House Democrat Michael Capuano shocked House Democrats at their weekly Caucus meeting recently when he flatly told them they're screwed. Capuano was being charitable. They aren't screwed. They screwed themselves. And it wasn't just the Democrats abysmal cave to Obama on Afghanistan, or their even more abysmal failure to plow some of the taxpayer booty Congress ladled out to Wall Street and the big banks into a direct jobs and home foreclosure relief program. These two failures stoked public frustration, impatience, and fury at the Democrats. But their greater sin is that they squandered the mandate they had to turn the public hunger for change into real reforms. The day after Obama won his electoral college landslide victory, the GOP was reeling. Its leader was discredited and loathed. The public blamed him and the GOP for two failed, flawed, costly wars, for making a shambles of an economy, the endless chain of sex and corruption scandals, and an unprecedented giveaway to Wall Street.
The day after that the Democrats could have announced that they would forcefully push for an FDR style jobs and relief program, clamp a tight ceiling on executive compensation for all banks and financial houses that got taxpayer bailout dollars, prohibit all stock speculation, swaps and manipulation by the same banks and financial houses that got bailout money, require that they fully open the lending spigot to distressed home owners, businesses and industry.
A grateful public would have hailed the Democrats for acting like Democrats in more than just name. They would have applauded Obama as the true second coming of FDR. Obama and the Democrats did none of these things. They dithered, retreated, and plopped down half measures to jumpstart the economy, health care reform, and have been stone silent on Obama's Afghan escalation.
Democrats can't blame this on Bush and the GOP. The Democrats had the public goodwill and support to make the change they and Obama paid lip service too. But the operative words are lip service. The clues that that's all they are were glaring even before the start of the presidential campaign.
Start with Bill Clinton. In countless speeches and private talks during the 2000 presidential campaign, Clinton sternly warned the Democrats that if they want to grab the White House they must seize the issues of national security and defense, tax reform, law and order, and banking and corporate deregulation from the Republicans. He once admitted in a candid moment that critics called this and other GOP friendly positions he took, Republican lite. But he was successful with it and figured other Democrats could be too.
Al Gore and John Kerry followed his script to the letter. They plastered the Democrat's standard expansive and flowery programs for jobs, education, and health care reform on their websites and in campaign handouts. But that's where it ended. They said virtually nothing about these issues, let alone that they'd make big, sweeping changes on them if elected, on the campaign trail.
During both failed elections if Democrats had looked at the polls much closer they would have seen what their true strengths were and what a majority of voters really wanted. The polls consistently showed that when presidential elections come down solely to a referendum on who best to fight terrorism and wage wars, the GOP will always come out on top. When it came down to the issue of who would manage the economy better, do better in boosting education, creating more jobs, providing affordable health care, and protecting civil rights and civil liberties, Democrats always come out on top.
Capuano didn't need the polls to tell him the obvious that people wanted and expected the Democrats to reverse the damage of the GOP and Bush. The people told him that everywhere he went on the senatorial campaign trail in Massachusetts. They were sick of hearing the Democrats talk about tax credits and unemployment extensions, and repelled at congressional wrangling over appropriations bills. They want to hear, no see, the Democrats propose and then enact a real jobs program and massive funding plan to stop home foreclosures. That's what they thought real Democrats did and stood for. Even despite the public clamor for a crash, direct jobs program, Democrats are still trying to appease the GOP an end around by tying the jobs program to an appropriations bill.
Democrats delude themselves that the public is still so mad at the GOP and that the party is still so fractured, petty, and incompetent that at best the congressional losses in 2010 will be minimal. That will only happen if Democrats fought for the things they hinted that they'd fight for during the election. The things that the majority of voters thought they were voting for when they gave Democrats and Obama the green light to make change. They thought wrong. No, the Democrats aren't screwed. They screwed themselves.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.