10/12/2010 05:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

All Else Failing, Try Liberalism

If the polls speak truth, the Democratic Party, my party, is facing a shattering defeat on November 2. Moreover, it will be a defeat rendered all the more bitter by the nature of too many of the Republicans likely to be elected to Congress this year. Nothing good can come from a national legislature dominated by people who believe that the earth is six thousand years old, who consider the melting of the Arctic ice cap to be insignificant and who oppose all developments in constitutional law since 1910. Is there anything that can still be done to avert this? Here are some suggestions which I offer in the hope that they might be helpful to embattled Democrats seeking to hold marginal seats.

Democratic candidates understand their political problem, perhaps too well. It is that the Democratic Party, since November 2008, has lost the suburban and exurban independent voters who gave Barack Obama his victory in 2008. In Ohio, for example, these are the voters who voted for George W. Bush, George Voinovich, and GOP congressional candidates in 2004, but swung for victorious Democratic gubernatorial and Senate candidates Ted Strickland and Sherrod Brown in 2006 and then voted for Obama and Democratic House candidates in 2008. This year they are supporting Republican Rob Portman for the Senate against Democrat Lee Fisher and Republican challengers to many endangered Democratic House incumbents, such as Steve Driehaus and Mary Jo Kilroy. It is a story replicated, with state and regional variations, nationwide.

The Democratic counterattack seeks to win back those voters, and its themes are presumed to appeal to them. The other day, I opened one of the dozens of fundraising e-mails I receive every day from Democratic candidates and party committees. It was from Donna Brazile, on behalf of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. It began:

"Dear Peter,

If these Tea Partiers win, they'll come to Washington with their agenda: Stop President Obama and stick it to the middle class."

This encapsulates the Democratic argument, which is that the Republicans don't care about the "middle class," roughly defined as everyone whose taxes would not increase in January if the President's tax proposal prevails. The Republicans favor their corporate and Wall Street allies, who caused the economic crisis of 2008 and still seek to profit at the expense of the beleaguered middle class. By contrast, the Democrats are the friends of the middle class, as evidenced by the stimulus bill, and the health care and financial reform bills. Democrats will stand by social security in its current form and support extension of unemployment compensation, while Republicans seek to undercut both. In recent days, the president and his allies have sought to amplify these charges by alluding to sinister "foreign corporate money" allegedly being spent by the Chamber of Commerce to support Republican candidates.

But whatever their substantive merits, the political difficulty for Democrats this year is that these arguments are simply not working to persuade the target voters. Why? I think there are several reasons, beyond the usual all purpose excuse of "The Economy." First, in the United States, at least for the last sixty years, right wing populism, as exemplified by such figures as George Wallace and Ross Perot, has usually had more electoral appeal at times of widespread disaffection with the parties than its left wing counterpart. This is something which the left is always disinclined to acknowledge. But at any rate, it is clearly the case in 2010. The Tea Party is a classic right wing populist movement, even if it undoubtedly gets money from rich right wingers.

However, the Koch brothers did not nominate Republican Senate candidates such as Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, Ron Johnson, and Christine O'Donnell. It took the passionate commitment of the right wing grassroots to do that. Second, The Tea Party and the right generally are making two arguments regarding the future of the country which have connected with voters, and with which Democratic candidates have not engaged. The right says that the country is spending itself into insolvency, and that the federal budget should be cut, albeit in unspecified ways. The right has also successfully revived what could be characterized as the capitalist utopian argument, namely that lower taxes and diminished regulation will restore prosperity and otherwise re-create the country that middle class Americans, particularly white Americans, grew up in and loved.

There are counters to these arguments, among them that on Planet Earth massive tax cuts and multiple wars are not compatible with a balanced budget, but in order to be effective they would have to be offered with equal sincerity and within the context of a narrative with comparable historical resonance. The only possible narrative to meet those requirements is that of twentieth century liberalism, the tradition of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson, as well as Bill Clinton in his better moments and now Barack Obama. Liberal candidates discussing the issues now before the country should try to link their positions with now widely accepted reforms of the past, which were equally controversial when they were adopted. In short, in countering conservative paeans to the world of yesterday, liberals might try to make voters nostalgic about social reform.

One place they might look to for inspiration would be the speech to Congress and the nation given by President Lyndon B. Johnson on March 15, 1965, in the aftermath of the violence in Selma, Alabama. LBJ called for passage of what later came to be called the Voting Rights Act, the great measure which, after 88 years of disenfranchisement, guaranteed to African Americans in the southern states the right to vote. In the speech, he invoked the memory of having been a young teacher of Mexican-American students in Cotulla, Texas in the twenties, and spoke of his determination then, if he ever had the opportunity, to help people like his students. Without rancor or rebuke of his fellow white southerners, he spoke of the deprivation and indignities to which black Americans were still subjected and of the need to put an end to them. In the end, he electrified the nation by embracing the then intensely controversial battle cry of the civil rights movement, namely "we shall overcome." It was the finest moment of his presidency, albeit one soon tragically overshadowed by his disastrous decision later that spring to escalate the war in Vietnam.

Read today, there are several striking aspects of his speech. It makes no mention of "the middle class" or any other "class" of Americans, either positively or invidiously. It makes no criticism of corporations or "the rich." He says explicitly that there is "no Negro problem" or "southern problem" or "northern problem," only "an American problem." His speech speaks to his fellow Americans respectfully, as adults and as fellow citizens. No one is excluded from the national community and all can have a part in solving its great problem, that of racial inequality. The speech does not seek to stigmatize or arouse antagonism. Rather, without in any way minimizing the severity of the problem it seeks to solve, it seeks to reconcile and persuade. It was precisely the absence of rancor or political boilerplate that made the speech so effective. Johnson was deadly serious and persuaded the country of the need to act.

It was precisely the moral seriousness of sixties liberalism, far more than the effects of the Vietnam War or the memories of the counterculture, that won a generation for the Democratic Party. For many of us who became adults between, say, 1965 and 1975, the Democratic Party was the party of civil rights and voting rights, of immigration reform and the War on Poverty, of Earth Day and the National Environmental Policy Act, of women's liberation and the rise of feminism. It is a complex and not untroubled legacy, but certainly one worth defending and capable of adaptation to the problems of today, of which the greatest is the restoration of that prosperity upon which all successful government must rest.

From now until November in this election campaign, I, for one, hope that Democratic candidates would argue that we live in a more just and equal country than the one we had in 1964, and that the Democratic Party is largely responsible for that, and that the kind of Republicans who participated in that achievement are being driven out of their party and are welcome in ours. Democratic candidates should seek to demonstrate the relevance of past accomplishments to solving present problems. For example, most Americans now are proud of the cleaner air and water produced by the legislation of the sixties and seventies. Why not cite that accomplishment in defending a vote for cap and trade legislation? Why be terrified to defend a vote to save the earth? The public is angry, for some good and some bad reasons, and we may well lose the election no matter what our candidates say. But if we do, it would be far better for the future to lose an election fighting to uphold a legacy of enlarging human freedom than to lose a squalid argument about who really wants to "stick it" to the middle class.