy with new rules; shifting employment patterns; demands on public programs; a decline in the power of intermediary organizations like labor unions; and the rejection of regulatory and tax policies by American business and multi-national corporations.[2]

New realities limit the application of past policies to current situations. Twenty-first century progressives face ongoing threats from extremists and terrorists across the globe that are far different than the totalitarian and communist threats we battled in the twentieth century. In key areas, the limits of government power have been tested, and perhaps exceeded. The private sector is recognized as the primary engine of economic growth. The importance of strong moral values, personal responsibility, and entrepreneurship in resolving social pathologies is widely understood.

At the same time, almost a century of progressive reform proves that, in some roles, government’s effectiveness can no longer be seriously questioned. The progressive track record includes effective government action in increasing access to quality health care, improving public education, providing a safe and sound retirement for the elderly, and protecting the environment.

Today’s leaders and citizens face a world of once unimaginable economic opportunities – and competition for jobs and profits from every corner of the earth. The American military is the most powerful in history – yet we are not sure how to deploy it against terrorist cells and small rogue states. Our economy is growing – but more and more middle class families are losing access to jobs, health care and affordable housing. In the information age, government secrecy is on the rise. Individuals are being asked take full responsibility for their lives, while large institutions seem increasingly eager to avoid taking any responsibility at all.

The progressive challenge in the twenty-first century is to resolve these contradictions in ways that accord with our values, and make America stronger, more affluent and more secure.

Defending A New Progressivism

The values of fairness, global leadership and community remain strong progressive ideals. But contemporary events demand that they evolve, as our world has evolved, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. We must apply traditional progressive values to the following questions:

(1) How do we as Americans continue to improve our living standards and ensure broad-based economic opportunities in a rapidly changing and frequently unstable global economy?


(2) How do democratic nations across the globe coalesce to defeat terrorism and religious extremism?

(3) How can we reform our political system to ensure honesty, openness and democratic commitment worthy of the public’s respect and admiration?

With history as our guide and our values as the foundation of a progressive political vision, we have an opportunity to put forth a new and compelling message that meets the conditions of the twenty-first century and gives people hope for a better future by strengthening the middle class, asserting global leadership, and reforming our political system to better serve the American people.


Goal One: Strengthen the Middle Class

Progressives believe that America is prosperous and strong when we provide opportunity to the middle class and have a system that rewards work and is open to all regardless of one’s station in life. Our diversity is our strength and all Americans should have the opportunity to realize their aspirations and ambition through a meaningful and dignified life.

Rather than valuing and rewarding work, conservative economic policies reward concentrations of wealth and privilege, and stifle the progress of middle class Americans by shifting the tax burden on to their backs, cutting wages for their jobs, and ending medical and retirement benefits for their old age.

A new progressive agenda will honor and support work by promoting quality education, home ownership, a fair tax system, and health care for all. We will make sure that public resources are available to promote private growth; from basic infrastructure to advanced technology we will ensure that American individuals and businesses have the tools they need to compete in the world economy. We will ensure that our open and growing economy benefits all by recognizing our social responsibilities to those threatened by change.


The Conservative Legacy

Wrong Choices. Wrong Priorities. President Bush and Congress squandered historic budget surpluses that could have saved Social Security. They have spent billions on a war in Iraq that is plagued by mismanagement and lack of planning. They’ve racked up huge trade deficits and mortgaged our children’s future to foreign banks and governments.

The revenue lost to the government from the 2001-2003 tax cuts is three times the amount that would have been needed to make the Social Security system solvent for the next 75 years.[3] Persistent deficits are a long-term drain on the economy, and with foreign governments holding massive amounts of American debt we are concerned about instability in the international finance and trade arenas. Massive debt amounts to a birth tax on future generations, and irresponsibly ignores long-term imbalances in the system.

Tax cuts for the wealthy matched with runaway spending have turned a $236 billion federal surplus into a $427 billion deficit.[4] This leads to higher interest rates that will make it harder for families to buy a home, get out of debt, and—for too many—fend off bankruptcies or foreclosures.

Cutting Investment in What Keeps America Strong. Conservative priorities have made the struggle of the middle class even more of a challenge: jobs are going overseas; quality health care is increasingly out of reach; educational opportunities are down; and the tax system is rigged not to help them, but big corporations and the top one percent of wage earners instead. Communities, public safety, schools, health care and retirement are being sacrificed.

