Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America

May 19, 2004

Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America by Robert Reich


JOANNE MYERS: I'd like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you for joining us as we welcome our very special guest, Robert Reich, to our Books for Breakfast program. He will be discussing his new book, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, and this book will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program today.

In this presidential campaign year, Americans are bound to see the political arena become more and more partisan and the rhetoric increasingly vitriolic. As we move closer to the November election, one need not look solely to Iraq to find conflict and casualties, for politics too can engender its own brand of warfare, and if we listen to our speaker this morning, this impending battle is one for the hearts and minds of America.

Mr. Reich believes that it is time for Democrats to regain the White House. But can they? In Reason, Professor Reich applies the knowledge and experience he has gained over the years from serving as he has in both Republican and Democratic administrations to the task of trying to adopt new ways of thinking about matters of extreme importance to our country.

Our guest writes that "for a number of years, the Republicans, especially the radical conservatives"— or what he calls the "rad-cons"—"have been in the ascendancy." Professor Reich sees these individuals as "an organized political force who are far more extreme than real conservatives and are turning American traditions upside-down." "In contrast," he argues, "the Democrats are divided, unorganized, and in need of a more coherent political base from which they can resuscitate the traditional American politics of reason."

Professor Reich says that he wrote this book with the purpose to inspire voters who share his liberal values, even if they don't call themselves liberals. And as he visits our hamlet this morning, he aims to wake up and organize like-minded souls and in so doing take back the liberal ideals which he sees as a consummation devoutly to be wished for. In addition, he hopes that we will look beyond this election year and consider the alternative choices facing America in the years ahead.

Time and time again Professor Reich has demonstrated his commitment to excellence, integrity, and innovation, and this is indeed a rare combination to find in one who is both a public servant and a scholar. As a public servant, he most recently served as Secretary of Labor during President Clinton's first term and was part of an administration that presided over the longest economic expansion in history, moving forward on several initiatives to build the skills of American workers. Most recently, as part of his scholarly pursuits, he founded and is national editor of The American Prospect, where he writes extensively on the international economy and American progressivism. He is also an accomplished writer whose books include I'll Be Short, The Future of Success, and Locked in the Cabinet.

Currently he is University Professor and the Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis Graduate School. He is also a Visiting Professor at Berkeley.

Professor Reich, you write that "there is an imbalance in the political debate and that rad-cons have taken over the political agenda." Well, today for you, as well as for us, there is only one agenda, and that is to listen to your views. Others will have their say.

So at this time I ask that you please join me in welcoming our very special guest, Robert Reich.


ROBERT REICH: Thank you very much, Joanne.

I want to talk this morning about the meaning of liberalism because the term has taken a beating over the last year—wishy-washy liberal, tax-and-spend liberal, limousine liberals. Very few people even have the fortitude to call themselves liberals any longer.

But the term does have a long and distinguished, and quite noble, pedigree. There has been a liberal consensus in the U.S. for many years about some very basic ideas, including the separation of church and state, economic policy, a mixed economy—not a socialist, not a democratic socialist economy, but a mixed economy—in which corporations have certainly enough profits to continue to invest but there are regulations governing health, safety, and the environment, and the opportunity for workers to form unions.

And we don't seek an equality of input, but we do seek equality of opportunity—recently we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. And in foreign policy, we have stood for, at least in the post-World War II era, collaboration with our major allies, working to the extent possible through NATO and the United Nations. We do not believe, and have not believed, in unilateralism, or even in preemptive war.

All of these principles that I have enunciated are principles that most Americans, even today, still adhere to. I provide polling evidence that most Americans do still believe in not only these principles but also in how they are applied. What we have seen over the last few years is a Bush Administration that has deviated from these principles: that is in many ways trying to eradicate that barrier between church and state; rolling back regulations on health, safety, and the environment; exacerbating a widening gap between the rich and poor and the middle class through a set of tax initiatives that have not only not improved the economy, but have also exacerbated that widening inequality and given us $500-billion-a-year deficits; and finally, a set of foreign policies that are not based on liberal internationalism, multilateral trade agreements, multilateral agreements with regard to our foreign policy initiatives, but instead on unilateralism, preemption, and "if you're not with us you're against us" logic.

