Last night's real winner wasn't a party or an ideology. The real winner was Wall Street. Once again the wealthy and powerful have applied the Shock Doctrine to US politics, using a financial crisis to increase their power. The Democratic Party tried to accommodate the Wall Street crowd for two years and failed. Now Democrats must decide whether to adopt a new, bold and coherent strategy, or keep listening to the same advice that got them here.
They may need to decide quickly. The party's usual suspects are already out in force, making excuses for themselves and peddling the same shopworn "centrist" wares. The president used the words "responsible," "responsibly," or "responsibility" thirteen times in today's press conference. It's admirable when someone takes responsibility for their actions. That's an act that will hopefully include taking stock of what went wrong and trying something different.
The Failure of Pseudo-Centrism
We're still suffering from the massive failure of a radical, free-market-run-wild ideology that devastated the economy. The public understood that, so they gave the Democrats an enormous mandate to change economic direction. Yet just twenty months later conservatives scored a huge triumph, leaving Democrats with a choice: Continue to blur the distinction between themselves and their opponents, or lay out a clear agenda for job creation and economic growth.
Of course, that's been the choice all along. But the president and many other senior Democrats chose to take the advice of the "centrist" experts within their party by adopting unpopular Republican positions and getting nothing in return. After last night's rout, what are these experts advising? You guessed it: more of the same so-called "Centrism." That's an odd word to use for policies that most Americans oppose, like cutting Social Security or allowing bankers to enrich themselves by endangering the economy, but theirs is an Alice-in-Wonderland world.
Real centrists would defend Social Security and do more to rein in Wall Street, since those positions are popular across the political spectrum. It's a good thing the president said today that he wants to spend more time with the American people. Bankers and the Deficit Commission aren't "centrists" where most Americans live.
If Democrats want to keep passing bills that include unpopular right-wing ideas, Republicans and their Wall Street patrons will be happy to let them do it and suffer the consequences. They've done it before, most notably when they let Dems take the fall for their unconditional bailout of the big banks. We saw the results yesterday. And yet, incredibly, the usual suspects are still pushing the same failed approach.
The Usual Suspects Respond
If the president wants new ideas, he won't get them from the ever-predictable Mark Penn. He's the mastermind who ended Hillary Clinton's nearly invincible run for the presidency with the same "centrist" pablum he peddled to Obama today. After noting correctly that "Republicans and the Tea Party won the turnout war" while Democrats' core constituencies of young voters and minorities stayed home, Penn nonetheless (and inevitably) concludes that the party must "move to the center." How will that increase turnout? Penn also says that "President Obama got out of step with the voters" -- apparently by enacting a few of the policies that voters elected him to carry out. The idea that Obama didn't enact enough of them never comes up -- but then, that wouldn't be very "centrist," would it?
Paul Begala's election response -- "A Centrist Democratic Agenda: More Jobs, Less Corruption" -- isn't as wrongheaded as Penn's, but it's convoluted and somewhat confusing. That's probably because Begala's Prime Directive, which seems to demand a "centrist" approach, conflicts with some vestigial common sense that he can't shake long enough to deliver the conventional wisdom.
Even as he advises moving to the "center," Begala correctly notes that the president's first responsibility is to create jobs. That's absolutely right: This election was about jobs, not ideology, and the Dems will continue to get hammered until people see some movement toward creating them. Begala's also right to suggest that Democrats stop using the word "stimulus" and keep repeating "jobs" instead.
Here's the real problem for Begala, and for all the other "centrists" who have rightly said that this election was about jobs and the economy: Doing more to create jobs and help the economy is a progressive agenda. It requires more government action (unless you believe in invisible tax fairies, which reputable economists do.) But moving to the "center" means embracing less government action.
Call it whatever you want. To win elections Democrats need to get the economy moving, and you can't do that in a "centrist" way. With Congress now able to block every sensible economic move, the Democrats must lay out a clear path toward more jobs. They should compromise when they must, of course, but this time they need to make it clear that they are compromising.