Right wing leaders have forced massive cuts and harsh caps on discretionary spending and entitlements. Cuts in education funding make it more difficult for middle-class students to afford college and find a well-paying job. The prescription drug bill, passed in 2004, helps the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of seniors, while health care costs continue to skyrocket. All of this is happening while median household incomes and wages are stagnating.

Major investment cuts in the president’s 2006 budget[5] include:

  • Medicaid. The budget sought to cut Medicaid by up to $60 billion over ten years, which would have shifted enormous costs to the states.
  • Education. The budget called for reducing discretionary spending authority for the Department of Education by one percent and proposed eliminating federal funding for 48 education programs.
  • Environment. The budget cut total funding for natural resources and the environment by 11 percent. It cut the EPA budget by six percent, cut clean water funding by $700 million, and included a backdoor provision for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

We Now See WHO and WHAT Conservatives Really Value. Conservative tax policy is utterly bereft of vision and values. At a time when the president and congressional leaders are asking American soldiers and middle-class taxpayers to sacrifice for the country, they are telling corporations and the wealthy that they owe nothing and have no obligation to support the national interest. Right wing leaders are giving them tax breaks for doing nothing.

Fiscal outrages in the president’s 2006 budget[6] include:

· Permanent extension of tax cuts. Most of the president’s tax cuts are set to expire in or before 2010. The policies that have yet to be extended overwhelmingly benefit those who are very wealthy, saving $150,000 annually for those making more than $1 million/year while yielding middle-income taxpayers virtually nothing. These tax changes will cost the federal government hundreds of billion of dollars in lost revenue.

· Wealth over work. The president’s proposals continue to give preferential treatment for income generated from capital gains at the expense of wage-earners. Extending tax reductions for capital gains and dividends will cost $162 billion over 10 years. Eliminating the estate tax will cost $256 billion over 10 years. Almost all of the benefits from the estate tax repeal go to a sliver of the wealthiest Americans.

A Progressive Agenda

In sharp contrast to the conservative platform and record, progressive economic policy will bring Americans together; invest in the nation’s future, and reward work.

Bring Americans Together. America is stronger when a secure and growing middle class is recognized as essential to the economic security of our nation; when economic policies are fair; and when budgetary decisions are driven by the values of fairness, compassion, and respect for others.

  • Achieve universal health care coverage by 2010. The failure of our society and government to provide basic health care coverage to 45 million Americans is a moral and economic failure of the first order. Every year, uninsured individuals pay $33 billion out of pocket for health care with the overall health system absorbing an additional $41 billion in “uncompensated” care costs – costs eventually passed on to others.[7] Health and longevity losses, including educational disruptions and developmental delays in children with untreated illnesses, total as much as $65 billion to $130 billion per year.[8]

Progressives can develop a comprehensive and financially sound program that both builds upon the existing health system and creates new ways to make universal health coverage attainable and affordable. Three principles should guide the process: practicality, fairness, and responsibility. Rather than recreate the health system—a tremendous challenge for a sector that constitutes nearly 15 percent of our nation’s output—we should build on the existing employer-based system and find areas of consensus among government officials and the private sector, which shoulders a large share of the health care burden. Coverage must be affordable and accessible to all, irrespective of health, age, income, or work status, but workers must participate in and help fund the program. Most importantly, the plan must have viable financing options to be self-sustaining.

Invest in America’s Future. Working together, we must recommit ourselves and our resources to building and investing in people, research, technology, training, and workplace environments that can keep the American economy strong.

  • Ensure that every public school student in America is taught by highly qualified, well-trained and adequately supported teachers. Progressives should start by increasing the quality and quantity of information about America’s teacher workforce, and encourage the use of such data for greater accountability and smarter decision making. This includes data to track teachers’ strengths and weaknesses to help with professional development and better placement of teachers, as well as the enforcement of federal regulations requiring extensive reporting of teacher data. We must also create enriched career advancement structures that treat teaching as a clinical practice profession much like medicine and improve teacher recruitment and preparation in higher education. Congress should commit $1 billion dollars in 5 states to invest in programs to provide teachers with differentiated career development throughout their professional lives. We should provide targeted incentives and enforce existing laws to decrease inequities in access to qualified teachers and better match teacher skills with student needs. And we need to create instructional environments that maximize teacher effectiveness and reduce teacher turnover in high-poverty schools.
  • Redesign our schools to better prepare students for post-high school learning. We must ensure that students are graduating from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to earn postsecondary credentials. Progressives should consider pushing successful and innovative ideas for redesigning large high schools as smaller learning communities; establishing charter schools that incorporate extended learning time and greater parental involvement; and creating early/middle college high schools which are located on college campuses and allow students to earn an associate’s degree along with a high school diploma.