The aberration is not just the current administration. The Bush Administration in my view is the culmination of a radical conservative movement that began 20 to 25 years ago. I was in Washington during the Clinton Administration, serving as Secretary of Labor, when Newt Gingrich and his crew came to Washington with their Contract with America.

The barometric pressure in Washington dramatically changed. Republicans and Democrats who had been working together quite effectively through the end of 1994 stopped even talking with each other. There was a new noise, a new anger, in Washington that also was expressed increasingly on talk radio and talk television, with Rush Limbaugh and his imitators.

I am continuously amazed at the slantedness of these programs which are the only source of politically opinionated news that many Americans get, and indeed the only source of news that many Americans get. It is not, as Fox News likes to say, fair and balanced. It is unfair and unbalanced.

America, according to the pundits, is very badly split between what is now colloquially called "red America" and "blue America." For those of you who have not been following the color codes, "red America" is applied to those states that voted for George W. Bush in the year 2000 and "blue America" is mostly the coastal areas, with a couple of exceptions, states that voted for Al Gore.

On the way out to California in January, my son and I went through "red America" and survived. On the way, we had the chance to have a lot of discussions with people, because I am recognizable. People would sit down with us and say, "Aren't you umm, George Stephanopoulos?"

I would say, "I worked for Bill Clinton, you're right."

They'd say, "So you're a Democrat?"

I said, "Yes," and I'd say, "And I assume you're not?"

They said, "No, we're Republican."

We'd get into a very polite discussion, a free-floating focus group, because the conversations right across the Midwest and the West were very similar.

I'd ask them, "Why are you Republican?"

"We're Republican because we believe in traditional values."

I said, "Let's get a little bit specific. Why do you support George W. Bush?"

"Because he is so honest."

I discovered that what they mean is that he's folksy, he's likeable, he's recognizable like your brother or brother-in-law or fraternity brother.

I asked them, "Why don't you like Democrats?"

They would say, first of all, "Democrats are immoral."

"Why are Democrats immoral?"

"Abortion, gay marriage, and Monica Lewinsky."

The encouraging news is that, according to this free-floating focus group, and also according to mainstream polls that I include in the book, most Americans, although they don't call themselves liberal, on the issues that count most, Americans do share liberal values. That is, for example, an overwhelming percentage of Americans are still in favor of what we call "freedom to choose" with regard to women's reproductive rights. Most Americans still by a wide margin are against any kind of forced prayer in the public schools or the teaching of creationism or any of those attempts that we are seeing in many local school boards and across the Midwest and much of the West to impose a religious curriculum.

Most Americans when asked, "Do you prefer to use government revenues for a tax cut, 40 percent of which goes to people earning over $200,000 a year, or would you prefer to use those government revenues for X, Y, or Z?"—X being better schools, more money for schools; Y being affordable health care; Z, whatever it is—almost universally, Americans say that they would rather use the revenues for X, Y, and Z than for tax cuts for the wealthy.

If you ask Americans about foreign policy, they are almost uniformly in favor of multilateral foreign policies, that is working closely with our traditional and longstanding allies. They are troubled by the tendency toward unilateralism. They are also very troubled by what has happened in Iraq, not only the incompetence shown by the Administration in lack of planning, but also the erosion of America's moral authority, and the risk of anti-Americanism around the world. Many are perplexed by it, but most are willing to assume some of the blame for America's screwing up.

And according to mainstream polls, most Americans do not believe that our foray into Iraq is making America safer against terrorism. In fact, a majority thinks it is making America less safe.

Now, if you look at these, and also you examine the arguments such as I've made in the book, I come out bottom line quite encouraged in terms of my values. Many of you may not share my values, and that's perfectly fine. Civility, a civil discourse, is critically important.

From the pre-1995/1994 days, some of my very closest colleagues, whom I still stay in close contact with, are Republicans, like Alan Simpson, the Senator from Wyoming. We disagree, but we disagree civilly, and we have great discussions about our disagreements. That's what we need to reconstitute in the U.S.

