In January of 1998, the news about Monica Lewinsky exploded in the Washington media world. It was 24-7, and red hot intense. Within 72 hours, Republicans were calling for Clinton's resignation or impeachment, and some Democrats -- even some liberal ones like Paul Wellstone -- were on the verge of doing the same. Clinton survived the first barrage of calls for him to step down, but as that long year wore on, and more and more salacious news came out -- topped off by the stained dress in August -- it looked worse and worse for both Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Republicans were salivating at their prospects in the November elections, and Democrats were running scared. Pundits were predicting big losses for the Democrats in Congress: 30 plus seats in the House and five or six in the Senate. It didn't turn out that way, though. For the first time in 176 years, the party with a president in office in his 6th year actually picked up seats in the Congress (we picked up 5 in the House, while staying even in the Senate.) Without going into detail as to why (if you want to know more about that, you can go here), the bottom line is that progressives outside the party structure helped chart a bold strategy for winning that made all the difference.
Instead of avoiding the president's problems, we made the case that it was time for the country to move on, that all the Republicans wanted to do was wallow in the mud, and instead the country needed to focus on solving our problems. After initially resisting this approach, Democrats ended up embracing it, and we shocked the political world by picking up five seats instead of losing 30.
2010 is a very different kind of year, but it also looks bad for Democrats right now. It feels a lot like 1994 right now, with a weak economy, an impassioned right wing movement, and a discouraged Democratic base. We didn't do very well in the 2009 elections, and forecasts of ugly job numbers for a long time to come are making a lot of voters feel angry and discouraged. But I am convinced that there is a strategy that can turn the 2010 election around. That strategy needs to be built around health care, jobs, and taking on the big banks. None of these things are easy, but I am convinced that they are by far the best hope Democrats have.
On health care, they simply have to pass a strong bill where at least some important and tangible benefits kick in right away. They just have to if there is any hope in the 2010 elections. To have worked on this issue for a year and come away with nothing of significance to show for it is a political disaster for the entire party. God help any Democrat from a tough district or state on the ballot in 2010, because nothing short of divine intervention will save them.
On jobs the politics are complicated. I think many voters understand the depth of damage to this economy, and don't expect miracles. But can I just make some suggestions to my Democratic friends regarding how NOT to talk about jobs in 2010:
- Don't brag about how the GDP is growing, the recession is over, but jobs are a lagging indicator and the job situation will eventually get better.
- Don't say "well, we know things are bad, but without us it would have been a lot worse".
- Don't talk about how great it is that the banking sector is healthy again, because soon they will be lending money to businesses, and at some point that will mean some of those businesses will start hiring again.
My personal preference would be to fire every Democrat on the White House staff or on Capitol Hill who talks like a macroeconomist. Macroeconomists like Summers and Geithner are thrilled with the 3.5% GDP growth, and thrilled that the banking sector is showing "more health" (read: big profits)- they show about as much political sensitivity as George HW Bush when he looked at his watch in the middle of the debate, or said "Message: I care." Bragging about an improving GDP and explaining how jobs are lagging indicators which will someday trickle down to the unemployed is political death at a time like this. What Democrats should be doing is fighting like cats and dogs for every job that they can deliver, to their districts and to the country. Show that they are moving on this urgent need: get a new jobs bill passed, get a roads/infrastructure bill passed. Show more toughness when the most protectionist country on earth, China, lectures us on being protectionists (they liked us being saps for all those years.) Fight like crazy for new jobs in every venue, every forum, every chance you get- and tell people no matter how many jobs you produce that it is never enough, that you will keep fighting for more. The message has to go beyond the Obama White House mantra that "we won't be satisfied until everyone has a job"- it has to be that we will fight like tigers to produce every job we can now, not in some distant future. Voters understand the deep hole our economy is in, and that things won't be solved overnight, but they want to know that their political leaders are as passionate about solving unemployment problems as the people struggling are to find jobs.
Finally, in terms of the big banks, as I have written before, voters are mad as hell at Wall Street, and they want to know that politicians are not only mad too, but are willing to do something to take them on. Bernie Sanders' two-page bill to break up the big banks was a stroke of political genius, and is great economic policy besides. Based on private polling I've seen, about 85% of the American public would agree with Bernie's statement that if you are too big to fail, you are too big to exist- and they believe it passionately: in every speech I have given over the last year, my single biggest applause line, easily, was that statement. Bernie's simple, straightforward two-page bill is a masterstroke, as it cuts through all the financial gobbledygook of the financial barons, and lays bare a simple way to get done what the public is demanding. I hope Bernie files it as an amendment on the floor to any bill coming up for debate, and forces other Senators to vote up or down on it. The Democrats who are smart will champion the idea and fight for it.
If Democrats follow the safe conventional wisdom formula in the 2010 elections, they will get their butts handed to them. Voters are not happy with incumbents, base Democratic voters feel like no one is fighting for them, independents feel like nobody cares what they think. But if Democrats shed their caution and become fighters, for jobs and health care and the middle class and against insurers and Wall Street, they can pull off the same kind of surprise in 2010 that we pulled off in 1998.