11/10/2010 08:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Trapped in a Mine

Election night was bittersweet for most victorious Democrats. We in the House now face the depressing prospect of life in the minority without many of our cherished colleagues.

A friend of mine wrote the next day to offer congratulations and dub me one of the few bright spots in the election. I responded that I felt more like a Chilean miner trapped in a world of darkness.

I wasn't referring to the dark cloud cast by my constituent and Senator Mitch "Dr. No" McConnell. And not to the darkness of the 15th century, which many of our politicians seem determined to reenact. I was reflecting the gloomy realization that there is no clear path out of the hole we are in.

The American people are desperately seeking a Moses to lead them out of the wilderness, back to the land of milk and honey. They thought maybe Barack Obama was the one, and when he proved to be mortal after all, they were willing to listen to anyone new. Hence the election results.

It is depressing enough as a Democrat to realize that after two years of hard work trying to save the American economy and build a foundation for the future, we lost our majority to a bunch of t-shirt slogans. For the next two years there will be little opportunity to do what we are supposedly in office to do: make life better for the majority of Americans.

A week later the dark hole seems even deeper and darker. Democrats in the House are now in the midst of a battle over leadership, which feels a bit like a fight over who will be the starting quarterback for the winless Buffalo Bills.

I know Barack Obama is still President, and the Senate is still run by Democrats, but all I hear in the media and from many of my colleagues is how we can regain control of the House.

Yes, elections are about winning power, but there is far more at stake. In this darkness, Republicans are rejoicing, basking in their recent wins. But where is the victory for Americans? What's ahead for them? For no one has yet to show hard working families the light at the end of the tunnel.

I know that in the battle of ideas, Republican politicians are at a distinct disadvantage. Their fundamental philosophy - which I characterize as survival of the fittest, richest and whitest - is too callous for most Americans. And the policies that are unique to them - lower taxes for the rich, privatization of as much government as possible, deregulation of the largest corporations and environmental apathy - will do nothing to help average Americans.

To paraphrase a remark I recently read: Democrats don't deserve support because you don't know what their policies are, and Republicans don't deserve support because you know what their policies are.

Sadly, we Democrats have not proven to the American people that we have better ideas. I am confident we have better values, or at least values that most Americans embrace. We believe the economy should work for everyone, and that everyone is entitled to full equality under the law. Most important for this time in history, we also believe that government can and should be involved in creating and assuring opportunities for every citizen.

Over the last two years we enacted historic health care reform, financial reform, and a number of other important measures. But neither President Obama nor Congressional Democrats explained how these actions could help the country find an exit from the darkness, or how they fit into a comprehensive strategy for a better future.

I believe the American people would have given Democrats another chance this year if we had shown them we had a plan to dig us out, a plan to rebuild the American middle class and recreate the land of opportunity. We did not come close to doing that.

Back in 2008, my brother, who has achieved remarkable success in the barbeque restaurant business, informed me he was supporting Barack Obama and other Democrats in the election. He had been mostly a Republican voter because he wanted to pay less tax, and this marked a sea change, so I asked what had led to his switch. "I finally figured out," he said, "that if no one can afford barbeque, it doesn't matter what my tax rate is." Implicit was his instinct that Democrats would be better for the middle class.

I have told that story hundreds of times, and it always resonates. People understand that if there is no money to spend, jobs are lost, and the spiral continues downward into the dark hole we now occupy. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to help enough people afford barbeque.

We know the Republicans are happy to keep the country in the dark, and if we Democrats are to recapture the power necessary to assert our values, we must find the energy, courage, creativity and unity to map out a brighter day for the people we sincerely want to serve.