11/05/2014 07:39 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

The Seeds of Defeat

The seeds for the Democratic debacle yesterday were planted right after President Obama's re-election in 2012, and planted by himself. Thinking back to that cold December, recall the incessant media hype about the "fiscal cliff." What it really was about was embedding the Bush tax cuts permanently into federal tax policy. President Obama had all the cards in his hand, and gave them all away. He showed a breathtaking ability to cede power.

So let's review. The Bush tax cuts were all set to expire, taking us back to pre-Bush era of robust revenue and budget surpluses. The President didn't have to do anything to make this happen. Any action would have to come from the House and the Senate, and the President had set up the Republicans nicely, by insisting on increased taxation on the wealthy. The Republicans wouldn't budge, and they looked like what they were: the protectors of the privileged. If that stalemate had continued, then we would have automatically reinstated the tax rates of a decade ago, which would have been a good thing.

Instead, Obama agreed to a tax hike for incomes over $400,000, only. And not much of a hike at that, either. In doing so, he gave away the whole game. It appeared that he was backing down from his pledge to hold the privileged accountable. It iced a populist strategy he could have pursued after the tax rates returned to their pre-Bush levels, namely, proposing annual tax rebates of a certain sum ($1000, $2000) to all families under a certain threshold (perhaps $80,000 or $100,000). Then he would have the Republicans in a very uncomfortable position. First, he could blame them for protecting the privileged, and thus, taking us over "the fiscal cliff" (which would have been a good thing!). Second he could force them to either accept or turn down rebates to middle class and low-income families. Thirdly, he would have completely undermined their constant blather about the deficit, because it would have disappeared. The President let that one get away. A huge mistake, a lack of leadership, a willful ceding of power and political popularity, not to mention campaign promises (remember, growing the middle out).

Step two in the demise of the Democrats: The President's lukewarm embrace of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. The Administration slowed down and hid all implementation of Obamacare in the run-up to the 2012 election. Bad for the election and bad for preparation of actual implementation. One result was the disastrous start of the federal health care exchange. But the story didn't end there, and shouldn't have. Once the exchange was up and running the President could have gone around the country, touting the Affordable Care Act, standing with citizens with pre-existing conditions who now had coverage, college students who now had coverage on their parents' insurance, working poor people who had coverage thanks to Medicaid expansion, middle class workers who got coverage and tax credits through the exchange, employers who got tax credits thanks to their coverage for workers. No one had to hide from the Affordable Care Act. What we all needed to do, especially the President, was to embrace the Act and the consequences and coverage that it made a reality. But he didn't... and we didn't.

Step three in the disappearing act for Democrats: ambivalence on Social Security. We need Social Security now more than ever, especially with the demise of private sectors pensions. But the President has a strong record of ambivalence and weakening of Social Security.... and therefore an increasing suspicion of him especially among the elderly and the near-elderly. What would have happened if the President led the effort to expand Social Security benefits? Then a hostile constituency would have become much friendlier. And all this was possible, with Congress entertaining many pragmatic proposals for the expansion of benefits, while developing new revenue for Social Security. What did we get instead? In this year's State of the Union address, President Obama announced MyRA accounts. Now no one knows about them. These accounts hardly exist and hold out false promises. They are not ingredients for popular understanding, enthusiasm, or support.

Taxing the wealthy, embracing health coverage, expanding Social Security: these are the ingredients for success for Democrats, and when missed, avoided, or simply dismissed, they became the ingredients for Democratic defeats across the country. The Democrats will not win the Presidency in 2016 with already compromised candidates who offer more of the same. The Democrats as a party have a decision to make: do they just position themselves a little to the left of the Republicans, as the Republicans become more and more conservative? Are they simply a poor reflection of the corporate elitism which has taken over our country's politics? Or do they actually intend to stake out a claim to the electorate as a party that is of, by, and for the people? That would be a pathway to victory, if they choose to take it.