There is no sugar coating it – the Democrats took a serious beating in the elections earlier this week. Democrats lost the House, with Republicans picking up at least 60 seats (10 remain undecided as of this writing). Democrats also lost at least 6 seats in the Senate and 9 Governorships. A few true progressive leaders, such as Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, lost their seats in Congress, and Joe Sestak and Alexi Giannoulias both narrowly lost their Senate bids in Pennsylvania and Illinois, respectively. In short, the American public sent a strong message to the Democrats by either voting Republican or, in the case of many Democratic voters, staying home.
So where do we go from here? We will have more thoughts as things proceed, but here are our initial thoughts:
1. Don’t Despair – Yes, the election was a major rebuke to the Democrats. But it was not an endorsement of Republicans or their policies, both of which remain highly unpopular. Instead, the outcome was the result of justifiable voter anger about the economy and a shift from 2008 in who showed up to vote towards a significant increase in the proportion of voters were over age 65, and a decline in the proportion of younger and African American voters.
We also should keep in mind some bright spots. Democrats, of course, still have the White House. In addition, Democrats retained control of the Senate with 52 or 53 seats (Washington State is still undecided), which is more seats than they had between 1995 and 2008. And after picking up 31 House seats in 2006 and 23 more in 2008, it is not surprising that the Democrats would lose a hefty number in 2010. Fortunately, only four of the House losses were members of the House Progressive Caucus, while 29 Blue Dogs who ran away from the Democratic message are now out of the House. Some of the worst of Republican nominees – such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Joe Miller, Tom Tancredo, and Carl Paladino – lost. And the Democrat’s Western firewall held up, thanks in part to continued overwhelming support from Latino voters, who helped put Harry Reid over the top, return the California Governor’s seat to the Democrats, and re-elect Barbara Boxer.
2. Be Bolder – The clear lesson from this election is that the Democrats need to be bolder, especially when it comes to addressing the serious economic issues facing middle and working class Americans. As the data about significant voter anger and apathy among Democrats about the economy demonstrates, yesterday’s drubbing was largely due to the failure of the Democrats to fix unemployment, low economic growth, and the mortgage crisis.
In 2008 sent the Democrats to Washington to fix our economy. Unfortunately, President Obama and the Democratic leadership gave into the Blue Dogs and centrists who said we had to be cautious and centrist in response to the economic crisis. Therefore, we passed a stimulus that was too small, made ourselves appear to be in bed with the bankers by appointing Summers and Geithner, and failed to help people whose mortgages were underwater. The result was an effort that laudably stabilized the economy, but was far too weak to return people to work and save their houses. Without these continuing economic problems, the election would not have been a drubbing and the tea party/Fox News attacks on President Obama’s other significant achievements (health care reform, student loan reform, credit card industry reform, Wall Street regulation, etc.) would have largely fallen on deaf ears. And without these continued economic problems for average Americans, the voters would not have felt a need to send a message to the Democrats.
This is hardly the first time that the Blue Dog/centrist view point has led Democrats to take positions that are harmful both policy-wise and politically. For example, during the 1990s and early 2000s, too many Democrats, at the urging of the centrists, went along with the conservative deregulatory policies that helped trigger the financial and housing market collapses. Similarly, Democrats who should have known better voted to authorize invading Iraq because Blue Dogs pushed such vote as the only politically viable approach. Both of those positions have been proven wrong, as progressives predicted, but Democrats were hamstrung from effectively making the case on those issues when their wrongness became clear because the Blue Dogs thinking had led many Democrats to go along with those policies. On the flip side, when Democrats did not buy the Blue Dog line in 2005 when President Bush proposed Social Security privatization, we won and it helped turn the tide against the Republicans leading to the 2006 and 2008 victories.
The silver lining is that many of the Blue Dogs who would constantly undermine any effort to be bold are gone, and the centrists can be blamed for yesterday’s debacle. This frees President Obama and Democratic House and Senate members to propose a truly bold plan with aggressive action to help people keep their houses even if it means banks taking a hit on the mortgages, major new aid to state and local government, substantial investments in rebuilding our infrastructure, a major shift in the tax burden away from the middle and working classes and toward the wealthy elite, and a New Deal-style jobs program that will get people back to work. Sure, such a plan would be shot down by the House GOP, but Republican ideas are not going to help the middle and working classes in America or achieve economic improvements. By proposing bold steps, President Obama and the Democrats will have something to run on in 2012 and can enact real reform soon thereafter.
3. Stay Involved – Progressives are in a serious political fight against a well-funded and well-organized conservative opposition that is willing to do whatever it takes to win. While we should all take a week or two off to recharge our batteries, we must all stay active in order to win this fight. And we must also change some of our tactics moving forward.
Most importantly, we need to take our message outside the progressive bubble. Put your Congressional representatives’ offices on speed dial, so that they hear from you whenever there is a major issue in play. Contact the Democratic Party and the White House to let them know you want bold action, not more “centrism”. Send letters to your local newspaper. Organize your family, friends, and neighbors to do the same things.
In short, fight back against the conservatives and their “centrist” enablers by getting our message out that this election was about the Democrat’s timidity on the economy and that the way back to power is to be bold.