There is little doubt that over the last several months President Obama's poll numbers -- and those of Democrats generally -- have taken a swing for the worse. The president's job approval numbers have drifted below 50 percent. The popularity of some of his signature initiatives has dropped. Last week, Democratic Congressman Parker Griffith of Alabama announced he was switching parties -- presumably in order to enhance his odds of political survival next fall.
These events have given rise to calls that the Democratic agenda needs to become more "moderate" or "centrist" and that this would somehow be more attractive to Independent voters.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Moderating" our goals is not a recipe for victory. It is a recipe for failure. Last fall, voters overwhelming voted for change, and they knew then -- and still know now -- the kind of change they wanted.
They wanted to end the stranglehold of the private insurance companies that continues to put every American a single illness -- or one layoff -- away from financial catastrophe. They want to take bold, clear action to assure that America is in the forefront of creating the clean energy jobs of the future -- and leave a thriving healthy planet to our children. They wanted to fundamentally change the bull-in-the-china shop foreign policy of the Bush years and re-establish American leadership in the world. Most importantly, they rejected the failed economic policies that allowed the recklessness of huge Wall Street banks to plunge the economy into free fall -- and cost millions their livelihoods. They desperately want leadership that will lay the foundation for long term, bottom-up, widely shared prosperity.
In other words they wanted... and still want... fundamental change.
No one should be surprised that fundamental change does not come easily. The massive array of forces with vested interests in the status quo will bite, kick, poke out eyes, lie, threaten, bully and do pretty much everything else within their power to stop fundamental change. Frederick Douglass was right: "Power surrenders nothing without a struggle, it never has, it never will."
That means we might not win everything we want every time we enter the arena of battle. But to be successful in next fall's elections and increase our odds of long-term victory we must do four things:
1). Democrats need to demonstrate to the voters that we are fighting tooth and nail for the goals they support. This is critically important to keep the base of the Party engaged and energized. But it is also important to continually remind swing voters that we have not forgotten our mandate for change.
Remember that there are only two groups who decide elections: swing, persuadable voters; and mobilizable voters who would support our candidates, but have to be motivated to go to the polls.
In the 2008 elections, the Obama campaign, and Democrats in general, demonstrated that we can and must address both. And in off-year elections, both are just as important. In 1994, the Democratic loss of the House not only involved disillusionment among swing voters. It was particularly driven by depressed Democratic turnout. And it turns out that neither the motivation of mobilizable voters, nor the support of persuadables are generally enhanced by a more "moderate" approach to our policy agenda or how we talk about it. That is particularly true today.
Both base and swing voters need to be convinced that however successful we are in each given legislative or political engagement, that we are fundamentally on their side, and that we are willing to take on the forces of the status quo without complaint or reservation.
I do not personally believe, as some Progressives do, that we would be in a better position to get a strong public option as part of this round of health care reform had President Obama been a more ardent advocate. (I do, by the way, think that a public option -- which continues to have overwhelming public support -- will be approved before many of the provisions of the health care reform bill go into effect.) But I do believe that President Obama would have stronger political support among base and independent voters had he been a more forceful public option advocate. People want to see their leaders fighting for the things they support, even if in the end they are not entirely successful.
2). Democrats need to deliver. When you're in power, fighting is not enough. The President and Democratic Congress have to deliver concrete measurable results. That is what the voters think they hire leaders to do. Voters not only want leaders who are on their side. They also want strong, effective leaders who can turn goals in to reality.
Even if it's not perfect, we need to deliver on fundamental health care reform. Even if it's not everything we want, we need to make significant progress on clean energy jobs and global warming. Recent immigrants -- and especially Latino voters -- expect us to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform. And of course, all Americans demand that we deliver on economic change.
That last point requires two things. On the one hand, we have to turn the economy around in the short term and start creating measurable increases in jobs. By next November, the economic future must look brighter for most everyday Americans or we will suffer significant political losses. By Election Day people have to see things in their own personal everyday life experience (not just political rhetoric from Washington) that gives them hope that in the short run their economic prospects are improving.