Reward Work. The heart of America has always been its middle class. America should reward individual initiative, ingenuity and hard work and provide people with the economic and social opportunities to make the most of their talents and dreams.

  • Pursue tax policies that reward hard work and promote shared prosperity. Progressives should push for reforms that would tax wage, salary, capital gains and dividend income according to the same rate schedule. We should restructure and simplify the income tax by establishing a simple, progressive three-rate structure, and reduce the share of taxes collected from the regressive payroll tax. We should improve the Earned Income Tax Credit by expanding the number of families eligible to receive the federal child tax credit. Ultimately, progressive tax reform will increase the take-home pay of low- and middle-income families and generate the funds our country needs.
  • Simplify the tax code to help middle class families. Progressives should consider ways to simplify the tax structure by cutting the number of income tax brackets in half to three rates – 15 percent, 25 percent and 39.6 percent. Combined with the elimination of the employee portion of the payroll tax, most people will experience a tax cut, with those earning less than $200,000 averaging an increase of over $1,000 in their take-home pay. Progressives should advocate eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which, if left in place will impact 36 million Americans by 2010.[9] The AMT was first established in 1969 to ensure that the wealthiest Americans do not avoid paying their fare share. While the AMT only applied to 9,000 people in 1970, its income limits are not indexed to inflation, so the number of individuals subjected to the AMT grew to 1.3 million in 2000.[10] Since then, the number of people affected by the AMT has continued to increase, in part because the Bush tax policies lowered some taxes at the high-end, but did not appropriately adjust the AMT. The AMT adds significant complexity to the tax filing process, essentially forcing people to compute their taxes twice. Overhauling the income tax code would eliminate the need for an AMT, and thus address, in a fiscally responsible manner, a central tax challenge facing our country over the next decade.
  • Make corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share. The complexity of the corporate income tax is hurting our competitiveness and encouraging companies to shift production overseas. By broadening the base of the corporate tax structure we can enhance the overall efficiency of the system, keep rates at relatively low levels, and increase revenues. For example, the recently enacted $140 billion corporate tax overhaul includes a wide range of specialized credits that should be reexamined. Eliminating corporate tax loopholes and special giveaways to the wealthy would provide an estimated revenue gain of $30 billion annually.[11] In addition, by closing some of the most egregious loopholes, we would ensure that our tax code no longer offers affirmative incentives for wealthy individual to shelter taxable income or for corporations to shift production outside the US.


Goal Two: Assert Global Leadership

Progressives believe that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction pose a real and present danger to our nation, and that an aggressive national security strategy is required to defeat those dangers. We believe in a military that is second to none, a willingness to use force to defend our national interest while also engaging the world through alliances with our friends abroad. We are serious about sharing and spreading American values and rebuilding America’s economic strength as essential to safeguarding our nation.

In opposing the myopic and counterproductive direction of current U.S. national security policies, progressives should not abandon their historical commitment to internationalism and the aggressive use of all tools in our arsenal—hard and soft—to advance American interests and security, improve world living conditions, and promote global peace and stability.

Conservatives, rather than protecting our citizens by spreading American ideals and offering American help to improve life in the developing world, rely instead on a go-it-alone defense strategy that stretches our military capacity, alienates our allies, hurts our brave enlisted men and women and their families, and neglects the needs of Americans at home.

U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed deeply troubling cracks in the organization and structure of the million-strong U.S. volunteer Army. These problems have been exacerbated both by the current challenges of the international security environment and the way in which the Bush administration has used active-duty and reserve components since September 11. As a result, most analysts agree that we are closer to breaking our volunteer Army today than at any other time in its 30-year history.

For our national security, we will protect our country and our citizens by having a military that is second to none, by acting in ways that earn America respect in the world, by sharing burdens, using strong public diplomacy, and investing in the economic power of the American people, on whose strength our military might depends.


The Conservative Legacy

Damn the Facts, Full Speed Ahead. Conservatives live in a fantasy world, trying to twist reality to fit their expansionist theories rather than build policies that reflect the real world. In twisting facts, silencing critics and making pre-emptive war their preferred option, they have alienated the world and given energy and inspiration to those who hate America.

