03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons for Democrats After Coakley -- Stay on Offense

With Chile electing a businessman as president and a former anti-Orange Revolution candidate leading in the Ukraine, is simply opposing the party in power during bad times enough to prevail also in America in the mid-terms and 2012?

Even before knowing the results in the Massachusetts special Senate election today, can Democrats avoid the fate of their Chilean and Ukrainian equivalents? Or to use a more local example, the fate of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, an unpopular incumbent who lost to a Republican refusing to run on anything more specific than I'm-not-Corzine?

After the Coakley candidacy, the answer is yes. That's been a very expensive election but at least no incumbent Democrat now has an excuse for coasting or presuming deliverance by registration. By the Fall of 2010 or 2012, ideally unemployment will be under 10% and the economy headed in a positive direction -- and the early benefits of health care reform will be heard at least as loudly as denunciations of "socialism" and "death panels." But until and when that happens, there is one bedrock strategy for almost any competitive contest.

As Republican strategist Lee Atwater famously put it, "if you're explaining, you're losing" -- or, the best defense is a good offensive. Since the rhetoric of the Right has always sounded appealing -- for faith and flag, against big fat government -- Democratic candidates need to change the narrative to future-past and up-down rather than stale left-right. With Democrats in charge during an awful economy, abstract ideological arguments or standing pat are not enough to convince swing independent voters.

Here's the better frame: "Do you really want to go back to a GOP that brought us economic collapse, Enron, Katrina and Iraq?" This is both rhetorical and empirical...since it's true. The fact is that Bushonomics dug us into this hole and the growth rate under Democrat presidents since FDR has been more than double the growth rate of Republicans. And it's pretty hard for Republican candidates to defend an administration that produced no net new jobs in their eight years. Zero.

While Democrats are a 21st Century party trying to fix health care, global warming and education, the Republican Party has some of the finest minds of the 19th Century. Recall how Bush 43 tried to have Social Security funds invested in the stock market.

Is this merely "the blame game," as Karen Hughes gamely argued over the weekend? It's called accountability -- and it would be political negligence for Democrats to avoid making this case.

The up-down axis also avoids Democrats being tagged, in E.J. Dionne's sulphurous phrase, "Wall Street Liberals." While the stimulus and bailouts did create millions of jobs and perhaps averted a Depression, that's not reassuring to a family suffering or fearing job losses. Democrats need to remind voters that they -- as Coakley in fact did as Attorney General but talked about too late as a candidate -- are consumer advocates against insurance companies ripoffs, predatory lenders, and polluters ruining communities.

This us-them approach is the one that President Obama skillfully (and finally) took last Thursday and Sunday when he pushed for a big bank fee so that taxpayers got all their money back. No longer can the Tea-baggers and Mitch McConnells have it both ways -- being faux populists when seeking blue collar votes and Beltway insiders when seeking bankers' donations. They're not going to be happy when forced to choose between their voting base and their financial base.

And the trope whose-side-are-you-on has as much resonance -- especially after the Great Recession caused by regulatory neglect -- as time-for-a-change does.

If Democrats can't hold Bush et. al. accountable for their economic failures and lose the populist argument to Fox-y Republicans, we don't deserve to govern.