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The Empire Strikes Back: Explaining the Republican Wave

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What a difference two years make. In 2008, President Obama swept into office on a platform of hope and change. All across America, there was a ground swell of voices calling for an end to a political system that upholds the powerful special interests that ran America into the Great Recession. In 2010, an empire of big corporate interests fought back, riding a wave of anger and economic dissatisfaction.

There is no disputing the fact conservatives won and progressives lost on Tuesday. There is also no disputing that the frustration percolating across the country over politics in Washington swept in some obviously extremist candidates (Rand Paul Criticizes Civil Rights Act, Argues Businesses Should Be Able to Discriminate). Yet, given the historic level of discontent throughout the nation with Washington politics, it is frankly shocking that the wave against the party in power was not even larger. One thing that did not happen yesterday: Americans did not endorse a conservative Republican agenda. In fact, and paradoxically, exit polling shows that voters expressed even LESS approval of the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Democrats retained the U.S. Senate and Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.), a symbol of much of what the Democrats accomplished in the last two years and who embraced Obama and the entire hope and change agenda, won re-election with the decisive support of Latinos (an almost unheard of 90 percent of the Latino vote).

What then did happen last night?

Big Money Interests Seize Back Control of the Political System

In 2008, on the heals of an economic collapse caused by tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of profiteering corporations and the financial implosion brought on by the collapse of the vast Wall Street Ponzi scheme, the people fought back for hope and change. Just two years later, the empire has returned with a vengeance. Unleashed by a conservative Supreme Court, independent groups flooded the system with a record amount of special interest money, more than quadruple the last midterm cycle. (In the end, it may exceed $ 1 billion.) These groups, backed by massive multinational corporations, greedy banks and self-interested investment firms vastly outspent progressives (Midterm Elections 2010: An Inside Look At The Outside Group Spending Surge Boosting The GOP).

The level of coordination between "titans of industry -- from health insurance companies, oil executives, Wall Street investors, and real estate tycoons -- working together with conservative journalists and Republican operatives to plan the 2010 election," was truly unprecedented and extraordinary (MEMO: Health Insurance, Banking, Oil Industries Met With Koch, Chamber, Glenn Beck To Plot 2010 Election).

This final deluge of cash was preceded by a much longer and even more cynical effort by big corporate interests to reassert control over our democracy. Since the day Obama won, the special interests have been softening the ground for this assault. Consider:

  • The tea parties that kicked off much of this season's anger didn't start or end as a grassroots movement. They began in the summer of 2009 with corporate interests attempting to torpedo health care reform in order to protect profits at the expense of the people (Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama).
  • Since 2008, the health care and insurance lobby spent1 billion dollars to make sure profits kept getting priority over people in our health care system (Health Care Profiteers: A Billion-Dollar Lobby). Ultimately, despite this massive hell storm of GOP lies, industry misinformation, racial epithets and nearly outright bribery, health insurance reform passed due to the heroic steadfastness of the President and Democratic leaders in Congress. Unfortunately, the political damage was enormous.
  • Wall Street went all in against the financial reform package designed to restore balance to our economy. Over a quarter of billion dollars was spent to discredit Obama and stop Democrat's attempts to put consumers first (Wall Street's lobbying pricetag:251 million). They didn't derail reform but they did manage to do major damage to the President. Ludicrously, 55 percent of likely voters now believe that the word "socialist" describes the President either "well" or "very well."

Politics over the Public Interest Pays off for Republicans

Republicans are reaping the rewards of a cynical and immoral strategy: obstruct the President from succeeding and then blame him for Washington's failure. The evidence is overwhelming:

  • Rep. John Boehner, likely the next speaker of the House of Representatives, railed in the campaign about Obama's failure to create jobs, but the party he leads voted in lock step against every single effort to jump start the economy by creating jobs (Republicans Block Bill to Aid Small Business, GOP blocks Democrats' jobs outsourcing bill).
  • Obama (to the consternation of some progressives) reached his hand across the aisle again and again and each time, the GOP rejected working with the President to solve America's problems. The level of obstructionism was simply unprecedented. The Republicans in the Senate have filibustered literally everything, even legislation they previously supported. Six Republican co-sponsors of a bill creating a deficit commission filibustered their own bill when President Obama came out in support of it.
  • In one of the most egregious examples of this cynical strategy, Republicans blocked immigration reform and then ran ads telling Latinos not to vote because the Democrats couldn't get immigration reform done (GOP Front Group Runs Ad in Nevada Telling Latinos Not to Vote).

It was the Economy and Obama Couldn't Repair Eight years of George W. Bush in Time

The damage done by the GOP to our economy simply could not be undone in 20 months. The top issue across the board in every state and in every race was the economy. The economy remains in terrible condition, and the party in power paid the price. The fact that it's in far, far better shape than when George Bush left (Obama: The Best President For Stocks Since... FDR) wasn't enough to convince voters. Arresting the economy from the total free fall simply doesn't change the reality that our nation is suffering from the longest and deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Fifteen million jobs have disappeared; the housing market has collapsed; family savings have evaporated; small businesses are starving for customers; states and cities are insolvent; and there is a huge surge in the number of people living in poverty (Poverty Rate In U.S. Saw Record Increase In 2009: 1 In 7 Americans Are Poor).