The President has embarked on a major war on the basis of intelligence that was consciously manipulated and consistently misread. In the rush to war, preparations for post-war occupation were ignored, critics were silenced and attacked, and ideology and wishful thinking given precedence over planning and logic. The failure to secure post-war Iraq has created a rallying point and training ground for jihadists across the globe. The government’s inability to provide meaningful reconstruction of Iraq, and new economic opportunities for Iraqis, has only reinforced the notion that America does not care about real democratic reform and human advancement in the Middle East. Three years after September 11, terrorist attacks are increasing worldwide and al Qaeda is once again on the rise.

Homeland Insecurity. Right-wing policies have made America less safe. A misguided war incites terrorists and diverts resources that could be used to make the American homeland safer. Aging Soviet nuclear weapons are working their way towards the black market and terrorist hands, while dictators in Iran and North Korea, knowing that we are tied down by the ill-planned Iraq war, act with impunity.

America’s preparedness for future terrorist attacks remains woefully inadequate. Right now, the federal government is spending more to defend Iraq than it is to defend America. While cockpit doors, luggage screening and passenger checkpoints have been strengthened, less than five percent of cargo placed on passenger aircraft is physically screened. [12] Our ports remain extraordinarily vulnerable. Only five percent of all shipping containers are inspected, despite estimates by security experts that it is only a matter of time before terrorists use a container to smuggle in a radiological device (“dirty bomb”). [13] Many chemical plants and nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to terrorist infiltration and attack.

As both the 9/11 Commission and the CIA have concluded, American security continues to suffer from tremendous resource and knowledge gaps and disorganization in our intelligence operations. Interagency communication failures, inadequate human resources and intelligence contacts, and staid bureaucratic cultures hamper our ability to uncover and disrupt terrorist activities.

The blinkered focus on Iraq has diverted attention and resources away from other urgent challenges. More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies still have not secured tens of thousands of loose nuclear weapons and deadly nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union – weapons likely to end up on the black market and in the hands of terrorists. Experts across the ideological spectrum agree that a major attack in the United States in the near term is possible and even probable.

Record Imports, Exporting Jobs. Conservatives send American jobs overseas to cut costs and bring foreign workers into the U.S. to undercut wages at home as core trade strategy.

The impact of the conservative economic agenda on both American and foreign workers has been devastating. The “Wal Mart” economy favored by right wing leadership threatens to derail the American Dream and further erode living and working standards in other countries. At home, high-quality jobs are scarce, wages stagnant, and benefits on the decline as prices for basic living necessities like housing, education and health have skyrocketed. American workers must compete with workers in other countries who receive low wages and no benefits.

Internationally, global trade has yet to yield sustainable benefits for a majority of the world’s poorest countries. Low-income countries account for only three cents of every dollar generated through exports in the international trading system, and although 45 percent of America’s exports are to the developing world, our investments in those markets are paltry.[14] Less than one percent of the total global flow of foreign direct investment is going to the world’s least developed countries.[15]

A Progressive Agenda

Moral Leadership and Multilateral Action. America must lead the global effort to secure freedom, democracy, human rights and economic opportunities across the globe with moral as well as military strength.

  • Restore America’s moral authority in global affairs. Progressives must not shy away from the internationalism and democracy building that defined earlier progressive eras. This includes strong efforts to enlist our allies and lead global efforts to fight terrorism through direct action, through more cooperative intelligence arrangements, and through combined efforts to fight the conditions that breed terrorism in the first place – political repression; religious extremism; abject poverty; and the lack of economic opportunities.
  • Revamp American foreign assistance. In a world rife with tensions—between the world’s most powerful and powerless nations; between democracy and authoritarianism; between vast technological innovation and grotesque deprivation—America has both the opportunity and obligation to lead. Progressives should push for new U.S foreign assistance legislation, including the creation of a single Department for International Development Cooperation, under which the current myriad of foreign aid programs would be consolidated; a new development policy focus to ensure support for the emergence of capable, democratic states; and reinvigorated global trade negotiations to enhance market dynamism. Our own prosperity and moral position in the world will be enhanced by fostering and supporting a world that is comprised of capable states, functioning economies, and healthy producers and consumers.

