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How Democrats Can Harness the Public Anger (and Madness) for November

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It's always a mistake to let a ranter rant. Without pushback, the anger takes flight.

The question now is: With the public now inflamed in anger, the ranting having had its effect, can Democrats push back hard enough to avoid defeat in the November midterms?

Democrats made a big mistake at last year's healthcare town halls when emergent Tea Party types seized the microphone and ranted---and we sat on our hands. Just as reported elsewhere, at the town hall I attended the ranters ranted first about "out-of-control government spending," "socialized medicine," "all those government bailouts." Then, veins throbbing at temples, they dipped into a vast grab-bag and ranted about everything else, from imperiled Second Amendment rights to carry their guns to their revulsion at "that Obama guy going around the world apologizing for this great country."

I include myself in that night's mistake. Usually a stand-up sort, I let myself be cowed by a scare that swept through the Democrats' section that, come to think of it, there hadn't been a security-check and, given the venom, maybe there were guns on the premises? Tellingly, an independent sitting with us, who'd introduced himself saying this was his first political event, left after enduring 30 rant-ridden minutes and seeing no Democratic pushback: "This is a waste of time," he said, "I'm out of here."

A "smart swarm," we were not. For not only did that anger, going everywhere unchecked, morph into the Tea Party juggernaut now driving too much of today's politics, sucking up too much media attention, and winning too many primaries. That anger has spread to the electorate at large, hooking in too many independents who voted Democratic in 2008, with that anger growing more volatile and incoherent the more it untethers from reality.

And now, more recently, that anger has spawned a kind of madness. Witness the free-flowing anti-Muslim rhetoric unleashed by the "Ground Zero mosque," the free-flowing and irrational fear-mongering of the talk-egos. Glenn Beck's recent "Restoring Honor" rally, set at the Lincoln Memorial to play on Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and suggest it's white Americans now under siege, is blasphemous, preposterous, and, in its racism, dangerous. He preached we must restore God in our lives, yet the next day declared Mr. Obama's Christian faith a "perversion."

Where is that fabled American nonsense-detector, the one best expressed by Gen. McAuliffe when the Germans demanded his surrender at the Battle of the Bulge: "Nuts!"

It is nuts that so much anger and madness swirl. More than nuts, it is sad, beyond sad, that nearly a decade after 9/11, the "day everything changed," America finds itself in such---what's a better word for it?---stupid straits. Would that we were harvesting wisdom by now. This being a hinge election---we are setting in concrete the country's post-9/11 course---the stupidity bodes ill.

This irrationality parallels the villainization of President Barack Obama. One would think we had a Louis XVI partying at Versailles, deaf to the hurting masses. By any measure President Obama has achieved impressive successes in impressive short order---against a Republican chorus of No and much Democratic Maybe. Most crucially, Mr. Obama walked us back from the economic brink---where the previous administration had dumped us---and began resuscitating the system. To forestall the reckless behavior that brought us to the brink, he and Congressional Democrats got financial reform passed. He rescued the auto industry, turning "Government Motors" into a going private concern again (so much for his socialism); and he not only stopped the hemorrhaging of jobs in that sector but began to restore them. He got healthcare reform passed: yes, it took too long, but it was a major campaign promise to Main Street. Two weeks ago he closed out combat operations in Iraq, "turning the page" to focus on the economy---which is why Democrats must win in November: to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs and craft the new "pivot" economy. (Mr. Obama's Labor Day speech yesterday proposing a public-private infrastructure bank is a great start.) And does anybody remember Mr. Obama scored a historic treaty with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons? (Liz Cheney @ Keep America Safe: Take note.)

But no; in this angry, ranting atmosphere, few remember. An ungrateful nation raises its eyes to you, Mr. President.

