Ten months before the 2010 mid-term elections, Democrats are gritting their teeth in anticipation of net losses in both the House and Senate. How can Dems change the tide that's running against them? Move out of wonk mode and start talking to Americans from a foundation of progressive values.
Over the past seven months,the Daily Kos poll has indicated a growing shift against generic Democratic candidates. As a consequence, Democrats will likely lose several seats in the Senate - there are four open Democratic seats and Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a tough race in Nevada. Things aren't any better in the House of Representatives, where Dems currently have a 78-vote majority. According to The Cook Political Report Dems have 38 seats rated lean Democratic or toss up, while Republicans have only 11 seats rated lean Republican or toss up.
Democrats are bucking two trends. One is the historical tendency for the Party out of power to gain congressional seats in the mid-term election; two years into his first term, President Bill Clinton saw Republicans seize control of congress.
The other trend is national pessimism, which has translated into antipathy towards government, in general. The most recent Ipsos-McClatchy poll found that only 36 percent of respondents believe the US is "headed in the right direction." A year into the Obama administration, voters blame their new President and the Democratically controlled congress for America's woes. The Ipsos-McClatchy report observed "until there are some big gains in jobs or tangible benefits in people's lives, the president and the Democratic Party are going to bear the brunt of the public anxiety."
The public's sour mood spawned the "tea parties." Beginning on April 15, 2009, the tea party protests spread across the US. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 41 percent of respondents "had a very or somewhat favorable view of the Tea Party movement" compared with 35 percent favorable for Democrats and 28 percent for Republicans. Tea parties are fueled by volatile mixture of anger and a flawed understanding about the causes and consequences of the financial crisis. They're fresh meat for the "nattering nabobs of negativism" that run the Republican Party.
Since October 3, 2008, when President Bush signed the TARP Bailout, Republicans have pushed a cynical narrative, which has taken root in the public consciousness. In this tale,government is the problem because bumbling federal bureaucrats caused the financial crisis. In the Republican narrative, the correct response would have been to do nothing; there should have been no bailout or stimulus package, the economy should have been allowed to collapse because this would have punished evildoers and the market ultimately would have recovered on its own. From the misleading conservative perspective, all the bailout funds have gone to Wall Street rather than Main Street and public assistance has gone to undeserving individuals. In summary,Government failed because there is "rot at the top."
Given these trends, how should Democrats respond?
First, Congressional Democrats need to pass legislation that creates jobs, makes credit available to businesses and consumes, and keeps Americans in their homes. Dems must listen to the populist anger about Wall Street and enact stringent financial reforms. But it's not sufficient for progressives to remain in wonk mode: focus on reforms and assume that working-class Americans understood the causes and consequences of the proposals. There has to be an overarching story.
The second task for Democrats is to elucidate an alternative positive narrative. One based upon historic progressive values such as fairness and interdependence. In 2010, Dems have to have an explanatory tale that defends government (systems and structures) as an expression of the "benevolent community," a positive extension of our interdependence, where Americans work together to improve the quality of life in our communities. From this perspective, Democrats need to explain what happened in the financial crisis and what steps are being taken to protect working families and improve their lives.
Fortunately, Barack Obama is the right person to convey this progressive narrative. While most politicians are suspect,a significant majority of Americans like and trust the President.
The elements of the progressive narrative seem clear:These are tough times, but we're in this together. In the past, Americans got out of hard times by making government work for them. If citizens pull together we can make the necessary changes.
The financial crisis is an opportunity to redirect America so that the economy works for the common good, benefits all the people not just a privileged few. Improved government structures and systems are essential for this change. Government can protect Main Street from Wall Street's cancerous greed by providing meaningful jobs, strengthening the social safety net, and rooting out the causes of the financial meltdown - ensuring it won't happen again.
Ultimately, "It's the values, stupid." The Administration needs to re emphasize the progressive values that appealed to millions of voters when Obama advocated "Change we can believe in."
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.