Democrats just got mugged by voters in Massachusetts. What will the party learn from the beating?
Already, the conventional wisdom in congealing. Democrats, says the benighted Joe Lieberman, should move to the "center." Voters "don't like partisanship and deal-making." Their "loud message?" "Get together and get some things done."
Obama got it wrong, argues lobbyist Vin Weber, consummate Republican insider. "They thought the country was at a very different place ideologically."
Swing voters, conservative commentator Gloria Borger tells us, are against "big government," like the intrusive health care plan. The deficits are too large, and voters doubt whether "all this new government is actually good for them." And of course, the perpetually gaseous David Brooks warns against the president's "voracious pragmatism," suggesting that he spend the next year showing how "government can serve a humble, helpful and supportive role to the central institutions of American life."
And no doubt, Blue Dogs and New Dems like Evan Bayh and Kent Conrad are gearing up to use the defeat to rail about deficits, and demand the creation of a bipartisan commission to provide cover for an assault on Social Security and Medicare.
Stuff and nonsense. Republicans have profited too much from moving to the right and opposing Obama to join in bipartisan cooperation. And if they did, then there would be more backroom deal making, not less. Voters who don't want big government shouldn't want Congress to "get together and get things done." Yet polls suggest voters are disappointed that Obama has been unable to get more things done rather than that he's done too much.
Unlike Republicans, Obama actually believes in bipartisanship, to a fault. Yet the most bipartisan of his policies - the Wall Street bailout which in policy and personnel is virtually indistinguishable from the Bush administration - is by far the least popular.
Democrats are in trouble, but moving to a mythical "center," focusing on deficit reduction, abandoning health care won't help. Consider the three fundamental factors in the up-coming elections.
1. "The angry, the organized and the old"
Bi-elections are low turnout affairs. They are dominated by the angry, the organized, and the old, the seniors who vote in larger numbers. Clearly, the Republican right is angry - and mobilized, while the Democratic base is discouraged by the entrenched resistance to change, particularly by members of the President's own party.
The right is getting more organized, while the most potent organizations in the Democratic base, the labor unions, just watched the president push to tax their members' health care benefits. Union leaders were forced into concessionary negotiations with the president to try to limit the damage, a scene sadly evocative of union negotiations with corporations over the last decades. But that puts the president in the role of the corporate CEO trying to roll back worker benefits - not exactly the way to excite folks to get out and work.
Seniors weren't big supporters of Obama in 2008, and now they're worried about the so-called "cuts in Medicare" that they've heard about in the health care bill. Already enjoying America's largest single payer health care program, they are the least enthusiastic about reform that might sap funding from their coverage.
So Democrats are in trouble. But moving to the center won't placate the Republican right, nor mobilize the Democratic base. Deficit reduction won't excite workers who are concerned about jobs and health care, nor calm seniors worried about Medicare. Bipartisan support for the intervention in Afghanistan will cost Democrats more votes than it gains them.
2. Big government, big banks, big business
Voters are skeptical about big government - but they are furious at big banks and big business. And the growing populist anger on both right and left sees all in one stew. Washington has run up deficits to bail out the banks, while nothing has been done to create jobs. Credit card companies are abusing customers, while Congress and regulatory agencies sit on their hands. Big business ships jobs abroad, and enjoy a tax break for doing it. Big government is suspicious less because it is big, then because it is captured, controlled by the banks, the insurance companies, the corporate lobbies.
Moving to the "center" would only reinforce the sense that money rents both parties, and people get left in the cold. What is dangerous for Democrats isn't that the administration and Congress are seen as too left, but too establishment. People still want to have hope in Obama, but increasingly the right is framing him effectively as a Wall Street liberal, using taxpayer dollars to bailout Wall Street and to help "those people," [the poor, the Haitians, the minorities] while nothing is done for Main Street taxpayers.
3. 20 million unemployed
Jobs, jobs, jobs. Obama inherited the Great Recession. But with twenty million people unemployed or underemployed, by far the biggest worry for voters is about jobs. And jobs and the economy will be the biggest factors by far in driving votes in the fall elections. If the economy were creating jobs, the president's popularity would be soaring and Democrats would be rewarded this fall, no matter how big the deficit. If the economy stalls or the "recovery" comes without jobs, Democrats will face a far more difficult terrain - and cutting the deficit won't make a wit of difference.
So what are Democrats to do? Spike Lee had the best advice: Do the Right Thing.
To survive in this election year, Democrats have to get it right on the banks and on jobs.
On banks, nothing is more poisonous to the Democrats politically or the nation economically than the bailout that has left the big banks more concentrated, and still free to gamble with the now explicit promise that taxpayers cover their losses since they are "too big to fail." Democrats should be driving reform, restructuring and accountability. The president's tax to repay the funds spent on the TARP is a belated first step. And led by Michael Steele, the bumptious head of the Republican National Committee, Republicans seem stupid enough to oppose the demand to "get our money back."
Democrats should join the British and French governments and push for a windfall profits tax on bloated banker bonuses, and let Republicans complain about higher taxes. They should champion the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, and let Republicans complain about regulation, supporting the big banks against consumers. Democrats should be pushing for a tax on speculation and for breaking up banks "too big to fail." They should be convening hearings publicly probing the frauds and abuses that contributed to the collapse. And the Justice Department should be rolling out "perp walks," prosecutions of the bankers and brokers who committed the frauds. Democrats would be smart to audit the Fed and block the nomination of Ben Bernanke for another term as chair of the Federal Reserve. Wall Street will respond by insuring that Republican candidates are well funded, but Massachusetts just demonstrated that Democrats are at risk against poorly funded Republican candidates, unless they get this right.
On jobs, barring a stunning turnaround, Democrats will head into the fall elections with unemployment in double digits. Republicans will argue that Obama has failed on jobs, even as he saved Wall Street and ran up massive deficits.
The only response to this is for Democrats to be actively, visibly and assertively pushing for jobs, making it clear that they will keep fighting until we dig our way out of the hole that conservatives left us in. A big jobs program - with spending on new energy and a modern 21st century infrastructure, with direct public service jobs for the young and the most impacted, with aid to states and localities to avoid debilitating lay-offs and much more - should be the lead initiative this year. Let Republicans rail about deficits; Democrats and the economy would benefit if the president and the Democratic Congress pushed hard for jobs.
Democrats won't benefit by blurring lines, or trimming their sails. They benefit if the election this fall is not simply a referendum on Obama's policies, but a choice of direction. And the country will benefit if Democrats frame that choice clearly. Obama and the Democrats inherited the full catastrophe - the Great Recession, two wars, broken health care and energy and education systems, Gilded Age inequality. In Obama's first year, against the resistance of the entrenched lobbies and the obstruction of the Republican Party, we've begun to dig ourselves out of the hole. Now voters have to decide - go back to the very policies and leaders that created this catastrophe, or continue to push for change, to keep trying until we build a new economy on the ruins of the old.
Republicans are now modeling ill-fitting populist garb. They will get away with the masquerade only if Democrats let them. In this case, good policy and good politics are the same. The country benefits if the administration and the Congress shackle Wall Street - and so will candidates running on that this fall. The country benefits if the administration and Democrats keep pushing to create jobs and build a new economy - and so will candidates this fall. Republicans will not doubt oppose these initiatives. And that will help make this fall's election a fight worth having.