11/24/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2015

The Democratic Party Must Find Its Core Values in Order to Become Relevant Again

John Lund via Getty Images

It appears that Democratic members of the House were the most amazed of all at the drubbing they took in this past election. How could it come as such a shock? Even our clueless VP Joe Biden had been predicting the Senate would remain under Democratic control. The finger-pointing and sharp attacks on Nancy Pelosi within her own caucus continued until last Tuesday, when she was yet again re-elected as Minority Leader. So how did she celebrate this inglorious "victory"? By immediately sending an e-mail request for yet another annoying donation, with no meaningful information or statement or other reason for us to pony up. Has she learned nothing?

Sadly, she's not alone in her self-delusion, as none of the "bright lights" in the Democratic Party appeared to suspect that they would go down in such huge numbers, losing big not only in the House, but also losing control of the Senate and taking hits on the state level, too, losing governors' races in states they usually win. Part of the blame can certainly be laid upon the unprecedented numbers of Democrats that did not even show up at the polls, delivering the lowest turnout since 1942. Roughly 36 percent of eligible voters voted this cycle, with a large majority of those that did show up voting Republican instead of Republicrat -- aka Democrat Lite.

Ralph Nader had plenty to say in a recent statement about Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer's failure to lead, but it was Howard Dean who summed it up perfectly a week ago on Meet The Press when he asked, "Where the hell did the Democratic Party go?" He knows that you have to fight for something. It may be remembered that when Dean chaired the DNC, Democrats held both chambers of Congress as well as the White House, accomplished in part through his innovative 50 State Strategy that worked in the states to build the party locally. The program was highly successful, until that weasel and original Blue Dog Rahm Emanuel put an end to this effective program by pulling funding and sending Howard packing. As a result, the Dems suffered huge losses in 2010 and now in 2014. The 50 State Strategy must be brought back, and we must stop thinking in terms of "Red States" and "Blue States," as our issues transcend state borders and are shared nationwide.

Off-year losses are not unique: Clinton, Eisenhower and FDR saw their respective parties lose big in midterm elections, but each came back and are still respectfully remembered. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) also summed this cycle up well for the Dems when he said, "(C)ould we have prepared candidates better? We are going to have to look at who we recruit and how we prepare candidates." The party must also address its lack of message and ability to communicate to the country. The fashionable choice is to blame everything on Nancy Pelosi, and she certainly deserves a generous helping, to be sure. Her age at 74 and political astuteness have both now come into question by some members of her own caucus. Yet there she is again, "leading" the House Dems in circles. Weren't there any other choices to step into the Minority Leader role?

Clearly the Dems are not grooming the next generation of Congressional leaders. We have a fractured party made up of corporate centrists who are too often in conflict with their Progressive populist colleagues. More of those tepid Blue Dogs went down in this election, while the Progressives for the most part survived, which should offer a clue to the party leadership, one would think. That lesson has not eluded soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who summoned Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to his office last Thursday and elevated her to a leadership role to craft a strategy, develop communications, and work with Progressive nonprofit organizations. At least Harry gets it.

There has been an enormous outpouring of respect and adoration for Warren as she campaigned across the country for Dem Senate candidates, and her gutsy, no-nonsense approach in taking on the power elite and even other members of Congress in hearings has not gone unnoticed by Reid. She is tough in hearings and always on point and never shies away from asking the right questions. She and her Senate colleague Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have drawn huge crowds for months wherever they have appeared, talking about the issues that matter to the American people. They both have talked about the "rigged game" and the inequality that is festering in our society. Frankly, I am tired of that word - "inequality" - which sounds so dry and impersonal, but both Warren and Sanders are able to probe its real meaning and consequences to our nation and make it the rallying cry of so many of us that have been left by the economic wayside in this hollow "recovery" since 2009.

Bernie often talks about a Conservative-run House and Senate working for the 1%, who will continue to dominate with their seemingly endless supply of campaign cash. This is the issue of our time. Another key point he makes - as laid out in an interview he did recently for Salon -- is that the average American male makes $280 per year less than he made 44 years ago -- accounting for yearly inflation -- and the median American family income has gone down by $5,500 since 1999. There are more people in poverty than at any time in history, and the jobs being created are low-wage jobs or part-time jobs, while the people at the top are doing phenomenally well and corporate profits are at an all time high. Bernie also notes that the people who founded the Tea Party are the Koch Brothers, and if the working class members of the Tea Party actually knew what their founders truly believed, they would be in for a very big shock. "It's our job to get the word out," Bernie concluded, and he couldn't be more right. Bernie's interview also appears on a new site by PDA,, with all content about Bernie running as a Democrat for President in 2016. Thirty-six states have now requested buttons, caps, bumper stickers and other campaign items.

