As we approach the waning days of another contentious election cycle, I can't help but reflect and recall my own experience as a candidate for Congress at a time of intense public unrest and rejection. While I survived the political tsunami of 1994, I returned to a vastly different Congress. The public sent a strong message: they wanted change, they wanted to get the attention of a new Administration and they succeeded on both fronts.
Today we face an environment that seems more hostile to incumbents than that in 1994. We will have members that return to Capitol Hill, but many will not. For both groups, a period of self-reflection and reorganization must occur.
After the 1994 cycle, the few surviving conservative Democrats came together and tried to create a "center aisle caucus" -- conservative Democrats joining with moderate Republicans to form a bipartisan caucus to put legislative issues ahead of party agendas. What came out of that effort was not a bipartisan coalition but the Blue Dog group, a new, out-of-the box, coalition of conservative Democrats from all over the country. I was a founding Member of that group. We met regularly and worked to craft meaningful reform with our Republican friends. Our first legislative product was the landmark welfare reform bill.
Since then, the Blue Dogs have grown from its "hungry for change" roots with 18 members to more than 50. It remains to be seen what its make up will be after November 2, but I believe its mission remains valid and even more critical than ever.
What ultimately comes out of a political cycle like the one we are in now? Can the Congress work differently in January than it has been? And, will the American people see and hear a different message from Washington (House, Senate and Administration) than before?
Those Members sworn in in January -- some, if not many, brand new -- and those incumbents who have survived, are likely to want Congress to work differently. But, if the new Congress continues the partisan divide, especially with a Presidential election two more years away, there may be a price to pay for continuing the same standoff, "my way or no way" approach that is turning the American public off to Washington.
Recently, the newly established Blue Dog Research Forum, an educational 501(c)(4) designed to hone in on policies that bridge the divide between the parties and the public, polled likely independent voters. It was curious to see just what was making the "independent" voter upset, how they viewed government and why they considered themselves independents. The poll was done by Zogby International and the results were telling. Less than one-third of the independents we surveyed believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 62 percent believe that we are on the wrong track. Economic issues are most important to them. And the number which consider themselves to be independent of the existing parties is growing, with more than 30 percent of them saying they are "new" independents, while 62 percent of them have always considered themselves to be independent voters. 77 percent of them believe that "The American Government is broken!" They say they are independents because they base their votes on what is best for the country as a whole and not based on the party affiliation of a candidate and they do not agree (by 67 percent) with the beliefs and policies of any one party.
This is a voting bloc that will continue to grow and react and the next Congress and the Administration had better pay attention. Those voters are turned off and angry - today the Democrats, tomorrow everyone in a leadership position. January and beyond will be a very interesting time in the history of our government. Change has come. It is here and it is now. What happens from here will determine whether the two parties as we know them will survive and exist the way they have.
Based on my experience from the 1994 cycle and based on the poll of independents that we did, I offer the following suggestions to those surviving Blue Dogs and other conservative Democrats that come back into Congress licking their severe wounds:
- Get organized and stand for something. The Blue Dogs are fiscal conservatives. This country is facing economic issues that are far from solved, a recession that doesn't want to end. Yet we continue to spend, spend, spend. We face unfinished appropriations bills.
- Join with Republicans and come up with a core set of issues that can be jointly worked on. If the numbers in the next Congress are close (between Dems and Repubs) then each side needs votes. The Administration will need votes to pass legislation they advocate. There will be a new Highway Bill to which each side can contribute. Come together, meet with the Administration and show the public that legislators can work together.
- Engage in a public national town meeting, with Ds and Rs giving and taking on approaches to legislative issues, such as tax cuts and funding freezes. Go out of our way to demonstrate that you get the message that the voters sent through the elections. Announce specific legislation that the bipartisan group will present together.
- Confront the Administration, offer to sit down and discuss a better way forward. Admit that the American public was right and the Congressional agenda did not produce solutions to our economic problems. Come up with a "taxpayers" accountability, or a "balanced budget" agenda. The Administration has every reason to want to show a new attitude and working relationship with the new Congress. Bill Clinton and his Administration were at their best after 1994. This Administration needs to show a new face to the Congress, an eagerness to begin working with both sides. Confess the failures of the past two years. Show face with Members from both sides who are outside the leadership circles.
However, as easy my recommendations may sound, it is not likely that the two "sides" can come together very quickly. At least not in big numbers. My advice, start with a small group from each side. The new Congress will reflect the point of view of a very frustrated public. The public likely will not have voted "for" the elected candidate as much as they voted "against" the establishment, in this case the Democratic majorities and the Administration. I have watched new majorities (1994 and 2006) and it is very difficult for them to reach across the aisle in an organized and public way. In January there will be pressure to repeal the Health Care Bill, there will be new Members who want to demonstrate how hostile they are to this Administration and the legislative record of the last two years.
But make no mistake about it, the independents are restless, they are growing and they are intolerant. They can and will decide future elections.