The irony is that Republican candidates benefited across the board from the damage their party did to our economic system from 2000 to 2008. The financiers who created this economic mess were helped every step of the way by Republicans preaching a free market religion and corporate managers who raided their own companies to cut themselves in on the spoils. These predators were showered with riches while our roads and bridges rotted, our environment decayed, our schools declined and our communities were starved for investment.

The net result is a systemic crisis in which American companies have no incentive to create jobs here, and our communities face an ever widening and ever more tragic widening in the gap between the super rich and everyone else. Voters are frustrated because solutions for this crisis aren't coming out of Washington. In the end, they punished the party in current power for the economic problems created by the previous President and a generation of misplaced economic values.

Return of the Progressives

The bad news is that the politics of cynicism backed by huge money interests won out. Yet, there is more good news than just Harry Reid's victory:

  • African American Gov. Deval Patrick (D) won re-election in Massachusetts only months after Tea-Party favorite Scott Brown's stunning Senate win.
  • Sen. Michael Bennet (D), behind in the polls for much of the fall, surged to victory over Ken Buck in Colorado with help of the Latino vote, which broke strongly against Buck's anti-immigrant, anti-health care reform, anti-government messaging.
  • Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), one of the most progressive members of the Senate, achieved a solid victory over Sarah Palin-backed corporate executive Carly Fiorina in California.
  • Jerry Brown solidly trounced corporate executive Meg Whitman who spent a record140 million dollars of her own money in a brazen attempt to buy the California governor's mansion. Voters not only rejected her corporate views, Latinos flatly delivered a knockout punch to her anti-immigrant messaging.
  • Rep. Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, with the help of groups like MoveOn.org Political Action, PAZ in Action and the Campaign for Community Change, made a huge comeback to hold onto his seat in Arizona.

As we move forward it's critical for progressives to do four things:

  • Engage and mobilize our people and NEW people. Change doesn't come from one election cycle - it comes from building a strong and vibrant movement that can demand shifts in our economy from the top and bottom and from inside and outside. Too many of us on the progressive side celebrated 2008 and then went home to wait for the President to deliver change. That's not how it works. Strong grassroots community organizing will be critical in counterweighing the political clout of the moneyed and powerful corporate interests.

    Exit polling shows that progressives didn't deliver women's votes at nearly the same margins as they have in the past. Polling done by the Center for Community Change with the Ms. Foundation shows that the key to re-energizing this base will be developing a vision of our economy that provides greater economic security for families, greater educational opportunities for all and more quality jobs.
  • The President and progressives must lay out a vision that does not shy away from ideology. The choice not to trumpet a progressive vision has left our side vulnerable to the simplistic but effective attacks of those who desire to obstruct real change for ordinary Americans. Consider that Obama has won legislative battle after legislative battle, including health care reform and financial reform - two of the most far reaching reforms ever passed by government in any age. Yet, the overall debate was lost. His approval ratings are in a free fall, the midterms were a body blow and many of the reforms are now unpopular. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan had one of the least successful legislative records of any President, yet he's remembered as the creator of the so-called "Conservative Revolution." The lesson is simple: real change requires a sea shift in public opinion about values and structures, not merely tactical changes in policy direction.

    The exit polls confirm this: The economy was the number one issue, and when asked who voters blame for the economic mess, 35 percent blame Wall Street. The next name on the list, former President Bush - 29 percent point their fingers in his direction. President Obama follows at 24 percent. That's a whopping 64 percent of voters who blame the previous Republican President or Wall Street for our economic problems, yet many voted to return that party and those interests to power. There is a massive disconnect here.We progressives have failed to communicate to voters.
  • Resist the temptation to out flank the Right by joining them. Bill Clinton was the master of this strategy after the 1994 midterm disaster for Democrats. One of the outcomes of that choice was eight years of George Bush. Why? Voters could no longer tell the difference between the two parties, and it became easy to hand over control of government to such a bumbling corporate puppet. It's more critical now than ever that we give voters clear choices: Main Street vs. Wall Street, profits or people and greed vs. shared prosperity.
  • Engage the new GOP leadership in Congress on a common solution to our biggest economic problem: unemployment. Republican control of the House of Representatives will change the dynamic in the run up to 2012. The GOP will no longer be able to adopt a purely obstructionist strategy and then claim the credit. If the system remains largely broken, they'll no longer be capable of pointing and ducking all responsibility. They might well still choose obstruction, but now they'll partly own what they break. Progressives must lead the way for a bold economic program that has these action principles:
    • Full employment at a living wage for all of those who want to work
    • Public and private investment in industries that offer long-term growth potential while meeting essential human needs (e.g. clean energy, efficient transportation, preventative health care, healthy food, early childhood education and elder care)
    • Community planning to focus local creativity, leadership and resources on sustainable economic development
    • Reconstruction of the financial and corporate governance systems to foster these goals

Elections are not the beginning or the end of movements. They are road stops along the way to our future. Progressives must give all Americans a clearer choice.

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