11/05/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

After the Debacle: Stopping the Great Heist


Debacle. Bloodbath. Call it what you will. Democrats, as expected, fared poorly in red states in an off-year election. Worse, unpopular Republican governors survived; Democrats even lost statehouses in blue states like Maryland, Connecticut and Illinois. This was ugly.

Yes, the electorate was as skewed as was the map. Many Republicans swept to victory with less than 20 percent of the eligible vote. Voters over 60 made up a stunning 37 percent of the electorate (up from 25 percent in 2012 or 32 percent in the last bi-election in 2010). Voters under 30 were only 12 percent of the electorate, down from 19 percent in 2012. Democrats won women, but lost white men big. Republicans lost ground with Hispanic voters, but in most of these states, they weren't much of a factor.

The election was fundamentally about frustration with a recovery that most people haven't enjoyed. The Republican theme was to blame Obama and tie Democrats to him, arousing their base. Democrats chose not to run nationally against Republican obstruction, offering little that would mobilize their base.

There is no mandate for right-wing policies here. Arkansas voters chose to raise the minimum wage while electing a senator who opposes doing so. Colorado voters are pro-choice and elected a senator who isn't. Voters want action on climate change and gave the Senate over to those who are in the pocket of Big Oil. DC voters chose to legalize pot, clearly a rational choice given what is coming. Exit polls showed two-thirds of voters think the economy favors the rich; they voted 2-1 for Democrats, but the one-third who think it is fair voted 4 to 1 for Republicans. Not surprisingly, Democrats won majorities of those with household income less than $50,000, but too few of them bothered to vote.

The Looming Heist

Mitch McConnell, who drove the Republican strategy of blocking every Obama initiative to paint him a failure, now warbles the soothing tones of bipartisan cooperation. Republicans made election night conversions from negative partisans to claim a mandate for bold, pro-jobs policies.

Any "cooperation" will be on their terms. They will invite the president to join in corporate tax "reform," that will lower corporate tax burdens, in cutting back Social Security or lifting the retirement age, in budgets that savage the vulnerable and lard the Pentagon, in ruinous trade deals that undermine American workers. They'll champion "repatriation" of the dough corporations have stashed abroad to pay for infrastructure, handing multinationals a massive tax break and an incentive for even more tax avoidance.

This is the corporate/Wall Street "bipartisan" agenda ready to move: a grand bargain cutting Social Security and Medicare, fast-track trade authority, repatriation, corporate tax "reform." The president will be invited to secure his "legacy" with big reforms, while being warned not to spoil the broth with action on immigration or clean energy. This kind of bipartisan cooperation will make us long for obstruction. This is how the rules get rigged for the powerful.

President Obama will have to decide. Will he now to lay out what the country needs, make his case, make the choices clear, and stand against those who would take the country back? Or will he provide cover for deals that stack the deck even more for the powerful and against the rest of us?

The Strategy for 2016

In the circular firing squad already blasting away, Democrats are being urged to return to the center, to cooperate with newborn "moderate" Republicans. They'll be told that the way back to power is to appeal to white men by embracing "centrist" policies on trade, on tax reform, on entitlement reform.

But what this election exposed was the fallacies of the Democratic political establishment. Contrary to conventional Democratic wisdom, social issues alone can't guarantee victory, since Republican candidates found it possible to rouse their base while donning sheep's clothing on choice, or going silent on gay marriage. Sophisticated campaign micro-targeting and GOTV operations don't substitute for passion, clarity, and vision to motivate Democratic base voters to vote. White men and married women will be won not by adopting a corporate agenda or by joining in rigging the rules against them. They will be won by driving an agenda that will address the pressures they feel.

There is a populist majority waiting to be forged. Majorities will rally for full employment economics, for fair taxes on the rich and the corporations, investment in rebuilding the country and educating the children, strengthening retirement security, making college affordable, lifting the minimum wage, curbing CEO excess, empowering workers, guaranteed paid family leave, paid sick days and paid vacations, balanced trade to make things in America again, taking on the corruption of our politics by big money, investment in new energy and innovation that will create jobs.

This election will make progress on any of this even more difficult. Some change can come in states and cities. But Elizabeth Warren has it right. Voters are cynical; they think government is corrupted and doesn't work for them and they are right. If the country is to deal with the real challenges it faces -- extreme inequality and economic decline for the majority, catastrophic climate change, an oppressive war on working people -- we have to stand up and fight. Democrats will have to make clear what side they are on if they want to consolidate a reform majority looking for champions.