What To Say on November 8th

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET
  • Bill Scher Senior Writer, Campaign for America's Future

Bill Scher is the author of the new book, Wait! Don't Move To Canada!: A Stay-and-Fight Strategy To Win Back America. He will be continuing his book tour in Oregon, Seattle and NYC this month.

It's the day after Election Day.

Democrats have just earned a resounding victory.

But while they're basking in the glow, the highest-ranking Republican in Washington steps up to the mic and fires a warning shot -- there may be a honeymoon for Democrats in Washington, but he's going to be the "chaperone."

That's what happened in 1992, after Bill Clinton won the White House and Democrats kept their majorities in Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole didn't offer conciliation and compromise. Republicans didn't slink away, concede that the public rejected conservatism, and argue amongst themselves if the party should still support tax cuts for the wealthy.

They immediately took a defiant posture and proceeded to obstruct Democrats in every way possible for two years.

Democrats were unprepared for the onslaught. They had the numbers in Congress, but Bill Clinton's "Third Way" campaign that was "not conservative or liberal" did not bring with it a well-defined ideological mandate.

Without that mandate for support, Democrats were vulnerable to ideological broadsides from the right-wing when they proposed anything that involved any degree of government. After two rocky years, they lost control of Congress.

Fourteen years later, will history repeat itself?

If Dems win control of one or both houses Tuesday, don't expect Republicans to give any ideological ground.

Mark Foley will be blamed, along with Denny Hastert for mishandling the scandal. And the media of course. And maybe the lame duck Dubya for not deporting enough immigrants.

But Republicans will not blame themselves for their unwillingness to produce any legislation that improved the quality of life for Americans.

They will insist that voters still support the conservative platform of less government, and on that basis, they will attack any Democratic attempt to direct our government to respond to public concerns.

Democrats will once again be vulnerable, because they chose not to nationalize the congressional elections around a choice of governing visions and related sets of policies. Any gains will be primarily the result of Republican policy failures, not Democratic policy proposals.

(Dem congressional leaders did announce a legislative package called "Six in '06," elements of which Nancy Pelosi is pledging to pass in the "first 100 hours" of a Dem House. So it is unfair and inaccurate to say Dems have "no ideas."

Yet Dems haven't made the package the centerpiece of a national campaign strategy, and in turn, few Americans will head into the voting booths aware of it.)

If Dems win at least one house on November 7th, what should be said on November 8th, so Democrats can begin to turn their gains into a strong ideological mandate and prevent conservatives from regaining their footing?

Three key messages:

1. "The public has rejected conservative government, a government that has been reckless, callous and elitist."

We can't accurately say people voted for something that wasn't explicitly offered, but we can say what they voted against.

And we should make very clear that what they voted out were not just individual Republicans, but a right-wing philosophy of government that has failed to serve them. A government that has been reckless with our financial and natural resources, callous to our basic needs, serving only an elite group of corporate cronies and fringe fundamentalist religious leaders.

2. "We will seek to earn the trust of the voters by responding to their concerns."

In the immediate election aftermath, Dems should not overreach beyond their thin mandate. Over the next two years, Dems should not be overly timid and think they can't broaden their mandate.

Some may point to how Bush handled "winning" the presidency in 2000 without the popular vote -- simply asserting a conservative mandate for massive tax cuts for the wealthy -- as a model to replicate.

But that only worked because Democrats didn't bother challenging such a flimsy claim. Whereas in 2005, when Bush asserted a mandate to dismantle Social Security, Dems stood up and fought back.

Bush learned the hard way he had no real mandate. He suffered his first big political loss as president, which weakened his standing and hampered the rest of his term.

Starting on November 8th (or perhaps a few weeks later, if there's a push to get rid of Hastert) we can expect a Republican minority to fight back vigorously and viciously. So Dems should be careful not to overreach and give opponents an opening.

In the "first 100 hours," they should push the easy stuff in their "Six in '06" package -- issues long-simmering that are clearly a response to public concerns, such as:

  • Implementing all of the 9/11 Commission recommendations

  • Raising the minimum wage

  • Supporting stem-cell research

  • Lowering prescription drug prices

  • The more ambitious stuff on the list -- involving education, energy, health care and retirement security -- will likely come with bigger price tags and/or involvement of our government.

    It's stuff the voters want to support, but still need to be persuaded that their government can pull it off and invest their money wisely. Democrats need to take some steps to earn that trust to avoid leading with their chin.

    What's needed is a pivot point, to give Dems a fresh opportunity to offer a specific new direction for our government.

    3. "We will investigate what's really been going on in Washington the past six years, not to rehash the past, but so the public can make informed decisions on where we should take country in the future."

    Democrats have made very clear that they will be investigating the failures of the Bush Administration, to bring back "congressional oversight" and "hold the White House accountable." (Though impeachment has been fully taken off the table by Dem leaders.)

    Republicans will surely attack such efforts as petty payback and a waste of time and dollars. This is potentially a powerful argument. Voters want problems addressed more than they want scores settled.

    But Dems can frame those investigations as necessary steps before the public can weigh in on any set of fundamental domestic policy and foreign policy reforms.

    That will not only inoculate Dems from attack, it will set the stage for Dems to offer their own governing vision and earn the broader mandate necessary to win election after election.


    Of course, it is certainly possible that Dems will make gains, but fall short of winning control of either house. What should be said then?

    Many will likely point to Republican gerrymandering, financial advantages, sleazy robo-calls, and ballot box shenanigans to argue that the popular will for change was thwarted. What can be supported with evidence should be said.

    But Dems should also acknowledge their own failure to meet the moment for change by offering an alternative governing vision.

    In my book Wait! Don't Move To Canada!, I contend that without consistently articulating the core liberal principles that gird the Democratic Party, we will only be able to win the occasional fluke election, not a string of elections that come with real mandates.

    Those principles are: representative, responsive, responsible government; fair and adequate taxation; promoting credible democracy and eradicating poverty abroad, to defeat the terrorist threat.

    If Dems come up short Tuesday, it will be painfully clear that a moment was missed to offer a clear vision, energize a frustrated electorate and generate the kind of turnout that can overwhelm unfair structural disadvantages.

    In short, no matter what happens Tuesday, we all have work to do to better articulate what the Democratic Party stands for -- starting Wednesday.