Where my encouragement comes from is not only the polls, not only my free-floating focus group across "red America," but also my sense that many Americans, regardless of whether they call themselves liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, are becoming concerned not only about foreign policy and the incompetence they see in foreign policy, but also about domestic policy, about runaway deficits—$500 billion a year-about widening inequalities of income and wealth and opportunity.

Americans are becoming mobilized and organized at the grassroots level right now, even in some of the areas of "red America,?even among people who describe themselves as Republicans.

John Kerry will be our next President, and I believe that for very simple reasons. I've known John Kerry for a number of years. I worked with him when I was Secretary of Labor. He is from my home state. He is a man of extraordinary competence and dignity. And although he doesn't share George Bush's folksiness, when it comes down to the election booth and making decisions about the future of this country, most people would prefer a Lincolnesque gravitas to folksy and incompetent.

Even after $50 million of negative, quite distorted advertising directed against John Kerry, his polls did not decline; in fact, if anything, most of the polls are showing a slight up-tick—and George W. Bush's negatives are soaring, the highest negative polling he has had during his presidency.

I hope the business community in the United States understands that Democrats are good for business. Most of the data I have followed as an economic historian and policymaker show that Democrats and Democratic administrations in recent years have been quite good for business. Business thrives under Democrats, because we clean up the messes that Republicans leave behind, as we did in 1993-1994 when we came in and had to deal with a budget deficit of $300 billion. Bill Clinton led the way and we had the longest period of peacetime prosperity we have had in the U.S.

John Kerry will do the same thing. He has not yet started to fight. He is keeping his powder dry. He doesn't want to politicize the criticisms of Iraq, because once he weighs in heavily with those criticisms, then everything becomes partisan and the public no longer hears those criticisms. Keeping those criticisms coming from quarters such as Richard Clarke and others, who seem to know what they are talking about, and keeping it at least at this stage nonpartisan, is the one way in which Americans can begin to hear what is happening.

There is also the issue of momentum. A presidential candidate with the primaries this early, knowing the Democratic candidate this early, should not come out of the box too strong, too hard, too fast, because momentum counts after the summer. What he wants to do is lay the foundation on a lot of policy areas, be dignified, be very clear to the extent that he can be, but lay the foundation for coming out very strong when Americans focus on the election after the summer.

I am very critical of the Democratic Party in terms of our failure over the past 20 years to be coherent and tough and to have the courage of our convictions, which the Republicans do have, even though I believe those convictions are wrong. So this is not a defense of Democrats in any shape or form. This is a call to action.

We are facing the most important election in at least my living memory, and that requires that all of us get engaged and involved.

JOANNE MYERS: I'd like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: "Morality" is such a key word among the Republicans, and the Democrats have missed the boat in not describing morality. To me, morality in the last election was voting against school lunches, people eating out of garbage cans, people dying because there is no health care, and the Democrats have not raised that issue enough.

I'm also concerned about the honesty of the voting machines.

ROBERT REICH: You must have read my book already, because I have a section on morality in which I argue exactly your point, that Democrats, liberals, progressives must take morality very seriously and not let the other side use that term to describe sexual immorality in the bedrooms. But we have to understand that there are issues of public morality having to do with what we owe one another as members of the same society that are paramount.

Public morality does not mean sexual morality between two consenting individuals. Public morality has to do with our poor, our children, what happens in boardrooms in terms of small shareholders and employees. Public morality has to be resurrected as a key issue that people discuss and Democrats represent.

What happens in the voting booths with these new automated voting machines under the Help America Vote Act? I share your concern, particularly for machines that don't leave paper trails. It is very important that states pass laws and rules, as many states have, requiring paper trails that can be inspected and checked after the fact.

QUESTION: What struck me as you were talking about the issues that you raised in defining the difference between Republicans and Democrats was the extent to which they reflected a Republican agenda. You mentioned abortion, you mentioned tax cuts, you mentioned unilateral foreign policies, you mentioned Iraq. These are all issues which George Bush has staked out. As a foreigner looking at American politics, what I find very striking about the internal debate is the way in which the Democrats, the liberals, are not shaping the agenda.