Unchecked, this atmosphere spells disaster for Democrats in the fast-approaching midterms. (Personally, I can get angry at Democrats caving so easily to the Republican wind machine, but then again it's hard to speak truth and sense to red-faced irrationality.) To minimize disaster, to harness the anger and madness, here are some cues---sticks to shove into the wind machine, to reconnect Houston with reality, to get independents who left our ranks to return. At this late date, these cues are defensive in nature, to be raised at candidate forums, letters to editors, and, perhaps most scarily, at neighborhood barbecues. Readers no doubt will contribute their own.

"You're angry? We're angry too": Why should Republican anger supersede our own? Democrats are angry too---about the near-total ruination the previous administration left the economy and now blames on the Democrats, about unnecessary war in Iraq, about the U.S. Government made an agent of torture, about [fill in with your blanks]. Referring to the "previous" rather than the Bush administration cushions you against accusations of Bush-bashing; on the other hand, if your anger has ebbed, bashing Bush may stoke your fires. If that's not enough, think how President Obama's early gestures at bipartisanship were turned aside; think how various Bush officials are being given a pass by the Obama administration and not being prosecuted for crimes like lying about WMD, condoning torture, etc. Angry again? Good (but don't get too angry; it's stupid-making, as we see from the present scene).

Angry at "out-of-control government spending"?: This is the craziest-making of the Republican ranting points, because: Yes, there is lots of spending going on under Obama, but most of it---the stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program)---is to repair the economic ruination inflicted by the Republicans during their eight-year reign under Bush. The kid who killed his parents and then threw himself on the court's mercy because he is an orphan needs murder charges thrown at him, not mercy. Moreover, where was this Republican anger when the previous administration sank billions upon billions in Iraq? (Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz calculates this war cost $3 trillion dollars "and beyond." ) Where was this Republican anger when the previous administration passed tax cuts for the rich-who-just-keep-getting-richer while the middle and working classes grow ever poorer? Where was this anger when the previous administration passed Medicare Advantage funded entirely on borrowed money? All of which added to the federal debt and deficit---a just-discovered issue of the right. One has to ask, where was this anger as the debt and deficit ballooned during the Bush years? When these questions are posed, silence is invariably the Republican response. Pose them again, press hard, and squeeze out the hypocrisy.

Angry at "socialized" government?: Agreed, it hurts one's argument to use the opposition's term, but "socialized" has been batted around nearly a century. There is a role for government that repairs the damage inflicted by rampant capitalism while also promoting individual responsibility. Discuss (calmly).

Angry at "all those government bailouts"?: Finally, we agree! Democrats are just as angry as Republicans that the American taxpayer was forced to bail out banks, insurance companies, and corporations deemed "too big to fail." So: Inasmuch as this catastrophe was due to these institutions running themselves like free-wheeling casinos too entitled to abide by any rules, why the resistance to the restoration of even a modicum of regulation? If there is one great lesson of this Great Recession, it's that the profit motive has proved itself, again, too seductive for too much of management "talent" to resist. As long as profits trump ethics---a forever kind of state---regulation is needed.

Context, context, context---the near-total ruination of the U.S. economy left by the previous administration: Republicans will cry "blame game" and cite the need to "look forward, not backward," but this ducks responsibility (and responsibility is a bedrock Republican tenet). I personally favor the term "ruination": more than the clichéd "ditch" (Mr. Obama's term), it suggests damage on an epic scale, something to get legitimately, toweringly angry about. In this context---whatever the term: ruination, ditch, the Ditch of Ruination---Obama can be recast as the tow-truck operator who shows up after the crash; he didn't cause the crash, he's come to clean it up. And, in all fairness (another fabled American tenet), how fair is it to harangue the tow-truck guy and stick him with the bill? Fair or not, he has accepted the bill; now, everybody help.

Calling all adults, calling all adults: Children rant and stay angry, adults override their anger and work on solutions. Columnist Eugene Robinson nails the present snit exactly when he calls out "the spoiled-brat American electorate," who insists on instant fixes to long-term problems (which it in part caused). There are of course plenty of adults in the electorate, what I've called "the conscientious public." They, the adults, need to call out the children, the spoiled brats---right this minute. Public perception can change, fast, especially if one is publicly pointed to as a child.

