While the prospects for Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections are looking grim, there is a path to victory -- if we decide to take it. The populist tide that swept Scott Brown to victory in Massachusetts and propelled the tea party protests over the past year, is essentially the same wave of sentiment that Barack Obama rode to the White House. President Obama himself acknowledged that fact in an interview this week with ABC News:
The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry and they are frustrated - not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years.
So what has happened over the last eight years? To put it bluntly, the government has lost touch with the American people. First, it was the misguided war in Iraq and the corruption in Congress, then the mishandling of Katrina, the bank bailouts and, most recently, the protracted health care reform effort that has turned into a game of Washington insiders and industry lobbyists. Not to mention the drumbeat of constant bickering and partisanship between Democrats and Republicans.
Talk show pundits on the left and the right make this out to be a battle of ideologies, of philosophies of government or of policy. But they are simply wrong. This is a fight over representative government, plain and simple. The majority of the American people want leaders who represent them -- not on every single issue of policy or even of values -- but on the core issues that are most important to them. Most people don't give a fig about ideology, but when it comes to what is important to their families and communities, they will very quickly step up and fight.
Right now, what is most important to Americans is the dire state of our economy. And it's not about the economy in some abstract sense -- it's about your neighbor down the street who got laid off or your sister who was furloughed. It's about your own job, and whether or not it will exist in six months or a year. It's about making your mortgage payment or paying for day care for your child. These are the issues that have focused the minds of Americans on their government and spurred a populist revolt.
Americans are famous for their common sense, justifiably so. They understand that our economic woes run deep, and that the government does not have the power to instantly turn things around. However, what they do expect is that our leaders -- in the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression -- will focus single-mindedly on doing whatever they can to create jobs and revitalize the economy. Our leaders have not done that, and now the citizen revolt is in full swing. Of course, health care reform is important, as are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a host of other issues. But all that pales in comparison to the 800-pound gorilla of the economic crisis, which is way at the top of citizen concerns in all opinion polls. Whether they are Democrats, Republicans or independents, our leaders ignore these polls at their peril.
Both parties go into the 2010 elections with the headwind of a populist revolt. For the Democrats, they will face the wrath that voters naturally direct at the party in power. As for the Republicans, voters are disgusted by their stubborn refusal to address the economic crisis and their adopting the purely political tactic of stonewalling. "A pox on all your houses," is the voters' response. In the end, it doesn't really matter which party you come from. The path to victory in 2010 will be a vigilant focus on the economy. Whether the mantra is "jobs, jobs, jobs" or "it's the economy, stupid," politicians need to wake up and focus on what voters are saying, beyond the racket of Beltway punditry.
For Democrats, the good news is that Republicans are offering no viable alternative to revitalizing the economy. Voters recognize this and will respond to any candidate, regardless of party affiliation, who starts paying attention to what they want. President Obama has only lately gotten this message. But, frankly, this is not about Obama, who is not running again until 2012. This is about candidates for Congress -- both incumbents and challengers -- who have a rare opportunity to stand up for what has always been a cornerstone of Democratic principles.
The Democratic party has long been the champion of working, middle-class people and has a strong record of economic growth. From FDR and JFK to Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, Democrats have been the party of growth and prosperity. It makes no sense that, during a time of grave economic crisis, the party should be distracted by social wedge issues or even important priorities like health care that do not address the fundamental economic problems faced by ordinary Americans.
If Democratic candidates in 2010 will return to solid representative politics on the local level -- listening to voters and addressing their concerns -- then they will stand a fighting chance, whether as incumbents or challengers, to withstand the populist firestorm. In fact, they may become better leaders in the process, and more truly representative of the people they seek to represent.