Let me give you examples of issues that would define a liberal in Europe. They would be things like capital punishment, effective gun control, universal health care, progressive taxation systems, untrammeled support for free trade.

You are still addressing George Bush's agenda.

ROBERT REICH: I spend most of the book outlining what that progressive liberal agenda is or should be. The reason this morning I started with the Bush agenda is because that's, frankly, where we have to begin.

The departure from a longstanding postwar liberal agenda has been most obvious under the Bush Administration, and that postwar liberal agenda was a movement toward more progressivity in income taxes, affordable universal health care, more opportunity with regard to equality in education, free trade, and certainly under the Clinton Administration, with NAFTA and the WTO and the accession of the WTO in China, we did try and pushed very hard on free trade.

I talk about all these areas, including foreign policy that is multinational and multilateral. But right now George W. Bush has defined the parameters by his preemptive and unilateral use of power in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also by his $2 trillion tax cut, 40 percent of which's benefits go to people who earn over $200,000. That has set the parameters of the debate in this presidential election.

I was interested that in all of the revelations, such as the lack of weapons of mass destruction, the British public seemed to react much more strongly than Americans. Even though the left of center is in nominal control of Parliament and Whitehall and Downing Street, nevertheless the British public is very concerned about things that the American public is only dimly becoming aware of.

The reason I would give is that for the American public, domestic policy, particularly economic policy, jobs, trumps foreign policy almost every time. The American public has been willing to give the Commander in Chief the benefit of the doubt. Most Americans will say, "I don't understand the details of foreign policy." Most Americans have not traveled abroad. Most Americans don't believe, because we are putatively separated from the rest of the world by two great oceans, that we are directly affected dramatically by what happens at our borders.

The threshold for Americans to get actively engaged and upset by foreign policy is much higher than it is in many other countries. Now, they do. We know in the Vietnam era Americans got very upset and engaged, and we are beginning to see much the same response with Iraq.

QUESTION: I'd like you to expand on our fraternity brothers who are out there in "red country," and why they have been so receptive to Limbaugh and Fox TV and why that creates the dialogue for them. Is our political system so internecine that part of the system has been unable to respond appropriately and meaningfully?

ROBERT REICH: The vast working and middle class has been seduced into Republican conservatism over the past 20 years because median incomes for men without college degrees have been declining adjusted for inflation, generating a great deal of frustration and anxiety. Women have gone into work over the past 25 years largely because they needed to do so to prop up family incomes, not because of all the wonderful new opportunities for professional women. Most women have gone into work because non-college male incomes have declined.

The Democratic Party has not responded to this crisis, and that failure explains part of the void, the vacuum, into which Rush Limbaugh, the right wing, has rushed, because what they are doing is blaming. They are blaming affirmative action, feminists, foreigners, and immigrants. They are using the politics of resentment, and unfortunately, because there is nothing very cogent and powerful on the other side, that void is being filled quite effectively.

The people who are listening to Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others tend to be non-college men, relatively young, and quite cynical, frustrated, and angry about their plight.

QUESTION: First of all, you should remember that a folksy incompetent ran against a Lincolnesque war hero and won, that is to say Bill Clinton, so when you look at this historically, let's keep it in context.

But it brings up a separate question. The U.S. today has two sets of delusions. The Republicans, who always would rather govern than campaign, have the most ineffective communications office in the Executive Branch in probably the history of the modern presidency. They're doing a lousy job, and yet somehow they're persuading Americans of all these policies.

On the other hand, the Democrats seem to increasingly reflect the Saul Steinberg view of America that once you get past the Hudson River you're lucky to escape to the West Coast. One would think that the Democratic Party, which seems to be increasingly marginalized both from communications with the electorate and the policies that you are putting forward so ably today, should be reaching out to a larger constituency. How is the Democratic Party going to break through on this front?

