One Year Out: Big Shifts and Bold Messages

The Center for American Progress Action Fund offers four pillars for a progressive future.

American politics is experiencing a fundamental philosophical realignment. Conservatives tried to build a governing majority based on the four pillars of unilateralism, less government, lower taxes for the wealthy, and “family values.” The Bush administration’s bankruptcy has made those pillars crumble. The political environment has shifted decisively toward progressives.

The public is demanding a fundamentally different direction in four critical areas: economic mobility, universal health care coverage, energy transformation, and national security and the war in Iraq. These issues cannot be viewed in isolation. What is striking is both the breadth of the problems and the public’s readiness to support major reforms. This means progressives can not only win elections, but can also change the nation’s course with solutions equal to our challenges. But progressives must be bold.

In the note that follows, we highlight each of these four issues—economy, health, climate change, and national security—frame the debate on each, describe the conservative failure, and advocate a progressive approach.

1.  Economic Mobility

The economy has stopped working for America’s middle class and those hoping to join it. The personal saving rate over the current recovery continues to be historically low; family debt has reached record levels; wages and median income are down in real terms; health and pension coverage are declining; and with a diminished ability to join a union, workers are capturing far less of the economic pie. Conservatives’ unwillingness to confront any of these realities—or to offer plans of their own—demonstrates the dead end their philosophy has reached.

The subprime mortgage crisis has been sadly instructive. For most Americans, the principal pathway to wealth has been homeownership. The instability in this key sector set off rippling economic effects. It has also reminded Americans of the basic economic trends, such as stagnating wages and low mobility, that conservatives have failed to address.

One notable group in this election—unmarried women—is the fastest growing demographic and looking for economic change the most. According to Women’s Voices Women Vote, the average income of unmarried women is $40,000, and 36 percent of them move every two years. They need a government that is providing economic security and economic mobility.

Progressives can and must offer a fresh paradigm that accomplishes three things: improved broad-based economic growth; increased individual opportunities for those who work, not just those who invest; and a modernized social contract to enhance economic security.

Progressives need to take a series of actions to rebuild the ladder of individual opportunity: investing at the front and back end of our children’s education, restoring Americans’ ability to join unions, reforming the tax code to honor work and not just capital, promoting widespread retirement savings and sound home ownership, and lifting poor families out of poverty by building on proven policies. This means accelerating America’s transformation to a low-carbon economy—the driver of a new innovation economy—and it means trade, aid, and monetary policies that create a growing global middle class of consumers for U.S. products and services.

2.  Health Care

Our health care system continues to crumble: 47 million Americans are uninsured, up by 8 million from 2000; premiums have practically doubled over the last 7 years, growing at five times the inflation rate; half of bankruptcies are driven at least in part by health coverage; and businesses are struggling to compete globally under the burden of health care costs.

Although those trends have been building for decades, the political environment is new. Corporate groups and unions are coming together to demand broad reforms. And while conservatives continue to sell the tonic of laissez-faire, the public is no longer buying. In the recent debate over the State Children’s Health Care Program, or SCHIP, the public sided overwhelmingly with progressives.

Progressives stand for health reform that ensures affordable coverage for all Americans, reduces health care costs, and makes prevention a priority. Progressive policymakers have released strategies for realizing this dream; building on shared responsibilities for health coverage across American families, employers, and public programs; and reducing costs by making the long-term investments we need to achieve savings and improve care.

Conservatives will try the tired cries of “socialized medicine” and misleading attacks on these approaches, but those attacks will fail. Progressive approaches will build on our current system, increase rather than reduce choices, and lower costs. This is what Americans want today.

3. Energy Transformation

Global warming has become an astonishing threat to the future of America and the world. In 2004, Swiss Re warned in a report that the costs of natural disasters, aggravated by climate change, threaten to double to $150 billion a year in 10 years. A 2006 Friends of the Earth study found that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions could cost the global economy $20 trillion by 2100. Around the globe, particularly in the poorest countries, even a relatively small climatic shift can trigger or exacerbate food shortages, water scarcity, destructive weather events, the spread of disease, human migration, and natural resource competition, creating profound national security challenges for the United States and the world.

What is encouraging is the change in the public perceptions. The 2008 election will be the first in which voters accept that global warming is a crisis requiring a major response. As The Washington Post reported in April, “[f]or many children and young adults, global warming is the atomic bomb of today.” According to a Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research poll, there has been a 10 to 15 point increase in concern about global warming in the last two years. In denying the scientific reality—literally rewriting scientific documents—conservatives have become a minority of a minority on this issue.

The urgency of this issue demands a president willing to make the low-carbon energy challenge a top priority in the White House—a centerpiece not only of his or her energy policy, but also of his or her economic program—to produce broad-based growth and sustain American economic leadership in the 21st century.

The American voters will reward a presidential candidate that can lay out a vision and a program that will produce an economy in which highly efficient vehicles dominate the roadways; service stations pump large quantities of low carbon alternative fuels; and buildings employ day-lighting, solar heating and cooling, as well as highly efficient appliances and air conditioning. In this economy, utility companies will increase their profits when customers save energy and draw more than a quarter of their feed stock from renewable sources of energy. Coal-fired power plants will be built to capture CO2 and pump it through a national network of pipelines for geologic storage. And businesses of all kinds will have to factor the cost of carbon into their bottom-line calculations and aggressively pursue low-energy options.

Taking such action is not just good for our environment; it can provide a powerful charge to the economy.

4. National Security and Iraq

By the time the country settles into the general election debate, we will be five years into the Iraq war, with no end in sight. With little more than a year left in the Bush presidency, the United States risks slipping into what can best be described as strategic drift in Iraq. The United States cannot continue to muddle through in Iraq hoping that things will somehow get better. Drifting along has severe consequences for America’s security.

Our overwhelming engagement in Iraq has diminished our capacity to respond to other conflicts, even on the key front in nearby Afghanistan. Americans continue to die in Iraq for an undefined strategic purpose. Although the Bush administration estimated the war would cost no more than $50 billion, a recent CBO report estimated the costs for Iraq and Afghanistan could reach more than 40 times that amount, or $2.4 trillion.

Public opinion has remained steady in its overwhelming view that we are in the middle of an Iraqi civil war and the troops should begin coming home. Public opinion is right. Conservatives have tied their strategy to a failed president and an outdated national security strategy that has undermined America’s position in the world and made Americans less safe. Progressives must offer an alternative national security strategy that would get us out of the trenches of Iraq and refocus our powers on revitalizing our country’s military and addressing the continued threat posed by global terror networks.

Progressives understand that in order to reclaim control of the situation in the Middle East the United States must responsibly redeploy the troops while intensifying diplomatic efforts to put an end to Iraq’s vicious struggles for power. The nation must undertake proactive measures that recognize our soldiers have been pushed beyond the call of duty. And we must renew our commitment to diplomacy to make America safer.


After eight years of failed conservative leadership, the country is poised to move in a more progressive direction. Now is not the time for caution or mere modulation in approach. Progressives win when they offer changes equal to the challenges we face.

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