November 2010, Week 3


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Mon, 15 Nov 2010 10:57:09 -0500
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The Post-Midterms Game Plan for Progressives
Katrina vanden Heuvel and Robert L. Borosage
The Nation
November 10, 2010

Election 2010 will be known as a "shellacking," the
president's characteristically tempered term for what
might better be called a rage-fueled bloodletting.
Democrats lost more than sixty seats in the House, the
worst rout in postwar history, as well as six Senate
seats and key statehouses and governorships.

Republicans framed these results as a repudiation of
liberalism. The "unmistakable message," said incoming
House Speaker John Boehner, was "change course." Blue
Dog Democrats, after suffering the loss of half of their
caucus, called for a turn to "incrementalism," in the
words of Representative Heath Shuler, who suggested that
Nancy Pelosi should be displaced as the party's leader
in the House. (Thankfully, the lady is not for turning.)
Washington pundits argued that Obama's mistake was
trying to do too much, catering to his liberal base, and
they advised him to imitate Bill Clinton after 1994 by
trimming his sails and tacking to the center.

Before this conventional wisdom hardens into received
truth, progressives need to take a tough, lucid look at
what really happened. With the country beleaguered at
home and abroad and the push for reform frustrated, it
is vital that we lay out a clear strategy going forward.

It's Still the Economy

With unemployment near 10 percent, the economy was the
overriding issue. Exit polls showed that 40 percent of
voters said that their financial situation had gotten
worse since two years ago, and two-thirds of them went
for Republicans. Voters don't hold Obama responsible for
the mess-Bush and Wall Street are sensibly given most of
the blame. But not surprisingly, they hold Obama and the
Democrats responsible for failing to fix it.

Obama's problem wasn't that he did too much or was too
liberal. It was that he did too little and wasn't
radical enough. The recovery plan stopped the economic
free fall that Obama inherited, but it wasn't enough to
get the economy going. Weakened by unified Republican
obstruction and wrongheaded Blue Dog opposition, public
spending was barely enough to counter budget cuts at the
state and local level.

Given the scope of the financial bust-Americans lost
nearly $11 trillion in the value of their savings and
homes-any recovery would have been predictably slow and
difficult. That made winning the larger battle of ideas
and discrediting the failed conservative policies that
drove the economy off the cliff a crucial long-term
strategy. But here the president was largely absent
without leave. Hoping for bipartisan cooperation, Obama
chose not to level a searing critique of conservatism,
as Reagan had of liberalism when he took office. His
economic advisers Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers
were particularly hapless, for they were implicated in
the crisis and still espoused much of the neoliberal
gospel. Confident that the Recovery Act would work, the
White House presented it as the solution, not as the
first step in an ongoing drive to build a new economy.

This folly was exacerbated by the decision to continue
the Paulson-Bernanke-Geithner policy of rescuing the
banks without reorganizing them or at least forcing
heads to roll. Taking a cue from the Tea Party,
Republicans conflated the recovery plan with Bush's bank
bailout. The administration was charged with running up
deficits to bail out Wall Street without creating jobs
on Main Street. Without revising their failed mantra,
Republicans presented themselves to voters as populist
tribunes (while peddling themselves to Wall Street as
their protectors). The ploy worked: exit polls showed
that a plurality of voters (35 percent) blamed Wall
Street for the economic mess, but these same voters
chose Republicans over Democrats by a 56 to 42 percent
margin. This is the full measure of the White House's
political malpractice.

Progressives bear some blame for the failure too. Buoyed
by the emerging majority that carried Obama into office,
progressives poured resources into building coalitions
to drive the reform agenda on energy, healthcare,
immigration and financial regulation. These efforts had
some positive effects: healthcare would not have passed
without progressive mobilization, and financial
regulation got stronger because of a scrappy citizen
coalition. But with the exception of labor, there was no
large movement calling for action on jobs until the One
Nation march in October. Until too late in the game,
progressives were reluctant to challenge the limits of
the economic debate, to push independently for change
and to censure the White House and Congress for
pandering to the big banks and failing to move on jobs.
The weakness of independent progressive mobilization
made it easier for the right to tap into the populist

Passion Attracts

Many establishment pundits have focused on the swing of
independent voters, whose support for Democrats dropped
from 52 percent in 2008 to just 39 percent in 2010.
Conservative Democratic strategists argue that this
decline illustrates the dangers of trying to rouse the
party's base in the run-up to the election. This is, in
a word, bull.

The voters who turned out in 2010 would likely have
elected John McCain in 2008. They were older, whiter and
more conservative than the voters who put Obama in
office. Turnout was at 40 percent this year, about
average for an off-year election. But self-described
conservatives represented 42 percent of the vote, up
from 34 percent in 2008, and they gave Republicans a
higher share of their votes (86 percent, up from 78
percent in 2008). There is no question that the Tea
Party mobilization, the torrent of corporate-funded
attack ads and the Fox News echo chamber got
conservatives to the polls in large numbers. Seniors
over 65 represented a striking 23 percent of the vote,
and they went for Republicans by a margin of 58 to 40
percent, up from 2008. Here, the dishonest barrage of
ads describing healthcare reform as cutting $500 billion
from Medicare probably had some effect.

This increase in the conservative vote was mirrored by
the falloff in Obama's base. Young people, minorities
and single women-the rising demographics that gave Obama
his majority in 2008-shrank from 46 percent of the
electorate to 40 percent, and they gave Democrats a
lower percentage of their vote than they did in 2008.
Young people under 29 represented 11 percent of the
vote, down from 18 percent, and they chose Democrats
over Republicans 57 to 40 percent, as opposed to 66 to
32 percent in 2008.