Making Excuses Instead of Making History
The centrists knew they'd have to defend themselves once the votes were counted. Maybe that's why political strategist Brendan Nyhan has been preemptively trying to stifle criticism with an approach that blends cogent arguments with a barrage of derision and dismissal. His "preview of post-election storytelling" even included a bingo card that mockingly laid out every possible explanation for the anticipated Democratic failure, including those of progressives like Robert Kuttner, in a way that makes all of them look equally absurd -- except Nyhan's, of course.
Unfortunately, Nyhan's explanation is just a slightly better-articulated version of the typical bag of excuses: A bad economy, the passage of time, and the fact that the party in power almost always loses a midterm election (more about that "almost" later). Nyhan even described President Obama as "a victim of circumstance." (This group of Democrats seem regrettably comfortable with the language of victimology and the use of the passive voice). (1)
The excuse makers also keep reminding us that the party in power always loses in midterm elections. That's using history to set the bar as low as possible. In this argument, history isn't just prologue: It's destiny, a fate as certain as Heaven or Hell in a Cotton Mather sermon. Two years ago we overthrew history's precedents when an African American named Barack Hussein Obama ran for president and won. According to the standards set by this excuse, he shouldn't even have bothered.
There have been at least two major exceptions to this "midterm setback" rule. One was the congressional election of 1934, when Roosevelt's party gained seats in both the House and Senate halfway through his first term. (That was before he listened to the "centrists" who suggested he dial down on government activism, leading to an upturn in unemployment and a loss of seats in 1938.) The other was 2002, when the nation was still reeling from 9/11 and was preparing for wider war. That's different, say the centrists. We were in a crisis, and the nation rallied around its leadership. The only rational response to that argument is: Don't you think we're in a crisis now?
The Excuse Makers dismiss 2002 as an exception by insisting, as Nyhan and Jonathan Chait do, that economic forces inevitably determine the outcome of midterm elections. But a president with solid majorities in both houses should have been able to do more to change those economic forces, or at least lay out a clear agenda for changing them. They can't take that position, though, because it undermines their version of "centrism." So we're left once again with the Excuse Makers' two best friends: a victim mentality and the passive voice.
A Time to Choose
It was heartening to see the president stand up and take responsibility for last night's events, avoid any hint of victimology or passivity. The next step is to see the common thread that links Franklin Roosevelt's 1934 Democrats with George W. Bush's 2002 Republicans. Both parties were governing in a time of crisis, and both of them acted like it. Their leaders understood the power of the Shock Doctrine, whether or not they'd ever heard the term. In Bush's case, he used it cynically and destructively. But Roosevelt saw how important it was to act decisively, with a clearly articulated agenda and bold government action.
The president and his fellow Democrats have a choice. They can listen to the architects of yesterday's defeat by enacting policies on Social Security and Wall Street that most voters -- Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative -- don't want. The usual suspects call that "centrism." (In an even more Orwellian phrasing, Nyhan even labels Markos Moulitsas' advocacy for widely popular policies "extremism.")
Or Democrats can learn from experience and choose a different approach. They can articulate a clear vision for the nation and its economy. A battle has been lost, but the war continues. Wall Street's shock doctrine tactics worked this time, but they've been defeated before and can be again. Let's hope the president continues to take responsibility in the best way possible: by learning from experience and then leading his party in a new and more effective direction.
(1) Nyhan also offers a more interesting, more technical excuse: " ... demand for government tends to move in the opposite direction of the party in power -- increasing during the Eisenhower years, declining after the Great Society ..." Note the phrase "declining after the Great Society." That's a sleight of hand meant to distract the reader from an important fact: Demand for greater government did not decline during the Kennedy/Johnson years, until late in Johnson's presidency when his popularity plummeted because of the war and urban unrest. (The war in Vietnam was Johnson's most "centrist" policy, while other "centrists" blocked him from sending more aid to the inner cities.)
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates