03/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dems to Base: Drop Dead ; Base to Dems: Likewise!

Media pundits have responded to the Democrats' loss last week in Massachusetts by saying what they always say: that the Dems must mend their liberal ways and move to the center. But in fact, available evidence suggests strongly that exactly the opposite is true: that in the disastrous choice of a moderate, "big tent," sixty-vote strategy on health care, the Democratic Party has said goodbye to its base and lost the very independents this strategy was supposed to win over.

Once the White House chose "Sixty Votes or Bust" instead of using a reconciliation process that would have required only a majority of Senate votes to pass, it was inevitable that the most conservative Democrats in the Senate - those willing to see the legislation die if they couldn't eviscerate it -- would win out.

As Democratic voters watched the ensuing Carnival of Capitulation and Corruption play out in the Senate, as they watched the crucial public option being amputated limb by limb and then, when even that didn't satisfy President Lieberman, killed altogether, they lost heart. During this period, Democratic voter support for Obama's handling of health care dropped by 15 percent in just one month.

And why not? After all, 77 percent of Democratic voters had supported that public option. What's more, these Democrats had watched the Republican Party "race to the base": deliver game-changing legislation -- big time, again and again -- to their wealthy and corporate constituents. Between '00 and '08, the GOP sent giant policy bouquets to wealthy taxpayers, to Big Pharma, to Big Banks, Big Oil and Big Military Contractors. Often enough, these policies didn't even have majority support among the American people, but that didn't stop Bush & Company from enacting them. In 2009, Democrats not only had hefty majorities in Congress, but also among the American people, who supported both health care reform in general (59 percent) and the public option in particular (57 percent) -- and they still couldn't deliver this highest of priorities to Democratic voters. Instead, the Democrats' progressive base was left with a bill that punished women, soaked the middle class, provided little real help to the uninsured, had no effective cost control mechanism, and rewarded the corporations who have made our medical system the most expensive and least efficient in the industrialized world.

Was it so surprising then, that on election day in Massachusetts, these disheartened Dems stayed home? While 66 percent of the state's Republicans said they were "very excited" about casting their votes, only 48 percent of Democrats were similarly pumped -- and those were the Democrats who intended to vote! Many others didn't. Despite the crucial importance of this election, turnout dropped sharply, especially in heavily Democratic districts, where 30 percent fewer voters showed up than had voted in '08. In Boston, the Democrats' stronghold, turnout was down by 35 percent. In non-Democratic districts, turnout was down by only 25 percent. In particular, some of the groups most committed to a progressive health care system -- unmarried women, people of color, and young voters -- were crucial to Obama's '08 victory, but had lost faith when it came time to vote again, and disappeared in droves from the Massachusetts electorate.

The result was a highly skewed electorate. Just before the election, Democrat Martha Coakley led among all Massachusetts voters, by 17 percent. But among those motivated to actually vote, she lost by 5 percent.

But what of the independents that this strategy was designed to impress? If the White House thought that independents would prefer reaching out to conservatives who didn't reach back to actually getting something done, they were wrong. Independent voters, disgusted with both parties over the gridlock on healthcare, punished the party in power, breaking for Brown by a two to one ratio.

Republicans of course argue that these independents were angry, not because the Dems had done too little, but because they had done too much. But polls show that while the election was a "protest of the Washington process," it was not a rejection of health care reform. Only 11 percent of those who voted in Massachusetts said they wanted Brown to "stop the Democratic agenda." Fifty eight percent of them said they were "dissatisfied/angry" with "the policies offered by the Republicans in Congress."

None of this is to say that the Democratic leadership is foolish. What they are is trapped. If they failed to deliver progressive health care to their base, it's because, unlike Republicans, the Democratic Party has two bases, and the two are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. While their voter base desperately wanted a robust public option, their corporate
contributors did not, and in this case, money trumped. That problem, call it the Democrats' Dilemma, just got a whole lot worse, when the Supreme Court gave corporations carte blanche to influence elections. "No man can serve two masters," the good book says, and neither, apparently, can the Democratic Party. Progressive voters who thought they'd won when Obama was elected must now realize that they have a much tougher fight ahead: Only when fundamental campaign finance reform is achieved will they be the base to which Democrats race.