Integrated Global and Homeland Security. The fight against global terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons requires unprecedented international cooperation and work at home. Efforts to protect ourselves cannot, and should not, be separated from those efforts abroad.

  • Stop the threat of catastrophic nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation. In terms of policy imperatives, the continued proliferation of weapons of mass destruction across the globe, combined with the ongoing threat of fundamentalism and political extremism in the Middle East, poses the most pressing national security challenge facing America today The U.S. response to this danger should be to secure nuclear weapons and materials everywhere they exist; improve homeland security protections here at home; and thoroughly restructure and reform our intelligence capabilities. We must not let the ongoing war in Iraq, as serious as it is, to distract us from facing the real threat of a catastrophic terrorist attack, and from developing plans to disrupt such an attack. This must be our nation’s overriding national security priority.
  • Formulate a comprehensive approach to homeland security. Terrorism is a global challenge, blurring the lines between domestic and international policies. This means we need a single strategy, unified structure and comprehensive budget to properly integrate defense, homeland security, intelligence, law enforcement and other programs directed against the terrorist threat. Washington must provide the leadership, coordination and resources to make the United States safer, coordinating the contributions of communities, cities, states and the private sector. Federal responsibility for homeland security cannot be out-sourced.
  • Maintain transparency and openness in homeland security. The government must be forthcoming in providing more information on threats and risks to the American people. The impulse of our leaders must be to share, not to hide or compartmentalize information. Leadership that levels with the American people is pivotal to maintaining an open society—a pillar of American strength—as is finding the balance between protecting our borders and bringing in visitors, students, immigrants and trading partners who promote the international understanding, cooperation and opportunity that is crucial to reducing terrorism’s appeal.


Save the All-Volunteer Army. Since September 11, 2001, the volunteer Army has been called upon to assume greater and broader responsibility than ever before. Our soldiers are needed to battle terrorism around the globe, protect the American homeland, and engage in peacekeeping, stabilization, and nation-building operations. Few imagined that the total volunteer Army would be used in such a manner when it was designed thirty years ago, and the Bush administration has failed to make the appropriate changes to reflect the new environment. As a result, the active-duty Army is not large enough nor does it have the mix of skills necessary to meet current needs, and the reserve component is being used at unsustainable levels.[16]

  • Increase the size of the total Army by at least 86,000 troops. The Army is overstretched and does not have sufficient numbers of active-duty troops trained for non-traditional duties such as nation-building. The additional 86,000 troops should be added while maintaining the same quality standards that the Army has followed for the past five years, namely that at least 90 percent of all recruits have a high school diploma, and 98 percent score average or above average on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. We should add two division-sized peacekeeping or stabilization units; double the size of the active-duty Special Forces; and add 10,000 military police, civil affairs specialists, engineers and medical personnel to the active-duty force.
  • Amend “back door draft” policies and change stop-loss policy implementation. To accomplish this, progressives should advocate legislation to reduce the length of the military service obligation—which by law lasts eight years from the date of initial enlistment—to six years after enlistment or four years of active duty, whichever comes first. This change would prevent the men and women of the Individual Ready Reserve, who have already volunteered time to serve their country, from having their lives interrupted unfairly after they have completed their active-duty service. Additionally, we should work to change stop-loss policy implementation so that as a matter of equity, no person is subject to stop-loss on more than one occasion without his or her consent. Enlisted people who are affected by stop-loss or whose tours in Iraq or Afghanistan are extended beyond one year receive a bonus of $2,000 a month for the duration of their extra service.
  • Address quality of life issues to improve personnel readiness in both active-duty and selected reserve units. Progressives should support congressional legislation that would allow members of the selected reserve to enroll themselves and their families in the military’s healthcare system, known as TRICARE. Enrollment in the TRICARE system would prevent reservists and their families from having to change healthcare plans when they are activated. Progressives should also take steps to maintain quality of life benefits such as special pay, commissaries, and schools on military bases.
  • Repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Progressives should advocate for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibits openly gay men and women from remaining in the armed services. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is counterproductive to military readiness. Nearly 10,000 people have been discharged because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy over the past ten years. A significant number of them had expertise in areas in which the military has had personnel shortfalls and been forced to activate individuals from the Individual Ready Reserve.