To make that happen we don't need to "moderate" our goals. God knows we don't have to be more concerned with the deficit. Democrats need to use every organ of political power available to them -- in the Executive Branch and Congress -- to create jobs. A jobs bill at least as robust as the one that passed the House in December should pass the Senate and be signed into law ASAP. Every ounce of executive power should be mobilized to convert available funding from the Economic Recovery Bill -- and every other possible source -- into jobs NOW. November is coming up on the horizon very fast; we cannot afford to wait.
Second, we must lay the foundation for long-term economic growth by continuing to tackle the problems of health care reform, creation of clean energy jobs, immigration reform, investment in education at all levels -- and especially taking action to shrink the bloated financial sector that almost sent the world into another Great Depression. It is no time to be "moderate" in our approach to Wall Street.
3). Not only do we need to forcefully rein in the power of Wall Street and the Big Banks -- we need to frame the political dialogue in decidedly populist terms.
Voters are angry -- as they should be. We can't be talking about financial regulatory reform in cold, clinical economic terms. We need to make the issues that brought our economy to a standstill very personal. We don't need "moderate" language here. The debate needs to be cast in moral terms -- in the terms of right and wrong. That's how the voters see it.
The fact is that a tiny number of people who dominate our financial sector systematically skimmed off all the fruits of financial growth during the last decade for themselves. They justified literally billions of dollars of bonuses, stock options and perks while the average income of most households shrank. And then -- as if that was not bad enough -- their reckless pursuit of personal greed created a massive financial house of cards that collapsed and cost millions of Americans their livelihoods.
Voters are furious that after hundreds of billions in taxpayer bailouts to prevent complete financial meltdown, much of this gang is back in business, and worse yet, acting as if they somehow deserve to make ten million dollar bonuses -- or to get 70 million dollar golden parachutes -- while everyday people trudge through this winter's snow to the unemployment office.
When "moderates" talk about more "centrist" positions on financial reform, they mean positions that are more acceptable to the bankers that bundle together big financial contributions for Republican and Democrats alike. That's not what we need to do to win. That's what voters find most repulsive about politics.
Voters want the proverbial money changers thrown out of the temple of government. They don't want Democrats to be more milquetoast and "sensible." They want something done to right this extraordinary wrong and to create a society and economy that once again allows everyone to succeed together, and rewards hard work - not sharp speculators whose chief skills involve making themselves rich at the expense of the working people who actually create the wealth that they squander on $5,000 blouses, $50 million dollar estates, and trips to the South of France.
If you want to get people in rural and small-town America fired up for Democrats, it won't be by sounding more "moderate" or tepid in our goals or in the way we talk. It won't be by cozying up to banks and health insurance companies. It will be by focusing their legitimate anger where it belongs: on the Big Wall Street Banks. If it's not focused there, it will be focused on those who are in charge of government: Democrats.
The recipe for victory for Democrats in November does not involve more "moderation," it involves more populism. But holding Big Wall Street Bankers accountable is not enough.
4). We must continue to forcefully and proudly stand up for progressive values. And we must, in particular, contrast those values to the values of greed and division that lead us down the path to economic failure only a year ago.
To win, we must continue to define the value frame. We must continue to assert that we're all in this together, not all in this alone. We must continue to hold up the vision of a society built on principles of unity not division, hope not fear, equality not subjugation. We must re-commit to the premise that if each of us is better educated all of us will be wiser, that it is not true that in order for me to be richer you have to be poorer -- but rather that if each of us is more prosperous, all of us will have more opportunity -- that our success comes from cooperation and mutual respect.
We have to continue to stay on the offense because in politics, if you're playing defense you're losing. If we fall back into old bad habits of allowing our critics on the right -- the forces of the status quo -- to define the terms of debate, we will lose more than political ground in 2010. We will lose an historic opportunity to create a progressive realignment in American politics.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com
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