ROBERT REICH: I take issue with you on your first point. Secondly, I don't think that this White House has a bad communications strategy. In fact, quite the contrary, this is the most disciplined, ordered communications strategy I have seen in any White House. Carl Rove is very smart.

Take almost any issue—for example, the estate tax. Republicans began calling the estate tax the "death tax" and hammered that home so effectively that most Americans today are still in favor of repealing the estate tax because they say, "Why should I pay taxes when I die?"—without understanding that it's the top 2 percent who are affected by the estate tax.

This White House has managed to maintain more discipline over whom they talk to in the press and how they talk to them than certainly the Clinton Administration could ever conceive of doing. I ran a department of 20,000 people, with a $35 billion budget. I could not control what my assistant secretaries did, whom they were talking to, how they were talking to them, and I didn't feel it was my job to impose strict censorship over them.

I agree with your second point about the Democrats who are and have been insular. There has been a sense in which Democratic representatives and senators can be independent entrepreneurs, respond to their local constituents, but what Democrats have not learned from Republicans is that the whole needs to be greater than the sum of the parts. There is a national audience out there, and Democrats need to be responding nationally to that audience.

Republicans have been so successful over the past 25 years because they have hammered home in almost Orwellian terms the same terminology over and over again—not only "tax and spend," but also "political correctness" and "class warfare." Every time I even suggest that the gap between the rich and everybody else in terms of income, wealth, and opportunity is becoming nearly as wide as it was in the gilded age, immediately the next comment is "you are engaging in class warfare." If you are giving a huge tax break to the rich and cutting social services to the poor, the Republicans themselves are engaging in class warfare, and we ought to make that point very clear.

Liberals, Democrats, progressives, not only need to have the courage of their convictions but they need to be tough and call it like it is.

QUESTION: I'd like to return to your point about the beginning of the breakdown of the division between church and state. I have believed for a long time that the marriage of belief and reason is what we call transatlantic civilization, and it does worry me to see the breakdown of what I see as a consensus on this point.

In describing your floating focus group, you said: the Republicans you met believe Democrats are immoral and immorality is abortion. I'm simplifying here.

Perhaps one of the reasons for that attitude is that not enough Democrats have applied the principle of a division between the state and religion in their attitudes to, for example, abortion by saying, "We are against abortion too on a personal basis, but we think the state should keep out of legislating about it." That is a perfectly good principle which has been part of the American consensus, including the liberal consensus.

As a result of not doing that, many Democrats may have left what is regarded by the people you met in the Midwest as a moral vacuum. They are worried about that moral vacuum and only see the Republican Party as providing a way of filling it. Is that an analysis which you would share?

ROBERT REICH: Yes, I would. Democrats need to say more and more often that Democrats think morality, particularly sexual morality, is a matter of personal decision. "I happen to agree with you," the Democrats should say, "abortion is a last resort, it's a tragedy when it happens, but that decision should not be a public decision, it is a private decision."

And so, therefore, take morality, at least sexual morality, off the table as a public issue, but be very strongly empathetic about issues of private morality. For example, as a father, I find the pornography industry that is being portrayed in this country as an entertainment industry abhorrent. But should the government get involved in censorship on a large scale? No. That issue is a matter of personal choice. I would give parents more leverage, but I would not try to censor.

"Big government" is something that many Republicans have tarred Democrats with, but we are seeing big government gone haywire today with the FBI, CIA, the Patriot Act, censorship, the military budget and an entire fiscal system, a fiscal irresponsibility.

Finally, on the principle of morality there are issues of public morality, and Democrats should distinguish between private and public morality. We ought to be very clear about the breakdown in public morality, having to do with what we owe one another as citizens and members of the same society.

Margaret Thatcher famously said, "There is no such thing as society." Democrats should be saying very loudly and clearly, "There is a society. We believe in public morality. We also believe in patriotism, but patriotism is more and different from simply saluting the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance and not criticizing the President. Patriotism is paying your taxes, not using foreign tax havens. Patriotism is serving the country and not allowing just lower-middle-class and poor kids to fill the ranks of the Army and the Marines. Patriotism is making sure that we are all taking responsibility for one another."