Free and Fair Trade. Improved living and working conditions in America requires a properly functioning global economy and free and fair international trade.[17]

  • Adapt the global trading system to better reflect global aspirations and long-term prosperity. A genuinely free and fair trading system is one that gives developing countries a seat at the negotiating table – not only because it is the right thing to do, but because talking among ourselves will never lead to expanding markets and new consumers for our goods.
  • Ensure that human rights, the rule of law, and labor and environmental standards are enshrined in a free and fair trade agenda. It is possible to maintain both national sovereignty and corporate efficiency while standing up for basic principles that define us as progressives and democratic citizens.
  • Develop policy coherence between and among the international institutions charged with leading global development efforts – the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, International Labor Organization and United Nations. As the growing acceptance of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals and cooperative efforts on the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have demonstrated, it is possible to bring together public agencies and private NGOs around strong, clear ideas.

Goal Three: Reforming the Political System

Progressives believe the privileges of American life for all must be accompanied by responsibilities from all and a genuine commitment to serve the larger community: citizens owe something to their families and localities; public officials to the national interest; and corporate leaders to shareholders, employees, consumers, and communities. Progressives recognize the responsibility to use the commonwealth for the common good and believe Americans have a duty to manage wisely the national and natural assets we hold in trust for future generations.

Rather than demanding accountability from all, lobbyists and private interests are corrupting the democratic process more than ever; public officials are not held accountable when their policies end in failure, and in this administration they are promoted; corporations give executives more pay and privileges while workers are down-sized and their jobs go overseas; and military leaders are absolved when they send troops into battle without adequate plans or supplies.

For all sectors of society, we will insist on reform, responsibility and accountability; we will protect the public trust and the public interest by ending cronyism, favoritism, and corruption in government and the private sector.

The Conservative Legacy

Government of the Special Interests, by the Special Interests and for the Special Interests. A shadow government hidden from citizen’s eyes makes federal policy based on special interest donations and lobbyists’ legislative language. Their arrogance of power knows no bounds, whether it is Dick Cheney making backroom energy policy based on secret meetings with industry representatives, or Tom DeLay taking $70,000 vacations on foreign agents’ tabs – and then stacking the Ethics Committee to prevent an investigation.

Right wing leaders have essentially turned the government over to high-powered lobbyists (many of them former political leaders themselves) and their self-interested corporate benefactors in the oil and gas, pharmaceutical, mining, insurance, and health care industries. The cozy partnership between corporate barons and right wing leadership has grown so severe that the bipartisan House Ethics Committee has rebuked Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay three times. In turn, DeLay stripped the Ethics Committee of any real power to enforce the rules. Meanwhile, DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee is the subject of a grand jury investigation for money laundering and illegal campaign contributions and three of DeLay’s closest associates have already been indicted.

Profiting from Our Losses. Right wing leaders take marching orders from campaign contributors as they systematically gut laws and regulations that protect the health and safety of average Americans.

As argued in a joint report by the Center for American Progress and OMB Watch: “Special interests have launched a sweeping assault on protections for public health, safety, the environment, and corporate responsibility – and unfortunately the Bush administration and its congressional allies have given way. Crucial safeguards have been swept aside or watered down; emerging problems are being ignored; tax policies skewed to corporations and the wealthy; and enforcement efforts have been curtailed. This agenda puts special interests above the public interest, sacrificing a safer, healthier, more just America at the behest of industry lobbyists, corporate campaign contributors, and professional ideologues – many of whom the president has appointed to ‘regulate’ the very interests they used to represent.

“Yet every year, more than 40,000 people die on our nation’s highways. Food borne illnesses kill an estimated 7,000 and sicken 76 million. Nearly 6,000 workers die as a result of injury on the job, with an additional 50,000 to 60,000 killed by occupational disease. And asthma – linked to air pollution – is rising dramatically, afflicting 17 million, including six million children.”[18]

A Return to the Roaring 20’s. While the right wing works to gut regulation, they also work to cut business taxes, all in the name of job creation. But billions in giveaways haven’t given the American worker a break and unemployment is still higher than it was when Bush took office.

The tax cut frenzy of the past four years has produced a monumental fiscal crisis in federal budgeting. The federal government has turned a projected $5.6 trillion budget surplus into a $2.3 trillion projected deficit over the next 10 years – a downward shift of $7.9 trillion in the nation’s fiscal condition. For 2004 alone, the projected surplus of $397 billion has been replaced by a projected deficit of $422 billion – a downward swing of $819 billion in one year. Massive spending increases, the removal of sound fiscal constraints, and unaffordable tax cuts have left the nation’s finances in tatters.

