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Calming the Nerves and Stiffening the Spine

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In the days and weeks after the 1994 election, working in the Clinton White House was a little surreal. After a 1992 campaign, transition, and first 22 months in office when we were moving at the speed of light, being asked to get a million things done, being driven relentlessly to work 18+ hours a day, seven days a week (and always on call!), all of a sudden we were directionless. The inner, inner circle was around Clinton night and day, trying to console him and buck him up simultaneously, taking the brunt of his frustration, trying to figure out what to do next. Those of us the next level down were quite literally adrift for a few weeks. I occupied my time analyzing the election results, writing a memo on what happened and where I thought we should go next, and keeping in touch with group leaders and donors and other democratic activists I was close to. But I wasn't doing any of this because I was being told to, I was just doing what I thought I should, and most of my colleagues were in the same boat.

Democrats on the Hill, having been in control for so long and utterly stunned by the results, were in even worse shape, completely adrift for weeks and weeks. There was no leadership to do anything for a long time.

Even though Scott Brown's victory merely means Democrats lack 60 votes in the Senate, I am getting much the same feeling right now from stunned Democrats. Partly because the path they thought they were on to get health care done suddenly blew up on them, and partly because a sense of panic has gripped a lot of members especially on the House side, Democrats are having trouble getting themselves together. There's a big difference this time, though: first of all, their fate is still in their hands, Democrats still control the Hill; secondly, we don't have time to wander around stunned in the wilderness for the next several weeks. What needs to happen, in a matter of days (not weeks or months), is that Democrats need to (a) calm down, and (b) stiffen their spines. If they make decisions in panicked mode, they will be decisions that seal their fate in terms of losing the House. If they calm down and look at things rationally, they will realize that voters don't like panicked wimps who can't get things done. Fortunately both Nancy Pelosi and Senate leadership seem to understand this, but the worry is that the House rank and file aren't there yet at all.

Part of the problem is that the Democrats who are aligned with big corporate special interests are- surprise, surprise- telling them to walk away from doing anything big to change DC. The classic example of this is Mark Penn's piece the other day saying that Clinton came back from 1994 by walking away from all his big ambitions and playing small ball the rest of his term. Mark, who was the mastermind of Hillary Clinton's "this is not a change election, we need to emphasize experience" message strategy that worked so well for her in the 2008 campaign, forgets that Bill Clinton only regained his footing in 1995 by standing tall against the Republican shut down of government (something Penn and his close ally Dick Morris were wary of Clinton doing). Penn also ignores the fact that unlike the 1996 cycle, the economy is terrible, voters are in a foul mood, and they are calling out for taking on the wealthy special interests and making big changes.

What Democrats have to get through their heads is that neither swing nor your base voters will reward you for gutlessness. If you slink away from health care because you are in a panic, you will not be forgiven. If you take the clear path in front of you to getting a good health care bill passed, and then move on aggressively to going after the banks and creating more jobs, you will be rewarded.

Speaking of going after the banks, what a joy to see the Obama administration finally, really taking the big boys on. When Simon Johnson praised the proposal to begin breaking the big banks up yesterday, I was thrilled, because Simon is one economist who has never let the administration get by with phony posturing- if he is praising it, this proposal has some toughness to it. The key now is to get this on the floor of the Senate and House and make the Republicans say why they oppose it. Combine the banking legislation with a new jobs bill, and Democrats will have an economic platform that they can proudly run on this year.

They have to get health care done first, though. I am hoping that Obama is not rolling out the bank bill yesterday merely as a way of changing the subject from health care. Democrats simply cannot spend an entire year on a central issue, vote on it in both houses, come this close and simply walk away. If they do that, all their rhetoric about going after the banks and producing jobs will sound like the mouse that roared. They have to prove they can deliver on a big issue, once and for all, show people what they are made of, and then go take on the banks and stir things up.

One final note on the politics of all this. In Massachusetts, young voters were still very much a part of the Democratic base, going for Coakley almost 3 to 2 with all other age groups going the other way. But only 15% of young voters turned out, a stunningly low number. Unmarried women also went for Coakley 3 to 2, and also turned out at abysmally low numbers. Other Democratic base groups had similar terrible voter turnout. Does anyone really think we can turn out big numbers of hard to motivate Democratic base voters if we walk away from health care?

Ironically, the Senate now seems to get this dynamic better than the House. Senators I am talking to tell me they have the votes, and the will, to go forward with a reconciliation bill to do the fixes the House is demanding. Weak kneed House members need to calm themselves down, gather their courage, stiffen their spine, and do the right thing both policy-wise and politically.

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