A simple political giving guideline

By Steve Kirsch

It's hard to get excited about a candidate or political party that can't articulate what they will try to achieve if they get elected. Without clear goals, it's very tough to energize people to make a donation or vote. 

Would you get on board a train where nobody can tell you where it is going or when it will get there?

Would you invest money in a company where the management can't tell you what products they will ship or even when they will ship anything?

Are you excited about supporting a political party that can't agree on any long term goals and therefore, if elected to office, will not have any plan for what reforms (if any) that they will accomplish?

In an effort to help the candidates and parties raise more money, energize the voter base, and win elections, I have adopted a new political giving guideline that I have also encouraged my fellow Democrats to adopt:

I no longer give any political campaign contributions to anyone running for elected office (including the Democratic party and other political committees) who can't give me a list that I can publish on my website of their own top10 long-term goals that they will fight to achieve if they are elected. 

The amount of my donation depends on the quality of the goals, not whether I agree with them or not. A set of 10 well thought through specific long-term goals critically important to the future of the country should motivate the most  people to contribute the maximum amount.

As a voter, you need to understand what the person running for office will try to accomplish if elected. You are not asking them for guaranteed results. You aren't asking them to agree with your point of view. You are merely asking them for their own list of a few of the most important things that they are committed to try to achieve. This is totally under their control. 

Candidates and political parties stand a much better chance of winning if they clearly tell people what goals they are committed to as a party. Lacking such goals, in the corporate world, we'd say they haven't "defined the product" that they are selling. They have to do that before they can have a "message" or "market the product" (spend money on TV ads and get out the vote) or talk about how to "grab more market share."

Unfortunately, we hear a lot about policies and principles or current legislative agendas, but not much about the real high level long term goals. Why can't Democrats agree to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and then agree on a timeframe and a minimum amount? 

Without a sitting President or a nominee, Democrats aren't able to agree and articulate a single goal in any of the top 10 area of national importance. For example, do you know the Democrat's top energy goal? Their top education goal? So if they achieve a majority in the House and Senate, do you know what they will try to achieve? Unfortunately, we don't because there are no long term goals associated with the Democratic party.

More importantly, if they don't know what their goals are now, how can we be certain they will have any after they are elected? 

Is it reasonable to ask them for their goals before you make a donation? First of all, the Democrats have to have a message, but that message has to come from a set of stable long-term goals that help materialize what the party stands for. If Democrats are to win, they need to define what they stand for and tell people what they will fight for. Otherwise, they will do battle and keep losing seats (like they are doing now).

The goals are a simple sanity check...if people running for office can't tell their supporters the top 10 things they will fight for long term if elected, why should we vote for them? 

Each goal should be a long-term goal that is important for the country to achieve. Long term means 3 to 20 year time horizon. Each goal should have dates and numbers so that there can be accountability in determining whether the goal was achieved. The classic goal is JFK's sending a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade. It was absolutely clear what needed to be done,  there was a specific time period for completion, and it was completely obvious whether it was achieved or not (it was; just a few months shy of the deadline).

Is this all wishful thinking that works fine in business but won't work in politics? I don't think so.

In 1994, the Republicans did something very similar to what I've outlined here. The Contract with America was introduced during the 1994 election campaign; it was signed by all the Republican members of the House of Representatives, and all Republican candidates for that body. It laid out the plans of the Republicans in a very specific way; the Contract was revolutionary in its commitment to specific actions. It was the first time that a Congressional election had been run on such a national level. The Contract represented a triumph of Newt Gingrich and the American conservative movement. Many observers cite the Contract with America as having helped secure a decisive victory for the Republicans in the 1994 elections; others dispute this role. Whatever the role of the Contract, Republicans were elected to a majority, and many parts of the Contract were enacted (although many others either did not pass Congress, were vetoed by President Bill Clinton, or were substantially altered in negotiations with Clinton.). It created the first Republican majority in the House since 1954. In 1994, Republicans gained nine seats in the Senate, an astounding fifty-two seats in the House, and eleven governorships!

Some dispute the role of the Contract in the election pointing out that few voters had even heard of the Contract. However, what was critical was the contract gave Republican support groups and radio talk show hosts a flag to rally around, and was key to their message cohesion.