Deficits are a concern to many because of the negative impact large and persistent deficits might have on the economy in the long run. Deficits can lead to lower national savings and thus lower levels of output in the future. With the personal saving rate under 2 percent, it is even more troubling that the federal government is running up massive amounts of debt. In addition, with a large share of federal debt in the hands of foreign governments, large deficits raise potential concerns in the international finance and trade arena. Despite claims that we are “on track” to cut the deficit in half by 2008, the deficit has only gotten worse over the past several years.

In short, we are on an unsustainable path. Current policy will eventually have to be altered to correct for the imbalance between outlays and revenues, and choices must be made about how best to change course. Unfortunately, the president’s budget continues the trend of additional tax reductions that benefit the wealthy, while placing an unfair share of the deficit reduction burden on the middle class.

Perhaps the most important concern with the deficit is that we are leaving a massive amount of debt to future generations, and not responsibly addressing longer-term imbalances in the system. For example, the revenue lost from the 2001-2003 tax cuts is three times the amount that would have been needed to make the Social Security system solvent for the next 75 years.

A Progressive Agenda

Give the American Government Back to the American People. As Al From and Bruce Reed of the Progressive Policy Institute and others have argued, progressives should once again claim the mantle of reform.[19]

  • Ensure transparency and really clean “House.” Ideas from Reed and others include: make the lobbying system transparent to the American people, by posting the names, dates and topics of meetings on the web as Congress debates, not after legislation is passed; shut the lobbying revolving door that encourages officials to cozy up to special interests by pushing a much longer ban on government officials becoming registered lobbyists after leaving government service; and enforce Congressional ethics with a real independent ethics committee, made up of retired members of Congress or even ordinary citizens immune to political pressures.

Fiscal Responsibility and Sound Budgets. Progressives must highlight how conservative stewardship is undermining America’s economic strength. Fiscal mismanagement affects everyone. We must raise the stakes for Americans and promote sound fiscal and budget policies.

  • Restore PAYGO regulations and caps for discretionary spending. For most of the 1990s, the pay-as-you-go, or PAYGO, rules required that, if Congress wanted to cut a tax or create or expand an entitlement program, lawmakers had to offset the costs by raising other taxes or cutting other entitlement programs. The PAYGO rules were widely credited with imposing needed discipline while giving Congress the flexibility to make tax and spending changes that it deemed necessary. The rules expired several years ago and should be restored. Similarly, for most of the 1990s, Congress set annual limits, or caps, on total discretionary spending – programs from defense to education to transportation that it funds each year through the appropriations process. These caps enabled Congress to impose overall discipline while making choices and should be restored.
  • Create a commission to recommend eliminating ineffective programs. Modeled on the successful military base-closing commissions of recent years, a program-closing commission would give Congress a list of programs to consider in an all-or-nothing, up-or-down vote. A commission could give lawmakers the political freedom to make tough choices about ineffective programs.
  • Improve the accuracy of the Consumer Price Index, and apply the savings in tax and spending programs to deficit reduction. Many experts believe that the CPI overstates inflation. However, the CPI is the measure that the federal government uses to calculate increases in many federal benefit programs as well as the tax code. A reformed CPI that would more accurately measure inflation would protect the income standards of average Americans who receive benefits while providing budget savings to reduce the deficit.

Energy Independence. Progressives must rethink national energy policy and take a cue from the innovative solutions for energy independence outlined by the Apollo Project and the Energy Future Coalition to cut our dependence on foreign oil, stop handouts to polluters, help create millions of new jobs, and clean up our air and water.

  • Set a national energy agenda that will protect our national security, strengthen our economy and create jobs, and preserve the health of the world and its people for generations to come. America now has the technologies necessary to dramatically improve energy self-sufficiency, but we need the will to use them. Progressives should push for a national energy plan that transitions away from oil dependence; enhances domestic energy supply; prioritizes energy efficiency to enhance supply and improve reliability; and tackles global warming. We should diversify our domestic energy use; promote bio-fuels and new types of automotive technology; and modernize our energy plants with cleaner technology. The private sector is already experimenting with many of these ideas for innovative and profitable solutions to long-term energy needs.

Increase Innovation in Government. In order to handle public needs in the twenty-first century, the government must adopt the mentality of innovation and embrace technology as a means to better and more efficient policy and regulatory development.