These are the very issues and discussions few -- if any -- Dems had the courage to take to the campaign trail in 2014. If they had, they would have shown what a real Democrat looks like and we might not have seen such dismal results. Bernie and Elizabeth do have the messaging down, but mainly it is their honesty and directness that is so appealing. They are the voice of the left pulling the party home to where its roots have been grounded: a party working for the People and not the corporations and the 1%. On the other side of the spectrum, thirty-one House Democrats voted a week ago on Friday in support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which, thankfully, still fell one vote short in the Senate of achieving the sixty needed to win outright. Still, 14 Democrats in the Senate voted for this bill. So, for now at least, it is going nowhere, even though it will surely resurface in the next Congress (a good site to locate your Congressional representative's position and voting record on bills can be found at But not all the news in this election cycle was bad. Indeed, so-called "Progressive" ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage won in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, none of which could be considered liberal-leaning states by a long shot. So, clearly, this is a bipartisan issue that people of both political stripes could embrace.

The president appeared to hear the message loud and clear as both houses of Congress increased their numbers of radical right-wing members. Even so, it appears a new boldness has overtaken the President as he stepped up on net neutrality, used his Executive authority on immigration, which will save five million immigrants from deportation (but what of the six million others still left unprotected?), and made a "landmark" deal with China on carbon emissions. Since he no longer needs to be concerned with raising money for a subsequent term, will he become a more populist voice and make his final two years the years of "Hope" and "Change" we had envisioned when we first elected him so long ago?

And so this most recent election bloodbath gave fourteen more seats to the Republicans in the House and possibly a nine seat win for them in the Senate, with endangered Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu's race in Louisiana heading for a runoff in the first week in December. Both Houses will now clearly be controlled by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, which ran on nothing except attacks and lies about candidates it targeted to unseat. And while the Republican leadership was eager to shut down the government last year when Obama displeased them, they seem much less enthusiastic about taking such drastic actions this time after he used his executive powers on immigration involving those five million undocumented immigrants, many with children born here.

Meanwhile, the DCCC has a new Chair after Steve Israel, the quintessential Blue Dog, stepped down following his dismal failure this cycle, even losing his district neighbor Tim Bishop in the rout. His committee was so mired in the business of raking in money, it forget that finding, recruiting and supporting good candidates with a message was supposed to be their primary mission. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair of the DNC and fellow Blue Dog, is another party "leader" with the capacity to raise money but little vision beyond that.

The Democratic party needs to do some real soul-searching and find a mission and purpose. Otherwise, we really must consider reviving a populist movement that did pretty well at the end of the 19th Century that routed the Robber Barons of that era. The party must stop enabling watered down bills to pass and accepting the glass-is-half-full psychology of getting something instead of nothing. Going on offense and fighting for meaningful principles must take the place of complacency. It would become a game changer. The People are dying for honesty and need information that the party should -- but still fails to -- provide. This should be a major role for members of Congress every time they head back to their districts. Meet with constituents and inform them on the issues and their positions, in their offices and in larger town hall style gatherings, or even walking the streets of their districts. This is how they can earn our votes and respect.

And finally, the most important thing of all is that we need a Democratic party that will fight for public funding of campaigns so that our government can begin to function for all the people and not just a handful of wealthy millionaires and billionaires. We must overturn the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions with an amendment to the Constitution. Let us remember that in this cycle half of all dark money spending went to five Senate races, four of which were won by Republicans. Meanwhile, $92.8 million of $190 million in dark money spent in this cycle went to races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina. Overall, an estimated $4 billion was spent in this midterm election cycle.

Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University and author of the book Corruption In America, had some terrific insight on this subject on Bill Moyers program recently. She is a rising party star who took on New York State's Democrat Lite Governor Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary as a complete unknown, yet still managed to garner 34.3% of the primary vote with her populist agenda while only spending an average of $1.57 per vote against the governor's $60 per vote and his campaign chest of $35 million, the largest in the nation. She noted to Bill that she was expected to dial for dollars at a rate of 30 calls per hour, and that one larger supporter told her that he does not support the teachers union, hinting that she should drop any mention of them during her campaigning. Zephyr, however, is a strong supporter of the union, so one has to wonder if she told him to stick it -- she did not say. But therein lies a tale of what candidates are expected to do just to have a chance to win -- beg for millions and throw their beliefs out the window for a few dollars more -- a system that must end. In Congress, members can spend half the day just dialing for donations and one year out of their two-year term in the House campaigning just to keep their jobs. Isn't there something wrong with this picture?

The Democratic party's leadership has said they will release a report in February on what went wrong in 2010 and 2014 to produce such a "shellacking" and what corrective steps must be taken. I, for one, can hardly wait to read it and see if anything has sunk in. One can only hope, because next thing you know it, it'll be 2016. Oh boy.

- with Jonathan Stone