Accentuate the positive---President Obama's impressive achievements to date: See above. Democrats also need to accentuate deference to the office of the presidency, just as Republicans unfailingly do (no matter if the office-holder deserves it or not).

Eliminate the negative: Can Democrats please curb their criticism of Obama, at least til the midterms? Critics on the left are almost as harsh as those on the right. Even if we don't like everything Obama has done (no public option, stimulus too small, the war in Afghanistan extended), Republican majorities in Congress will doom any further legislation. Forget repairing the ruination, get ready for more of it.

Main Street vs. Wall Street: At this point, with the Republicans' obdurate opposition to financial reform---up to and including their heartless opposition to the extension of unemployment benefits, to succor the very people their stoke-the-rich policies put out of work---not to mention their growing coffers fed by the financial sector, Republicans can be painted as the party of Wall Street and as no friend to Main Street. Get painting! Given this Republican bias, Congressional Democrats should extend the Bush tax cuts for those making under $250,000 and end them for those making more. And Mr. Obama should appoint Elizabeth Warren, powerful people's advocate, to head the new Financial Credit Protection Agency. The inevitable cries of anti-business bias can be met by Main Street Democrats insisting that fair business practices make for prosperity, not to mention greater equity in income.

The un-loyal opposition: It's also not hard at this point to paint the Republicans, the minority party and thus the putative loyal opposition, as un-loyal---in fact, downright harmful to the commonweal---in their ironclad loyalty to party over country. Now word floats from their camp of closing down government, should they win in November. Republicans sing the patriot's tune, but their actions speak subversion. Call them on it.

Insist on tougher media: A case can be made that the "reality" of a Republican triumph in November is the result of constant repetition by the commentariat and "objective" reporters. Playwright Arthur Miller, in his essay "On Politics and the Art of Acting," warned against the press becoming drama critics, focused on spectacle and conflict. Insist, in letters to editors, that editors check their premises---of Republican takeover, of Democratic defeat---daily. And don't let a letter from a right-wing ranter go undisputed.

Insist Democrats turn out on Election Day: Democrats hid out at home this primary. Do GOTV among our own and, if necessary, get angry. So you didn't get your public option? The Republicans threaten repeal of "Obamacare" altogether---and so much more ruination.

And, finally, the madness...: This entire sorry state of things, and the cartoon portrait of Mr. Obama, are best captured by Newsweek with this banner on a recent cover: "The making of a terrorist-coddling, warmongering, Wall Street-loving, socialistic, godless, Muslim President (who isn't actually any of these things)." Inside, after examining these epithets, writer Jonathan Alter flat-out states: that "if smash-mouth tactics are validated by huge GOP gains...then Big Lie politics may be with us for good." He concludes with a salute: "at least the president is keeping his legendary cool." In this season of anger, imagine the titanic anger our admirably adult president tamps down every day.

But what to do about the madness? For one, there are Republican politicians who, while they may not directly contribute to the madness---the Obama epithets, the blame-shifting from Bush to Obama for the ruined economy, the blather of Glenn Beck and his ilk, the anti-Muslim bigotry---nevertheless benefit indirectly from it. Smoke them out---by name. And not to forget, there's always Gen. McAuliffe's terse---and winning---response: "Nuts!" Nuts to the ruination-making, responsibility-shirking, Wall Street-coddling, Main Street-shafting, race-baiting, stupid-making, Big Lie-fomenting, shameless, treasonous Republicans (who actually are all these things). Rinse and repeat.

Win or lose in November, the Republican ranting will go on; in fact it will likely go into overdrive in the ramp-up for 2012. But win or lose, Mr. Obama and the Democrats must go on the offensive, stop playing defense, regain control of the message, and never, ever, let the ranting go unchecked again. The all-purpose "Nuts!" is a good place to start.

Carla Seaquist is author of "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," a collection of op-eds, essays, and dialogues. Also a playwright, she is at work on a play titled "Prodigal" (www.carlaseaquist.com).