03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Retirements and the Establishment

I was planning to write a piece on banking issues today, but with three surprise retirements of Democratic incumbents in statewide positions yesterday (Dorgan and Dodd in the Senate, Gov. Ritter in Colorado) I have to comment on that situation. Fortunately, the two things are pretty closely linked.

Look, I have no doubt that personal considerations entered into all three of these decisions, and we don't want to overdraw our conclusions here. Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd have both been in the Senate a very long time, and are both getting to the age where retirement is an understandable option. There are all kinds of rumors about Ritter's more surprising news, but again there are likely very personal reasons for him wanting to not run for re-election.

Having said all that, though, there is very little doubt that a tough-looking 2010 for Democrats weighed into the decision-making here. Base enthusiasm is lagging, Obama's approval rating is sinking, unemployment isn't going down: political professionals are looking at all these factors and getting very nervous. Anyone who was considering retiring already has to be thinking that the 2010 election trends make the decision to get out while the getting is good a pretty smart one.

I'm not going to sugarcoat anything here: anytime you have a bunch of incumbents retiring, it's not a good sign for what people think of the party's chances in the Fall. However, there is one really important silver lining: in a year when voters are in this foul a mood, non-incumbents and anti-establishment candidates have some significant advantages over incumbents. In 2006 and 2008, in many of the big primary races the anti-establishment insurgent won, including that 2008 Presidential race you might remember.

Which brings me to the banking issue. The biggest single mistake President Obama has made politically and economically was the one he made in the very earliest days of the transition, which was to signal he wasn't going to take on the big banks aggressively. Swing voters, Democratic base voters, and Democratic activists are all united on one key point: they hate the big banks on Wall Street, and are angry that politicians are not being far tougher on them. In order to survive and win elections in 2010, Democrats are going to have to separate themselves from Bob Rubin-style economic policies and be far more aggressive and populist in their campaigns. Doing that as a non-incumbent will be easier in many cases than trying to do it as an incumbent.

The movement against the banks is building and growing. On May 6th of last year, I wrote a piece about what would need to happen to take on the power of the big banks. I listed six ideas, the first of which -- creating a new coalition to take on financial reform issues -- happened in the weeks after my article with the formation of Americans for Financial Reform. The middle four ideas are all being worked on to one degree or another -- progressives coming up with an economic Plan B to the one we care on now, working to get public financing of campaigns passed, encouraging investigative journalism in the banking arena, progressives forming more alliances with independent community bankers.

The sixth idea -- starting a nationwide movement to switch over money from the big banks and credit unions -- got a huge burst of momentum with the launch of the Move Your Money campaign. Sparked by a dinner conversation amongst a group that included Arianna Huffington, economist Rob Johnson, political strategist Alexis McGill, and filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (and, no doubt, by the one line in my seven-month-old post -- I'm sure everyone there has great memories about my blog posts), a new campaign was launched to encourage people to move their money from the too-big-to-fail banks which wrecked our economy into smaller independent community banks. Read about it here, and join the action.

Bailing out and coddling the big banks is the number one reason that swing voters, Democratic base votes, and Democratic activists have gotten angry at the establishment and less inclined to support Obama. If Democratic candidates on the ballot this year take up the anti-big bank banner, they will reap big benefits, because the anti-Wall Street movement is gaining momentum. And if the rest of us start challenging Wall Street's power in other ways, we might really begin to change America in a serious way.

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