12/13/2010 11:26 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dems Need Their Own Eric Cantor in the House... and the Senate... and the White House

No, I am not suggesting that the soon-to-be Republican Majority House Whip change parties. It is clear, however, that Dems desperately need someone to speak for them with his unabashed, in-your-face style. Cantor is relatively young, extremely sharp and dedicated to his party's core beliefs, and he proffers his party's message with skill and passion. Eric is both a prominent messenger and a true leader for the Republicans, two roles the Democratic party desperately needs to fill.

In contrast, Dems offer only the "same old same old" in their House leadership -- Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn -- who, despite the thrashing their colleagues received in the midterm elections, do not appear to be going anywhere. Meanwhile, in the Senate, there is an equally stale and dusty triumvirate in charge, with Reid, Durbin and Schumer all just as entrenched and bereft of energy and new ideas.

If Dems are going to prevent another bloodbath in 2012, they must:

  • Identify and cultivate real leaders among the younger crop of truly progressive Dems in both the House and Senate - yes, banish those last few "Blue Dogs" to the back yard;
  • Revamp their political playbook and start standing up as a unified body -- just like the Republicans do -- so they can effectively challenge every piece of loony legislation that comes out of Boehner, Bachman and their fellow right-wing whackos, while also offering sensible counter-proposals to each bill. (The recent smackdown House Dems gave to the Bush tax cut renewal is a good start.)
  • Formulate and rally around a simple, engaging message. Where is the Dems' "Contract With America?" Now is the time to create and promote a Progressive legislative agenda for Dems to fight for in the 112th Congress and then run on in two years.

Unfortunately, it looks like the party is waiting for our President to take the lead, which seems unlikely, since he has given us little more than waffling and broken promises lately, emboldening Republicans and infuriating progressive Democrats. Without the party's progressive base behind you, Mr. President, you will be sunk in 2012 (see Blanche Lincoln). There is even talk of launching a Dem primary challenger against you, a threat you had better take seriously.

The president must start using his bully pulpit to speak straight to the American people and give them a clear understanding of where he wants to lead this country, finding again the powerful voice that served him so well during the 2008 campaign. Become the populist we thought we were electing, the peoples' president, Mr. Obama. There is still time.

I suspect O and the Bush-like inner circle of advisors surrounding him still don't understand the causes of the 2010 fiasco. The millions who voted for Obama didn't expect to get a wimp who caves on major issues like healthcare reform and the Bush tax cuts. "No drama Obama" had better crank up some drama and stop trying to appease the Republicans, who will never stop pushing their radical agenda no matter how much he tries to play nice.

The national anxiety over Obama's lack of direction and leadership is palpable -- and translated directly into the Dems' recent losses in the House and Senate. Of all the letdowns we suffered under this president, his "deal" with the devil to extend the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires is truly the most galling. The new tax cuts now proposed by the Senate, with a two-year extension, will add $900 billion to the deficit. Where is the hysteria about deficits and debt from conservatives on any of these tax proposals?

Included in this swindle are some other nasty tidbits sure to weaken our financial house even further, including a 2% cut in payroll taxes for one year, which sounds great until you realize it will drain $120 billion from Social Security -- yet another giveaway to conservatives in the Senate that opens the door to further cuts in the future for Social Security. Another particularly outrageous give-away is raising the point at which the estate tax would kick in to $5 million instead of the current level of $1 million, with a cap of 35% instead of 55%. Christmas is definitely coming early for the richest 2% this year. There are some tax breaks for students and middle class families with children, as well as the extension of unemployment benefits for 13 months that will aid a needy 2 million out-of-work Americans, all bargaining chips played deftly by Republican "hostage-takers" in the Senate.

House Dems offered up more progressive proposals on tax reform, but were sidestepped and cut out of any discussions on the tax bill. As to be expected, House Dems were outraged as the proposal went directly to the Senate via the White House and the Republican leadership. Hopefully, the House will reject this flim-flam proposal outright when they conduct their final vote. Otherwise, tax reform will just be kicked down the road until 2012, where it will likely bite O in the butt once again.

Add to these failings the Deficit Commission debacle, nine months wasted as Simpson and Bowles tried to peddle a conservative agenda completely divorced from reality. What kind of judgment was it to even select Simpson and Bowles in the first place? The President really needs to clean house among his "advisers" as a first step towards winning back the trust and support of his base.

Instead of that fruitless exercise, we need an Independent Jobs Creation Panel that would lay out a real program for lowering those unemployment numbers permanently. At the helm would be my choice: Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the Clinton Administration, who writes about these issues and solutions almost daily and is a professor of policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He would assemble the right team to create a plan that would ignite our moribund economy. Most importantly, Reich would not start out with a pre-determined agenda -- trying to twist facts to conform with fantasy as the Simpson/Bowles crowd did, supported by the lackeys of that loon Peter G. Peterson. Reich would offer up more progressive solutions than any of his former colleagues from the centrist Clinton administration.

Other signs of life Congressional Dems could show would be to push for passage of the 9/11 James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act. Let the Republicans explain why they failed to pass it to those families who have suffered so much since 9/11. On Thursday the bill was defeated in the Senate, but will most likely be added to the tax bill when it reaches the House. Dems can also show some spine on the Start Treaty with Russia on nuclear arms, and commit to a definite timeline on ending our engagement in Afghanistan. And what about closing Guantanamo and DADT? There is much work Dems can do to stay relevant over the next two years -- if they are up to the task.

In truth, however, it is going to be up to the people to stop the President from drifting further to the right. Much more movement from the bottom up is needed, since top down isn't getting the job done. After the election one would have thought that Nancy Pelosi would have retired. Of course, she pushed through a number of good bills in the 111th Congress, and her place is secure as the first woman Speaker of the House, an enormous achievement. But Pelosi and other House leaders failed miserably at sharing the story of the Dems' accomplishments with the American people, showing once again why House Dems must find and promote new voices to deliver a coherent message of what they stand for and what their goals are.

Change at the DNC, DCCC and the DSCC are also desperately needed (see my previous HuffPo article "The DNC, DSCC and DCCC Need Makeovers"). These entities are archaic, out-of-step organizations whose sole purpose is to raise money, which they then squander on messaging that is poorly conceived and delivered, and on Republicrat candidates/incumbents who just wind up losing to real Republicans. A total transformation of purpose and philosophy must take place in each of these orgs, since none of them can seem to connect with hard-working Americans who are struggling every day to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Dems must communicate in ways that inspire and reassure, as opposed to offering up dry recitations of the legislative process and the percentages of Americans being helped by some bill or another. The conservatives, on the other hand, spared no expense in 2010 in exploiting people's fears with a steady stream of half-truths and bald-faced lies, resulting in resounding wins in an election with another pitifully small turnout.

Dems must talk about core progressive values and put conservatives on the defensive. Democrats believe in earning a living wage that supports the family, sending children to college, a secure retirement, employment benefits, owning a home, health assurance - in other words, the American dream. Conservatives say they want the same, but they can't defend these values on our terms, and with a committed communications strategy and the right voices, the difference in the parties would be glaring, leading to a resurgence in support for Dems. After all, Democrats are supposed to be the peoples' party, so they must talk about Congress being the peoples' house where they are doing the peoples' business. Of course, they will also need to deliver legislation that works for the people.

We recently saw a new voice and potential leader for Dems emerge when Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) rejected the proposals of the Deficit Commission -- of which she had been a member -- and offered up her own plan. She was the first dissenting voice, followed by many more. That is the kind of courage and backbone I would like to see become contagious in the Democratic party.

Additional content by Jon Stone