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Own Up

A Democratic ownership agenda.

The presidential election is over and "values" won. Political observers seem united on this essential point--the reelection of George W. Bush was an affirmation of Republicans and their values and a repudiation of Democrats, who apparently lack them. How could it come to this? Through the years, we have always prided ourselves on being champions of the values that working people and the electorate care about most: fairness, opportunity, inclusion, and responsibility. But, this time around, we didn't frame our message on these ideals persuasively enough. Instead, Bush's campaign captured and co-opted the value mantle and made it seem like he stood for everything that is good in the United States and that Democrats, in comparison, stood for nothing.

This never should have happened. And it would not have, had Democrats done a better job of challenging and unmasking Republican claims.

Consider the "Ownership Society," a term Republicans use to describe their vision of the American dream--an environment where any American, no matter his or her station, can compete and achieve financial success, security, and a lasting stake in their community, all by dint of hard work. So integral to Republican political imagery are these phrases that it is hard for some voters to imagine that a Democrat can even say them, much less believe in them.

But, even as Republicans invoke pleasant-sounding slogans at every turn, they pursue policies that undermine the values they claim to represent. Take the following three recent scandals: conflicts of interest among Wall Street analysts, who duped small investors with tainted research; predatory lending, which imposed illegal and unconscionable mortgages on homeowners; and illegal practices of mutual-fund traders, who skimmed billions from people saving for their kids' college tuitions and their own retirements. In each of these situations, the Bush administration and congressional Republicans not only impeded the investigations but actually proposed legislation that would preempt the ability of state regulators to combat the problems.

Through these and other actions, the Ownership Society is revealed as an empty slogan that should have been turned against the Republicans. Some might say that this is an unduly negative approach, certain to turn off voters. I disagree. Highlighting the disconnect between the Republicans' sound bites and the alarming reality of their policies is fair game. And it would have been an even more effective strategy if coupled with a passionate articulation of our commitment to fairness and equal access to the American dream.

Democrats have to explain why the government must act when the markets are manipulated and working people are harmed. Teddy Roosevelt understood this nearly a century ago. His trust-busting and environmental activism were meant both to protect citizens and to restore the integrity of the markets. He said, "We demand that big business give people a square deal; in return, we must insist that, when anyone engaged in big business honestly endeavors to do right, he shall himself be given a square deal."

Instead of fighting for a square deal for all, Republicans today place corporate interests ahead of consumer interests. When regulators, such as those in my office, try to call them on their cronyism, they portray our efforts as bureaucratic meddling in free markets. But we did not investigate Wall Street because we were troubled by large institutions making a lot of money; we took action to stop a blatant fraud that was ripping off small investors. We sought to right the wrong, reestablishing the level playing field that is a prerequisite to market competition and ensuring that every investor enjoys the same opportunity to profit that the insiders have.

Similarly, we did not ask the courts to stop predatory mortgage lending because we begrudge lenders an appropriate rate of return. We did so because what was happening to borrowers was illegal and wrong and needed to be stopped so that people could, in fact, have a true ownership stake in society. We didn't investigate mutual-fund companies because of a desire to increase government regulation. We did it to stop a scam that allowed a favored few insiders to benefit at the expense of all other investors.

The Bush administration, in the name of free markets, has allowed business to take advantage of the small investor, victimizing those who want to own a piece of the U.S. economy. The scandals involving Wall Street analysts, banking, and mutual funds all demonstrated the Republicans' failure to protect those Americans who want to play their part in the Ownership Society.

Now Republicans want to privatize Social Security--leaving those saving for retirement at the mercy of a system they have failed miserably to police. If Social Security had been privatized during the last several years, retirees on fixed incomes would have lost billions more to scams.

Fortunately for millions of small investors, Democrats are watching out for them. Democrats have a proud history of stepping in, not to put the brakes on business but to protect small investors and ensure that the playing field is level for every American.

Here's a fact almost no one knows: In 2003, when my office uncovered the mutual-fund scandal, outrage was easy to find, but few in political office stepped up to take on the mutual-fund industry, which is one of the largest donors to federal campaigns. The president failed to support any meaningful reforms. Most in Congress ran the other way. There was, however, one exception to the general inertia. The strongest bill--and, indeed, one of the only bills--to reform the mutual-fund industry was introduced by Senator John Kerry. That is one of the reasons I supported him early in his campaign. It is too bad voters didn't hear the story about how our Democratic candidate was actually one of the few in government who stood up to defend their stake in an Ownership Society.

With our values and policies, Democrats have been on the right track for a long time. We champion the ideals held most dear by working families, but we simply didn't articulate campaign issues in the context of those ideals. Instead, we let the Republicans employ wedge issues like gay marriage that diverted attention from their failed domestic policies.

We can't repeat these mistakes in 2008. Starting today, our party must focus on all the difficulties that working people face--from financial scams to job security to health insurance, from day care for our kids to nursing homes for our parents, from the price of gas to the increasing cost of college tuition, from the safety and security of our neighborhoods to the health of the environment. We must address these issues not as antiseptic policy points but as elements of a living mosaic that, together, form a society that rewards hard work and integrity. Our policies and plans will gain traction with the public when we frame them as a reflection of the core values we believe in.

Eliot Spitzer is attorney general of New York state.

By Eliot Spitzer