QUESTION: You've always been regarded as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. You've had very public fights, with President Clinton at the time, about the issues of whether the Democrats should move towards the center.

The dynamic of the Democratic primaries has been that many Democrats themselves were angry that Democrats just weren't angry enough at what had been going on, whether it was the issues of poverty or of Iraq. After the primary season, John Kerry being the presumptive nominee, once again we see a dynamic setting in, that "let's wait for the momentum to start in the summer, and Democrats should meanwhile be quiet about many of the things they believe in."

Considering your own background and beliefs, do you believe that being judicious and thoughtful, and not capturing some of the anger that is out there, even in the "red" states is the way to go? Maybe that accounts, for instance, for the rise of Ralph Nader again, who tries to capture that.

Do you think that those sorts of issues, if Democrats don't become angry, might in turn lose you the election?

ROBERT REICH: John Kerry is being quite wise in keeping his powder dry at this point in the election. Democrats in general should not be quiet. Democrats, like me and other "surrogates," and other leaders of the party, ought to be as loud as possible and put into words the frustration and anger that a lot of people feel; not use the Howard Dean scream, but articulate in reasonable ways what it is that's bothering a lot of Americans about domestic and foreign policy.

Health care costs are soaring; most people can't save for retirement; most jobs are less secure today than they have ever been before, even though jobs are coming back. Most Americans now are having a harder time sending their kids to college, and state universities are no longer providing the kind of provision of tuition assistance that they were providing just a few years ago. This is what we're hearing out in the country.

Americans are frustrated and angry. They said, "Wait a minute. The economy is much larger than it ever has been before, since 1978 it has doubled in size, but I am no better off. I am deeper in debt than ever before."

Democrats ought to be sounding the alarm. There is no reason to allow so many people to be in such straits.

And in terms of foreign policy, most Americans share huge frustrations at what has happened—the incompetence, the lack of planning, and the consequential anti-Americanism that is soaring around the world. They understand that the moral authority of this country is at least as important as our military might in fighting terrorism. Never underestimate the acuity of most Americans.

Unlike conservative Republicans, who have made a movement out of radical conservatism, the Democrats need to think about the day after election day and creating an immobilized, organized force that can enable a president to put into place a lot of things that a Democratic President might want to do.

In 1936, as Franklin D. Roosevelt was campaigning. somebody came up to him and said, "Mr. President, if you're reelected I want you to do this, this, and this." He turned to the person and said, "I would like to do this, but you must make me." What did he mean by that? He meant that unless people are putting pressure on government and on a chief executive who is willing otherwise to do it, there is not enough political capital to get much done.

I saw that in Bill Clinton's White House when we lost on health care, when we had to sign a Republican welfare bill. Bill Clinton triangulated all right, but he did not have a large, organized, mobilized constituency behind him, and that marked a tremendous handicap for his Administration.

QUESTION: You've addressed to some extent my question in your previous remarks, but perhaps you'd like to amplify. One is that Kerry is going to win, and the other is that, generally speaking, economic arguments and issues trump foreign policy issues.

There seems to be a little space between these two points, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the economic issues seem to be moving somewhat, at least in terms of the biggest numbers, in Bush's favor. And second, it doesn't seem to matter much whether they are or not; they're totally browned out by the foreign policy situation. So if it's foreign policy, then you have turf on which the Republicans generally do compete successfully and win.

ROBERT REICH: First, on foreign policy, we are experiencing between now and election day a tipping point of sorts. Americans don't pay much attention to foreign policy until things get really out of whack, and people are beginning to pay attention to foreign policy.

Still, kitchen table economics trump, and probably will trump, foreign policy. When I say "kitchen table economics" I don't mean the coverage on page one of The New York Times; but rather what it is that people normally discuss over their kitchen table or with neighbors and friends about what's happening to their jobs, their incomes, their health care.