  • Give the government the tools it needs to improve our lives. Progressives should push to modernize data collection to address critical gaps in our knowledge of policy effectiveness; integrate data management and dissemination across federal agencies; and analyze data to assess what is and is not working. The goal is to create more effective public safeguards for a cleaner environment and safer, healthier communities. The free market system alone will never adequately address these issues, and progressives should push for revitalized consumer protections and greater public health and safety measures.

Conclusion: What Progressives Stand For

As commentators continue to reflect on the 2004 national elections and assess the state of American politics today, they invariably ask: “What do progressives stand for?” The fact that they ask this question reveals the imbalance of modern political discourse and the total dominion of the conservative intellectual, partisan and media infrastructure over alternative viewpoints. More than anything, however, this question highlights the failure of progressives to capture the public’s imagination. This is our fault and our fault alone.

Progressives have allowed the ideals and ideas behind America’s crowning social and economic achievements to be reduced—through outside agitation and self-inflicted negligence—to a conservative punch-line and historical footnote. If Americans fail to understand progressive ideas for making the country a safer and better place to live, work and raise a family, it is because our side has failed to make the case for core progressive values.

We have taken this challenge to heart in trying to articulate a progressive message, grounded in principles and responsive to America’s position in the twenty-first century. We claim no monopoly on truth in presenting our principles and policy agenda. We merely aim to bring forth the proud progressive tradition of responding to great national needs with an equally strong public spirit and commitment to social and political change.


The authors would like to thank the staff of the Center for American Progress for their expertise in producing the Progressive Priorities policy series featured throughout this chapter and to David Dreyer, Charles Sweeney, and Eric London for their editorial help in finalizing the chapter.

[1]. See Herbert Croly’s 1909 classic, The Promise of American Life (New York: Capricorn Books, 1964), and Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 “New Nationalism” speech from Osawatomie, Kansas.

[2]. John Judis, “Structural Flaw,” New Republic, 28 February 2005.

[3]. Richard Kogan and Robert Greenstein, “President Portrays Social Security Shortfall As Enormous, But His Tax Cuts And Drug Benefit Will Cost At Least Five Times As Much,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, revised February 11, 2005.

[4]. The $427 billion estimate from the 2006 Budget of the U.S. Government does not include the full cost of a supplemental budget request expected to cover the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[5]. For a complete listing of the proposed budget cuts, see the Center for American Progress, “Making the Wrong Choices: An Analysis of the President’s 2006 Budget,” February 2005.

[6]. Center for American Progress, “Wrong Choices.”

[7]. Jack Hadley and John Halahan, “The Cost of Care for the Uninsured: What Do We Spend, Who Pays, and What Would Full Coverage Add to Medical Spending?,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, May 2004.

[8]. Institute of Medicine, Hidden Costs, Value Lost: Uninsurance in America (Washington: National Academies Press, 2003).

[9]. Gale, William, “Key Points on the Alternative Minimum Tax,” Tax Policy Center, January 2004.

[10]. Joint Economic Committee, The Alternative Minimum Tax for Individuals: A Growing Burden, May 2001.

[11]. Senator John McCain, for example, explained in proposing a Corporate Welfare Commission: "There are more than 100 corporate subsidy programs in the federal budget today, requiring the federal government to spend approximately $65 billion a year. Terminating even some of these programs could save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars each year." John McCain, Congressional Press Release (17 April 2002).

[12]. Testimony of Norman J. Rabkin, General Accounting Office (GAO), before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aviation, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, March 30, 2004.

[13]. Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2004), 8.

[14]. Oxfam International, Rigged Rules and Double Standards: Trade, Globalization, and the Fight against Poverty (2002), 7-8.

[15]. Foreign Direct Investment on the Rise in World’s Poorest Countries, UN News, <> (10 May 2001).

[16]. Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Military Is Stretched Too Thin, Defense Board Warns,” Los Angeles Times, 30 September 2004; Hearing of the National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, April 29, 2003.

[17]. John Podesta and Sonal Shah, “A Progressive Trade Agenda,” Center for American Progress, (20 May 2004).

[18]. Reece Rushing, “Special Interest Takeover: The Bush Administration and the Dismantling of Public Safeguards,” Center for American Progress and OMB Watch,  (May 2004).

[19]. Al From and Bruce Reed, “What We Stand For,” Blueprint Magazine, <> (16 March 2005).

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


John Halpin

Former Senior Fellow; Co-Director, Politics and Elections