Dear Democrats: I feel your pain. I've been there. I was one of President Clinton's chief political advisers when we lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats -- and then we lost a ninth when Dick Shelby of Alabama switched parties.
So many commentators have compared the present situation to the 1994 debacle that I thought I'd put my recollections, thoughts and counsel on paper (or, rather, on pixels.)
First, losing the Congress was not good for President Clinton. The Republican Congress impeached him, for Pete's sake. They harassed him. They refused to confirm many of his judges. They shut down the government. They refused to listen to him on climate change. They did not heed his warning to "save Social Security first" and lock away the Clinton surplus so it would not be squandered. They even accused him of playing "Wag the Dog" when he tried to kill Osama bin Laden.
The only ways in which having a GOP Congress was good for Clinton is that it gave him some Grade-A villains to push off against, and allowed his centrist instincts to be seen in sharper relief. On balance, I would rather have had a root canal.
I expect the new Republican House to be even more partisan; even more extreme; even more mean-spirited. In the beginning of this year -- long before the corporate-funded deluge of attack ads -- 39 percent of Republicans supported impeaching President Obama. In the same Harris Poll, 24 percent of Republicans thought Obama might be the Antichrist. When the base of your party so despises the President that they are delusional, impeachment not only seems feasible, it seems downright reasonable.
It is true that having a Republican Congress forced Clinton to move to the center. He signed a welfare reform bill that was far more ruthless than he would have liked. He signed a cut in the capital gains tax -- hardly a Democratic priority.
Look for President Obama to do the same. I think he should very publicly say, "I get it," making clear he heard what the electorate was saying. Then define what they were saying not in the GOP's terms ("Cut spending! Shrink government! Privatize everything!") but rather in more realistic terms:
- Create jobs.
- Clean up corruption.
Job creation and reducing the influence of special interests are as mainstream as you get. President Obama and Congressional Democrats should challenge Republicans to enact a payroll tax holiday. The payroll tax is regressive and it's a job-killer. Working people hate it. Small businesses hate it. Republicans ought to hate it. Let the GOP explain why they prefer an elitist tax cut -- say, on the income taxes paid by millionaires and billionaires. If the tea party-backed newcomers are real populists they will want to create jobs on Main Street, not give another tax break to Paris Hilton.
The Democrats should push the rest of their now-stalled pro-growth tax cuts: reducing taxes on investments businesses make in research & experimentation, tax cuts for creating green-collar jobs and generating clean energy.
Then President Obama and the Democrats should challenge the Republicans to support real investment in the real America: our roads and bridges and airports and mass transit. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our drinking water system a D- (think of that when your child wakes you up in the middle of the night for a glass of water). The engineers say one in four rural bridges is deficient -- and it's worse in the cities, where one in three is deficient. A bridge is built to last 50 years. The average age of a bridge in America: 43.
President Obama does not have a communication problem; he has an economic problem. He has a jobs problem. He needs a jobs plan. That, by the way, is the one communications wrinkle I would iron out. Stop calling it "stimulus" or "infrastructure" or "R&E." Call it jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs, dammit. Then challenge the GOP to join you in creating jobs by cutting taxes and rebuilding America.
Democrats should be just as bold on corruption. Rather than whine about the money spent in this election cycle, Democrats should propose new ideas to limit the power of lobbyists and require greater disclosure of campaign money. In 2006 John Boehner famously said, "Yes, I am cozy with lobbyists." I didn't see any Tea Party activists carrying signs calling for electing leaders who are cozy with lobbyists. Pushing reform is not only good for our government, it's good politics. It splits the GOP's corporate wing from its populist grassroots.
Yes, President Obama and the Democrats need to move to the center. Fortunately, that does not mean slow-walking gay rights or repealing the 14th Amendment. Rather, it means a strong, centrist jobs program and a clear, centrist commitment to limiting the power of corporate special interests. If they have the skill and adaptability to reclaim the center, the Democratic comeback won't be far behind.