Jobs are coming back, we are in an economic recovery, but not good jobs. The latest data that we have suggest that most of the new jobs being added to the economy are in retail, restaurant, hotel, hospital, surface transportation, child care, elder care. These jobs not only pay very little but they provide no benefits. Many Americans are now finding that they are in jobs that don't provide them with a living wage and subject their family to a great deal of economic insecurity.

So kitchen table economics, to the extent that Democrats can take advantage of that uneasiness and put forward a platform that addresses it, will be to the Democrats?advantage.

QUESTION: Given that you are talking about the traditional liberal consensus, given the new phenomena of Rush Limbaugh and Fox, it's not certain that such a liberal consensus will be traditional unless you mobilize against it.

But the experience we have especially in northern Europe, is that unless you have the trade unions with you, you will not be able to sustain a liberal democratic consensus. How do you see your relationship to the trade unions?

ROBERT REICHM: The trade unions are important, but only 8.5 percent of private-sector workers are now unionized. There has been a huge decline in unionization from 1955 when 35 percent of private-sector workers were unionized. When you get down to 8.5 percent, you may have a political force, and if a large portion of them are out talking to their neighbors and friends and getting out the vote, that's very important, but you don't have the kind of movement force that the right wing has in the evangelical Christian movement.

And so Democrats need to look beyond the labor unions. For example, whatever happened to the religious left in the U.S.? The National Council of Churches, the Reformed synagogues, even the Catholic Church, were very engaged and involved in the civil rights movement and in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. They disappeared from the political scene. We need to get not only organized labor but also the religious left engaged again.

And there are other constituencies that need to be engaged. America's young people, who tend to be much more liberal than their parents on many issues, including especially social issues, are not engaged in politics. Democrats have not sufficiently reached out to young people.

QUESTION: Accepting that you need to keep your powder dry until after September 5th, what are the four specific programs that you believe John Kerry should emphasize over and over again, the four key issues that Americans will rally around and vote for?

ROBERT REICH: 1) Health care. Health care costs for average working Americans are going up 13?4 percent a year. Employers have been shifting health care costs, co-payments, deductibles, and premiums onto their employees, and we are seeing an upsurge. I haven't seen this degree of concern since the early 1990s. I'm not talking only about the 44 million Americans who are uninsured; I'm talking about the 140 million Americans who are seeing dramatic rises in health care costs.

2) Education. The Democrats have a far greater credibility and track record on education. Most people are worried about the quality of K-through-12, the lack of availability of early childhood education, and also the diminishing access of the middle and lower middle class to higher education, which in this new economy is absolutely critical.

3) Fiscal irresponsibility. Most Americans don't understand the budget, but they do understand wild deficits. Ross Perot put it on the map in 1992, and still Americans aren't concerned. Who is going to pay for Medicare and Social Security and all of the other things that we have to pay for when baby boomers retire, particularly inasmuch as most baby boomers are not saving?

My free-floating focus group of baby boomers suggest that most of them have a concept of retirement which is what I call Med/Med, a cross between a Club Med and a medical facility—you snorkel in the morning and you have extra oxygen in the afternoon. But we can't possibly afford that.

4) Foreign policy. It is very important that John Kerry make it clear that we are becoming less safe, not more safe, that we are radicalizing the Middle East by the Bush Administration's failure to pay attention to Israel and Palestine and its blunderbuss use of military force in the rest of the Middle East.

QUESTION: What do you think of Ralph Nader and how do you think he will affect the election?

ROBERT REICH: I have known Ralph Nader since the 1970s, and I consider him a friend. He has accomplished a great deal in this country because of his personal qualities, like his tenacity, stubbornness, self-righteous indignation, and his not small degree of narcissism. All of those qualities are now coming back to haunt America.

Anybody who after 2000 still decides to vote for Ralph Nader must understand that his or her vote for Nader is a vote for George W. Bush. Maybe they want to do that out of protest. But can the country take another four years of George W. Bush?

There was an excuse in the year 2000 for many people. They bought the idea that Nader propounded that he was bringing new people into the election, and even if they voted for him it would not hurt Al Gore, and there was no real difference between Gore and Bush. Now Americans understand the fatuousness of that argument.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less