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What Yesterday's Election Means for Progressives

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Last week I argued that there was a path to victory for Democrats in the House. That turned out to be wrong. It was a brutal night for Democratic Members of the House. Many lost by narrow margins -- but a loss of any amount is still a loss.

What caused this disaster? First let's talk about what didn't cause Democratic defeat.

The Republicans will argue that their electoral success represented a ringing rebuke of progressive policies and values -- and a popular renunciation of the Obama administration. That reading of this election would be completely wrong.

The polling shows that Americans still very much support Social Security and Medicare and want nothing to do with the Ryan "roadmap" that would privatize Social Security, eliminate Medicare and replace it with vouchers.

Americans support Wall Street reform and the reject attempts to allow the big banks to return to the recklessness that cost eight million Americans their jobs.

Americans do not favor eliminating the new law that prevents insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions.

Americans favor more investment in education, good public schools, money spent on infrastructure and spending by the government that creates new jobs.

Why then did they buy the Republican sales pitch and once again hand them the gavel of the House?

Two reasons:

1). It's the economy stupid. Middle class Americans are frightened and angry. For two decades the largest corporations and the big Wall Street banks have, in effect, waged war on the middle class. They have siphoned off every bit of economic growth for themselves. They have left middle class incomes stagnant, and made it more and more difficult for many families to believe in the American dream that their kids will be better off than they were.

The voters threw out George Bush and the Republicans two years ago because of the economy, and yesterday they took out their frustration on Democrats in Congress.

If the recession had not been so deep, if we had been able to pass a larger stimulus, if circumstances had allowed the administration to preside over the creation of three or four million jobs over the last two years, the right would not have found the fertile soil in which to grow its Tea Party.

In the end, the wide spread popular anger and frustration is about the economy.

2). The ferocious counter attack by Wall Street and the corporate special interests worked.

When the President and Democrats in Congress were forced to confront the worst economic downturn in 60 years -- a downturn that was caused by the actions of Wall Street and the same crowd that has made war on the middle class -- progressives fought for -- and won historic legislation to rein in the power of the insurance companies, and the big Wall Street banks.

Those actions provoked a furious counter assault by corporate special interests -- that included their use of unprecedented amounts of secret and foreign money -- to take back control of the House and stop the president's agenda. Those actions were not a political "mistake" as some will no doubt try to describe them. They were necessary to lay the foundation for long term, widely shared prosperity and short term economic recovery. But they involved major short term political cost. Many Democrats knew the potential political risk and decided do it anyway.

But it turned out that you can't be out-communicated seven or eight to one for months on end and not expect negative attacks to take their toll.

Some might argue that Democrats could have done a better job taking the offense. In fact many of them did, but often they were drowned out by the massive fusillade of corporate advertising.

In this election, the Empire struck back. Or I suppose you could be that the right wingers on the Supreme Court struck back by reversing a hundred years of American law and deciding that corporations had the same rights a people to "free speech" and could spend any amount to manipulate the outcome of American elections.

Of course the irony is that the same forces that created the economic crisis, and profited from it, then turned around and played off the fear that the crisis created to convince voters to turnout Democrats who had stood up to them and reined them in.

So what do we do now?

  • First and foremost we cannot once again retreat into a defensive crouch, nor can we allow ourselves to be beguiled by those who say that Progressives should become more "moderate". It isn't progressive values that the voters rejected. It was economic stagnation. Many Americans are not frustrated because the government has done too much over the last two years; they are frustrated that the government did not do enough to create new jobs. There has never been a time when it has been more important for Progressives to stand up proudly for our values and our policies -- including health care and Wall Street reform, Social Security.
  • And we must be unwavering in our faith that while fighting for what is truly good for everyday Americans may provoke a successful short term reaction by the corporate special interests -- and involve short term political cost -- in the end it is not only the right thing to do, it is good politics as well. Standing up for universal health care, and widely shared economic growth, and education, and scientific research, and human rights is about being on the right side of history. In the long run that is always good politics.
  • We must make certain that the Republicans are forced to confront the hypocrisy of their own positions -- beginning immediately. In particular we should start by challenging them about how they intend square their frantic concern for deficits during the campaign with their proposal to raise the deficit in order to give millionaires a $700 billion tax cut. That issue will be front and center on the agenda of the upcoming lame duck session of Congress. And we must draw a line in the sand and say no to any attempt to cut Social Security or Medicare or to free the insurance companies from the restraints that were placed on their rates and practices by the new health care reform bill.
  • We must go to war to improve the American economy -- and even if we cannot pass them all, we should propose real solutions and fight for them -- including a major public works program that puts people to work and primes the national economic pump.Over the next two years it is critical that increasing numbers of Americans come to believe that their lives -- and those of their children -- are improving. And just as important they need to see Democrats fighting for their jobs.
  • Democrats in the Senate should move to change the filibuster rules that have been used continuously to ham string President Obama and his agenda. Over the last two years the Republicans have been all about preventing economic recovery and preventing the success of the Democratic Administration for their own political gain - even though the economic prospects of everyday Americans suffered as a result. That tactic worked. We should do everything we can to eliminate the weapons that made them successful at obstruction.
  • We must avoid the natural tendency to turn on our allies - especially the White House and Democratic Leadership. Many progressives would argue that if they had just been tougher... just listened to us ... they would have done better in these elections. In some cases that is no doubt true. But recriminations and disarray among the progressive forces will only help to our enemies. Unless we want to return to the dark ages of complete Republican control, we need to make sure that President Obama is strong and successful. This election should make it crystal clear that if we do not hang together, we will all hang separately.
  • Finally, we need to remember that the political tide shifts rapidly. It's not time to panic. It's time to be resolute. It was only nineteen months ago that three million people came to the Capitol Mall to witness the changing of the political guard and the Republicans were in the political equivalent of Siberia. When the Republicans took back the House in 1994 it was partially in response to a backlash from the wealthy over Clinton's increase in taxes for the rich that created a Federal budget surplus and set the stage for the most prosperous period in human history. Clinton, let us recall, was overwhelming reelected just two years after that first "Republican Revolution".
It will not take long for the voters to see that some of them were sold snake oil by Republicans who feigned their concern of everyday Americans and all the while are entirely beholden to the corporate special interests that they detest.

I predict that the new "Republican revival" will burn brightly for a brief moment and flame out like a sparkler.

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.