11/11/2010 06:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Back in the Saddle: The New Democratic Outlook

All right, Democrats. You've had a full week to hide in the corner in the fetal position and frantically avoid any media outlet that's not MSNBC, and I hope you've made good use of it, because it's time to come out of hiding and realistically take stock of the political situation. Put down that bottle of whiskey, end the pity party, and let's hash out the prospects for the future: the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Okay, so really it's just bad and worse. But not everything is as apocalyptic as it may initially seem.)

The first thing that Democrats should reconcile themselves with: nothing is going to get done during these next two years. Zero. Nada. With the Republicans claiming a majority in the House and Democrats holding a not-even-close-to-filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, America should consider itself lucky if Congress manages to agree on when to give itself vacation time. Passing legislation over the past two years, even with an unprecedented Democratic majority, has been a battle royale. Democrats have actually risen spectacularly to the occasion, managing to pass health care reform, financial regulatory reform, and the stimulus plan, in addition to a bunch of less-heralded but incredibly important measures like the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Credit Card Holder's Bill of Rights.

All told, it's been an extremely productive legislative session by any standards. So why doesn't it feel that way? Why was there the need for someone to create this site? Answer: it's so easy not to recognize the accomplishments of the past two years because the process itself was so drawn out. Anything that was passed had to go through Blue Dogs and compromise and filibusters and innumerable rounds of negotiation, morphing into multiple different forms along the way and thoroughly confusing everyone. By the time major bills were finally passed, the general public had no idea what they would do and Democrats were unsure of what exactly their party had accomplished. It was a messaging failure. Consider the health care bill: if I asked a group of people to name the name Democratic health care message, there would probably be silence before someone mumbled something like "preexisting conditions". But if those same people were asked to describe the Republican health care message, it would take about 0.025 seconds before someone screamed "death panels," and another person screamed "socialism!"

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats failed to put across a clear message on their major accomplishments, allowing Republicans to hijack the national dialogue with misinformation. Although the Democrats could probably have done a better job with messaging, something the White House has indicated in recent weeks, it's not entirely their fault. The party had a difficult time presenting a unified message when it represented such a range of viewpoints, including a large Blue Dog caucus. Disagreement within the Democratic Party itself made it hard to even agree on a message to broadcast -- try touting Democratic accomplishments while Representatives run ads proclaiming their independence from Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama. In essence the Democrats traded clear messaging and electoral success for legislative productivity, a deal anyone would be happy to make.

Fact number two about the new political order: it's much more polarized, on both sides. Most of the Democratic losses were in districts previously represented by Blue Dogs, and so the Democrats who did survive the bloodbath that was Election Day are considerably more liberal and ideologically centered than those who didn't. Contrary to certain arguments, this is not something to be happy about. Complain about Blue Dogs all you want (and complain I do), but without their votes, health care and financial reform would never have happened. The loss of the Blue Dogs means the loss of any chance at legislative productivity, so it's not a situation to be happy about, but it is a situation to take advantage of.

With the Progressive Caucus now the plurality caucus among House Democrats, they finally have the opportunity to do what they could not while working to get bills passed: present a clear, compelling party message. Here the Democrats need to take a little recent history lesson from the GOP: when the Republicans got crushed in 2008 and the national consensus was that conservative principles had failed a referendum, did Republicans move to the center? No, amazingly, they threw a giant Tea Party and moved even further to the right. And their party unity, clear message and continued blaming of Democrats won them back the House in 2010. With party members more likely to agree to actually be liberal, the Democrats have the opportunity to do the same thing while they are in the minority: they should rally around their legislative accomplishments and make protecting those accomplishments their mission for the 112th Congress. This is why Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to stay on as Minority Leader, a position she will most likely be easily elected to, is so important for the Democrats. Keeping the same face that led the Democrats through the legislative victories of the past two years sends a message: we will not back down. We will not be ashamed of our accomplishments. We are proud to have stood up for the American middle class, and we will continue to do so. Now that there isn't even an outside chance of passing any important legislation in the next two years, the Democrats can close ranks and finally form a strong party platform, just as Republicans did in 2008.

Republicans are also more polarized than they were before midterms, but in their case the change is leading to schism rather than unity. The ultra-conservative Tea Party made a lot of noise and is claiming victory, but their wins were largely in safe seats like Senator Jim DeMint's. The only hotly contested seat the Tea Party picked up was Rand Paul's; Sharron Angle lost, Christine O'Donnell lost, and Joe Miller appears to have lost. Sarah Palin's endorsement track record is mediocre at best. The strain between old-guard conservatives, who blame unelectable Tea Partiers for ruining the GOP's chances at taking the Senate, and Tea Partiers who claim that they are the only true face of American conservatism, is already showing in spats between Christine O'Donnell and Karl Rove and former friends Jim DeMint and Bob Inglis. Breaking the famed GOP discipline, Republicans appear more than willing to take shots at each other - remember O'Donnell's "Republican cannibalism" line? Greater ideological diversity in the Republican Party is threatening to do what it did to the Democrats; undercut the party's legitimacy as right-wing and really right-wing politicians squabble amongst themselves. If the infighting continues, the next two years could be far more entertaining for Democrats than we ever imagined they would be on election night.

So what's the moral of the 2010 midterm story? It's bad, but it's not the end of the world. The loss of the Blue Dogs and split between the House and Senate mean that nothing interesting is going to happen on the legislative front, but if the Democrats were going to lose seats, the Blue Dogs were the best ones to lose. The new, liberal core of the Democratic Party has the chance to reinvent itself as champion of the middle class and the progressive reforms of the past two years. The Republicans have to deal with the same internal schisms that plagued the Democrats and led to a confused, disorganized party message. Democrats, we've been thrown. Now let's get back in the saddle and charge forward.

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