Hoping to shape the narrative around the expected loss of Democratic congressional seats in the fall election, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka argued on Tuesday that the lesson learned from the past two years will be that Democrats were too timid with their legislative ambitions.
"Those battle-worn Democrats will understand that they faced tough races not because they did too much but because they did too little," said Trumka.
Speaking to a small group of political reporters from the union federation's offices overlooking the White House, Trumka argued that the president, up until recently, lacked a clear argument for his economic agenda. That, combined with pared-down reform on a host of policy fronts, has left the party in a precarious state -- though one that, Trumka argued, is not as bad as the pundits are predicting. Democrats, he predicted, will hold on to both chambers of Congress.
The union leader was particularly pointed when making the case that Democrats are primarily responsible for their own precarious political states, even if the AFL-CIO helped put them there. He expressed no regrets for a failed attempt to knock off Senator Blanche Lincoln in a Democratic primary, calling the effort (which cost the union millions of dollars) "priceless" and arguing that purging members on matters of principle was, in turn, a principled thing to do.
"We will do it again," said Trumka. "You will see us doing more primary races in the future. Not less. More. And some of them will be successful and some of them won't. But people understand we are willing to fight for working people, And by the way that generated a whole lot of enthusiasm in the state. We now have more volunteers in that state then we have ever had before... She gave us no votes. She didn't help working people. It doesn't matter whether it is a Democrat or Republican working against you, the result is the same. "
Echoing the type of arguments often heard within progressive circles, Trumka also argued that the health care law that has become toxic for some Democrats would have been more of a boon for the party if it included a government-run insurance option.
"It would have made it more effective," he said. "It would have made it more able to control costs. I think if it would have been in there, there would have been a lot more enthusiasm for it. But it isn't. So the question becomes, the decision between the old system and the new bill, without the public option, which one is an improvement? Which one gets us close to where we want to be? There is no question that the bill that was passed gets us closer than the old system..."
Taken together, Trumka appeared to be laying the groundwork for the post-election argument bound to surface if Democrats lose a substantial number of seats. While the White House has put the onus for electoral success on whether or not "base" voters end up coming out to vote, labor seems to be making the inverse case. Voters, Trumka argued, are there to be motivated. But the elected officials within the party failed to provide them with compelling reasons to show up.
"What I hear on the ground is, people didn't say you went too far on health care," he said. "They say 'You didn't do enough. You should have had a public option. You should have had this; you should have had that. You didn't go too far on job creation, you should have created more jobs.' No one has said to me, 'You know, Rich, you guys went too far in regulating Wall Street.' Most people want to tar and feather them for what they have done."