Five Things for Democrats to Do in Charlotte

Democrats must articulate a long-term philosophy that will enable the party to govern once the president is re-elected.

Posted: 09/04/2012 05:00 PM EDT
Five Things for Democrats to Do in Charlotte By Keith Boykin

CHARLOTTE -- There's been no shortage of advice for what President Obama and the Democrats must do here at their convention. Much of it focuses on how to win the election in November. While that remains the top short-term priority, Democrats must also remember to articulate a long-term philosophy that will enable the party to govern once the president is re-elected.

With that in mind, here are five things for Democrats to do at the convention this week.

1. Remind us where we've been.

Republicans have spent three years accusing Democrats of blaming President Bush for the economy and suggesting that Obama should be held fully responsible for everything that's wrong in the country. While that's a conveniently forgetful argument, it also allows them to escape responsibility for the way in which their policies created the very problems Obama is trying to fix. 

Four years ago, America faced its worst economic crisis in 60 years. We were engaged in two costly and deadly wars, the economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month, the stock market had crashed, the banking system teetered on the verge of collapse, the U.S. auto industry had run out of money, and Osama Bin Laden still threatened us with terrorism.

Although Republicans now try to distance themselves from the failed Bush policies, it was Mitt Romney's own running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, who voted for all the major Bush policies that he might today condemn. He voted for two expensive wars, two expensive tax cuts, an unfunded prescription drug bill, a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street bankers, and for Bush's auto bailout. If you want to know why the national debt has risen in the past 10 years, you need look no further than Paul Ryan.

Yet when Democrats remind us of the past, Republicans complain they're looking backward. But you can't move forward if you don't know where you've been. And you can't solve a problem with the same people and the same policies that caused the problem.

2. Show us what they've accomplished.

Although they've been very effective at defining Romney during this campaign, Democrats have done a horrible job of explaining what they themselves have accomplished in the past three years. That's a shame because they've actually done a lot.

Under Obama, the war in Iraq came to a close, 4.5 million new jobs were created, the Dow Jones Industrial Average doubled, record profits were generated for the auto industry, and Osama Bin Laden was killed.

Obama also achieved what virtually every Democratic president has tried and failed to do since Franklin Roosevelt. He passed comprehensive health care reform that even Bill and Hillary Clinton couldn't do when they were in the White House. And as a White House aide in the 1990s , I remember how President Clinton tried for six months but ultimately failed to lift the ban on gays in the military, but it was Obama who accomplished this goal, by repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Obama also signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, appointed two women to the Supreme Court, including the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, and appointed the nation's first African-American attorney general. Those who say President Obama hasn't accomplished much in office haven't been paying attention. But then again, that's also the duty of the Democratic Party to laud their own achievements instead of running away from them.

3. Tell us where they want to go.

Given where we've come from and what's been accomplished, Obama clearly comes out ahead. But it's not enough to re-litigate the past four years. Democrats also need to lay out a positive vision for the next four years and beyond.

To begin this, Democrats should use their convention to talk about rebuilding the middle class, creating millions of new jobs, educating our kids, making college more affordable, fixing our crumbling roads and bridges, and investing in new technologies for the future. They also need to talk about their plans to implement the rest of the Affordable Care Act, provide health care to millions of uninsured Americans, develop clean energy alternatives, create more fairness in the tax code, help struggling homeowners, and finally end the war in Afghanistan.

4. Explain where Romney and the Republicans want to go.

Romney's convention speech in Tampa last week was long on biography and platitudes but short on specifics. Maybe that's because he's not offering much that's new or different from the same failed policies of the Bush administration.

Romney and Ryan would cut taxes for the wealthy, slash programs for the middle class, turn Medicare into a voucher program, repeal "Obamacare," roll back rights for women and minorities, and reduce the number of teachers, fighters, and policemen, all while spending trillions of dollars more on the military and expanding the national debt.

5. Make the case for a progressive vision of government.

For more than a century, progressives have fought against and defeated conservatives. Although conservatives almost always fail in the long run, they often succeed in the short term by effectively reframing public debates. To paraphrase a comment I read recently, conservatives are led by rich people convincing middle-class people to blame poor people for their problems.

But on almost every major domestic issue of the past century, conservatives have eventually found themselves on the wrong side of history. It was progressives who fought for child labor laws, workplace safety rules, the 40-hour work week, minimum wage requirements, employer-based health care, Medicare, Social Security, civil rights, women's rights and equal rights for gays and lesbians.

In each case, conservatives argued that change would deprive Americans of their basic freedom. But there is no true freedom without opportunity and fairness for all. That is the essential progressive message, and every Democrat needs to make that case not only this week in Charlotte, but every week for generations to come.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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