I've been told by some Democrats that Republicans can have common goals because the are all alike, but Democrats can't because they are so diverse. Yet, we shouldn't forget that 2 years later in the 1996 elections, we had the Democrats coming out with their own version of "Contract with America" entitled "Families First." That plan was drafted by the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate who hoped to use it as a basis for re-gaining a majority in the House and Senate, according to this CNN article published at the time.

So, the Democratic leadership absolutely proved that they could articulate a specific goals for the party, they acknowledged that having a clear set of goals for the party can help them win elections, and they proved that they could involve Democrats in the House and Senate to put together a set of goals that they could all agree upon.

Since I started requiring goals before I send money, there has not been a single candidate for office that when I asked for their long term goals they said "Thanks for asking...here they are!" They all had to go back and think about them. So I think the argument about there being too much diversity to share any long term goals can't be true since it would require each Democrat to have long term goals that are in conflict with other Democrats. The reality is we have a lot of people who really haven't given it a lot of thought. I'm not criticizing them for that; I'm merely pointing out the facts. So it seems that if you want to make the argument that Democrats can't possibly have long term goals they can agree on, then you should be prepared to show me the long term goals of each candidate to show there is no common ground.

Lastly, does anyone doubt that if we had a popular Democratic President who painted a vision of "we want to be #1 in the world in education in 15 years" that virtually all Democrats would line up in support of the President? So again, the argument that Democrats can't have goals fall flat.

It's important to point out three key requirements for success that the Democrats missed in 1996:

  • Bold, visionary, long-term goals that energize the voter base. You can't just have any set of goals and win; content does matter. Families first called for expanded child care tax credits and a ban on clothing imports made with child labor, for example. It was tested in focus groups. But did they honestly believe that those sorts of things were going to get people excited and vote?? You need a set of long term goals that are meaningful, not a list of the next 21 incremental changes they will make in the next session of Congress.
  • Broad focus. Families First addressed the needs in a narrow segment. It was silent on energy, the environment, jobs and the economy, foreign policy, fiscal policy, national security, health care, social security, meaningful political reform (such as campaign finance reform), etc.
  • Real commitment. You need to ensure that members are fully committed to the goals (like the Republicans were). You can't just do some research and make an announcement without commitment. I found it interesting that many members of Congress I spoke with couldn't recall Families First. My former political advisor (a real political junkie) had a tough time recalling it and couldn't recall whether any House members made a pledge of commitment to it.

Here are some goals we might have:

  • Energy: Reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 20% from 2000 levels by 2020
  • Economy: Create a net 5M new jobs from 2004 to 2008
  • Economy: Balance the federal budget every year (except in times of national emergency)
  • Health care: Provide health coverage for every working American citizen and their families by 2008
  • Foreign policy/national security: Make the world a safer place by establish a new foreign policy that is based on peace and international cooperation rather than colonizing nations and hunting down every terrorist  including pulling all our troops out of Iraq
  • Education: Instead of holding them accountable and punishing them if they fail, treat our public schools as partners in education and provide both the resources and incentives they need to adopt the best practices necessary for them to become the best in the world by 2015. But I think the most important immediate goal is to provide federal aid if necessary to get all our schools up to minimum standards by 2008 (see Why Johnny, Shakela and Jose can't read - Schools are rat traps, home is a rescue mission, funerals abound which describes the horrible state of schools in the San Francisco area!)
  • Environment: Significantly reduce the amount of air and water pollution every year in every state (number tbd)
  • Political reform: Change to public financing of elections (as already adopted in several states) so that people running for federal office can be judged on their ability to serve the people who elected them, and not on their ability to raise money. The net effect is to have more legislation in the public interest rather than driven by special interests.
  • Environment/economy/national security: Join with other nations an sign at least one international agreement that reduces the threat of global warming. Reduce our own contribution to global warming by 20% by 2020.
  • National security: Instead of focusing on securing imaginary WMD in countries halfway around the world that have never attacked us, secure the known WMD within the US (such as chemical plants) against terrorist attack.

And 4 more:

  • National security: Significantly reduce the total number of nuclear weapons of any size in the US and worldwide (exact number TBD but at least by 70%)
  • Environment/Energy: Move to 20% of total energy from non-polluting renewable sources by 2020
  • Environment: Restore every one of the 520 environmental protections that were eliminated under the Bush administration
  • Social security: Ensure that there is adequate funding for Social Security for the next 50 years

In general, the top 10 areas are typically:

Political reform
National security
Social security
Foreign policy
Health care