In all the hundreds of thousands of words being written and spoken about the implications of last night's special election in Massachusetts by all the pundits and strategists and drum-beaters for various interest groups, only one thing really matters right now: the character of the leaders of the Democratic party. It is up to them whether this generation of Democrats has the guts to keep moving forward boldly even as they run into resistance and trial, or whether they fall back into the collective character flaw that has held the Democrats, and the country, back for 40 years now: that sense of abiding caution that would have them pull back into a shell at the first sign of trouble and give up on trying to change anything. As I wrote in my book The Progressive Revolution:
In the culture of caution that dominates Democratic politics in the modern era, when you try something big and fail, even if the failure is due in great part to your own timidity, you only become more cautious.
President Obama deserves enormous credit for taking on big, tough issues like health care and climate change and financial regulation, but the problem is that the pursuit of these noble causes has become bogged down in the slowness and special interest dominated world that is Capitol Hill right now. The Obama White House has compounded the problem by not taking on the special interests head on and full force, but instead giving in to them on a variety of issues that really mattered to both the Democratic base and to middle class voters: the big banks got bailout money while being asked to do little in return; the drug companies got taken off the hook in order to bring them aboard with health care legislation; the insurance industry won all their big battles on health care, leaving them free from public plan competition or anti-trust worries; polluters got massive set-asides in the energy bill.
Here's the deal: while there are significant differences between Democratic base voters who didn't turn out to vote in very big numbers yesterday in Massachusetts, and the working class swing voters who voted for Scott Brown, these two kinds of voters actually have a great deal in common in terms of what will move them to vote for Democrats:
- They want big change.
- They are tired of having wealthy special interests, especially the big banks and insurers, run things in DC.
- They expect the Democrats to get things done on the big issues of the day- they want jobs created, a better health care system where the power of the big insurers is reigned in, investments in renewable energy, the big banks broken up.
The same debate every political party has after every big loss started up immediately again last night. The completely predictable voices of cautious conservative Democrats are already in the usual high pitch whine: we have to pull back, we have to go slow, we have to not change things so much. The quintessential cautious Democrat, Evan Bayh, spoke for this line of thinking in his usual way:
It's why moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massacusetts aren't buying our message. They just don't believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems.
Although he was arguing this in the context of pulling back, the ironic thing is that Bayh was right about one thing: voters really don't believe Democrats are solving their problems. And why is that? Because the big change we promised them hasn't materialized. Because the deals being cut with the bankers and drug companies and insurance industry are not solving their problems. Because going in slow motion on issues like health care has convinced them that we can't deliver.
At this moment, Democrats face the ultimate test of character: do we have the courage to head into the wind of the pontificating pundits and the culture of caution Democrats, and deliver the real change American voters are asking for? Or do we turn tail and run from the challenge? The irony is that doing the gutsy thing is by far the smartest thing Democrats could do politically. If we actually pass health care reform, if we actually go after the big banks, if we actually get things done on immigration reform, we convince swing voters we are capable of getting things done, and we convince our base that we are worth turning out to vote for.
Voters will reward us if we do the right thing. And so will history. When the revolutionary war was going badly for Washington, when the civil war was going badly for Lincoln, when civil rights reform threatened the Democrats in the South for a generation, our leaders did not turn tail and run away from the challenge. They had the courage of their convictions, and they have a special place in our country's history as a result. Now is the time for this generation of Democratic leaders to do the right thing. Voters will reward them in the short run, and history will reward them in the long run.