We had another one of those stories this week: economists delighted because we only lost 345,000 jobs last month because that was not as bad as expected. Forecasters think the pace by which we are sinking is slowing, but even in the best-case scenario, they expect unemployment will continue to go up for awhile, and for the economy to not add many jobs for as long as a couple of years.
And that's the optimistic scenario.
Another year and a half of this kind of dreadful economy is going to put people in a real grumpy mood in November of 2010. I lived through this before, although the economy wasn't nearly as bad then as it's likely to be in 2010: the 1994 elections, when the economy was still recovering from another George Bush recession. They had put Democrats in charge because they were mad at Bush for that recession, but hadn't yet felt any improvement in the economy, and folks were in a bad mood.
I think people today understand the depths of the mess the second George Bush left us with, and so perhaps they will be more patient with this charismatic young President than they were with the last one. But the similarities in circumstances are still keeping me up nights.
Here's what needs to happen to avoid another 1994 for the Democrats:
1. Pass health care reform and other policies that impact middle-income voters' lives. The mythology around the 1994 election is deep, but I remember the exit poll and turnout numbers with great specificity, along with the numbers on health care reform. We did not lose the 1994 election because people hated Clintoncare, as the Republicans called it: most voters were unsure of what the Clinton plan was, unsure whether they would like it. But the people who had wanted health care reform the most- working class women voters- were very disappointed that nothing happened, and did not show up at the polls. And NAFTA and an austere budget designed to reassure bondholders and lower deficits and interest rates in the long run didn't jangle anyone's chimes either.
Doing something big about health care will reassure middle-class voters that we are delivering on promises to do something tangible that improves their lives.
2. Take on Wall Street. I know the President is uncomfortable with too heavy a dose of populism, so in a way it's a good thing he is not on the ballot in 2010. The anger at what Wall Street did to our economy is going to continue to build as the economy stays bad for so many people, and Democratic candidates can show themselves to be outsiders if they go hard on this set of issues, if necessary harder than the President is willing to go.
3. Focus on jobs and income. The more tangible investment- whether direct public investment, or directly incentivizing private investment- is made in creating new jobs and higher incomes, the better off Democrats will be. People may accept the line about we have to help the banks because that will unfreeze credit for a while, but if all they see is Wall St's bottom line getting better while theirs is not, that patience won't last very long. Getting more focused on using our trade negotiators to prioritize American jobs sure wouldn't hurt either, and measures to boost incomes like Employee Free Choice Act and an indexed-to-inflation minimum wage would all help improve workers' incomes. One way or another, Democrats need to have that old proverbial laser beam focus on policies that actually create jobs with good incomes.
4. Focus on turnout. The 2008 Obama campaign, along with outside progressive organizations, did an incredible job in turning out young people, Latinos, single women, African-Americans, and other hard to reach parts of the Democratic base vote. They are going to need to do an extraordinary job of doing the same thing in 2010, because those are just the kind of voters it is hard to motivate to turn out in off-year elections- especially if the economy is making them grumpy.
5. Win the Blame Game. I know, this one is tacky. The high-minded among us aren't going to like this bullet point, but it's just a fact: this is not going to be an election where Democrats can win by patting themselves on the back for delivering good times to the American people. With the economy in very bad shape for more than two years by election day, people are going to be in a very bad mood, and looking for someone to blame. That's why a commission to find out what happened to put the economy in such a mess is such a good political idea, and why going hard after the banks is as well. We will have to make this an election about why the economy is such a terrible mess, and we will have to make a compelling case to voters that we got here for the same reason FDR had to deal with the Great Depression: brain dead right-wing economics. If we can win that argument, and if we are giving people real results on a range of issues that matter to them like health care, voters will show us the same patience they showed FDR.
If we do these five things well, we can turn the 2010 elections into a big victory rather than a 1994-style defeat. Democrats need to be very clear about their strategy, and very focused on getting a few key things done well.