Conservatives were aroused; liberals were discouraged.
This "enthusiasm gap" affects more than the turnout of
the base. An aroused base takes the case to the
uninvolved, the disengaged. A discouraged base, like
conservatives in the latter Bush years, is tongue-tied,
confused, defensive. Far more than the purported turn
against liberal policies, it's this trickle-down
enthusiasm effect (or lack thereof) that helps explain
why independent voters swung to Republicans in 2010.
Independents are not a stable group of voters with fixed
opinions equidistant between two parties. Rather,
independents tend to be voters who are paying less
attention to politics, and with less information, than
partisans. Most tend to favor one party over another. A
fired-up base brings out the independents that lean to
that party and may also help persuade true independents.

The argument that Obama should tack to the prevailing
conservative winds is simply wrongheaded. That surely
wasn't the way the Republican Party came back from its
defeats in 2006 and 2008. Passion attracts while
cautious positioning too often alienates the partisans
the president needs to re-engage. As Marshall Ganz has
argued, the president went from being a transformational
candidate to being a transactional president; the
candidate who empowered his supporters became the
president who demobilized them-and Democrats paid the

No Conservative Mandate

Despite the Democrats' "shellacking," voters provided no
mandate for conservative ideas. Republicans did not gain
popularity; Democrats lost it. The GOP strategy was to
attack, not to advocate. To the extent Republicans
advocated anything, few Americans heard it. And when the
extremist agenda of Tea Party candidates like Sharron
Angle and Joe Miller, who called for privatizing Social
Security, was highlighted, voters rejected it.

In fact, voters remain skeptical about the conservative
agenda. Exit polls showed a majority favored repealing
the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy or repealing them
altogether, as opposed to just 39 percent who wanted
keep them entirely. An election-night Campaign for
America's Future/Democracy Corps poll asked voters what
they worried about more: the failure to make necessary
investments to create jobs and strengthen the economy or
increasing government spending so much that taxes will
have to be raised. Voters virtually split evenly between
the two. Asked to choose between an agenda drawn from
the Republican "Pledge to America" (reducing the deficit
by cutting spending, extending the tax cuts, offering a
20 percent tax cut to small business) and an investment
agenda that creates jobs by spending on infrastructure,
science and technology while extending tax cuts for the
middle class, the electorate favored the investment
agenda 52 to 42 percent. In other words, even the
conservative-tilting electorate remains open to
progressive ideas to fix the economy.

Obama's Strategy: Getting Clinton Right
It is essential that President Obama dispel the mist
surrounding Bill Clinton's comeback after 1994. The
prevailing view-propagated by New Democrats and the
former president himself-is that Clinton's recovery came
from an agile move to the center, joining with Gingrich
Republicans to balance the budget and "reform" welfare
and embracing conservative symbols like school uniforms
and parental V-chips for television.

In reality, after some public flailing about, Clinton
found his footing after the Oklahoma City terrorist
bombing, using the occasion to speak for the country and
condemn those who propagate hatred of public service. He
then defended Medicare and Medicaid, education and
environmental programs from deep cuts demanded by the
Republican Congress. When Gingrich shut down the
government, Clinton soared in the polls. "M2E2"
(Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment)
became the centerpiece of his campaign against the
lackluster Bob Dole. Clinton was ahead by double digits
when he was still vetoing Gingrich's welfare repeal.

Obama faces more formidable obstacles than Clinton ever
did. The economy is more likely to stagnate, and mass
unemployment could easily become the "new normal."
Republicans, tempered by the Gingrich flameout, are less
likely to overreach. Indeed, they've been rewarded for
just saying no thus far. They are likely to hold a
series of symbolic votes to appeal to their base (a
repeal of healthcare) and seek agreements that mean
little (a moratorium on earmarks). They can achieve
little and still let the president take the blame for a
stubbornly bad economy.

Obama has little choice but to reach out to Republicans
to gain what agreements he can that might boost the
economy. This may entail debilitating compromises like
the extension of the Bush tax cuts. He might be able to
mobilize the business community in favor of pushing for
infrastructure investment. He's pledged to try to make
progress on a new energy policy, although that seems
less likely. In any case, little is likely to be
accomplished in Congress, which will be devoted to
symbolic repeals and search-and-destroy investigations.

Given this, it is imperative that the president do three
things. First, he'd be wise to focus on governing and
invoke his executive authority to further progressive
reform and to strengthen allies. On energy, immigration,
workers' rights, fair labor standards and "don't ask,
don't tell," the president has formidable powers on his

Second, the president must use the coming fights with
Congress to show whose side he's on. He should be
prosecuting the widespread fraud in the banking industry
and challenging China and other trade violators. He
should make himself into the defender of core programs
that serve working and poor Americans, the very
constituencies conservatives have in their sights. His
Deficit Commission will report in December, amid
establishment pressure to cut Social Security. The
president should stand tall and announce that Social
Security doesn't contribute to the debt and won't be cut
on his watch.

Third, the president must do what he failed to do in his
first two years-lay out a bold vision and program for
reviving the US economy and fight for it, slamming
conservatives who stand in the way. He needs to join the
battle of ideas, not drift above it.

The Campaign for America's Future/Democracy Corps poll
asked voters how they would react if Obama made a
postelection speech committing to building a new economy
for the middle class that laid a "foundation for jobs
and growth" by "investing in education, research and
innovation"-a classic argument for progressive reform.
Two-thirds rated the statement positively, including 71
percent of swing voters. The poll then tested two major
initiatives. One called for a plan to rebuild
infrastructure, including a new National Infrastructure
Bank; voters favored this proposal 53 to 35 percent,
including a majority of independents. The second, more
ambitious initiative called for a strategy to revive US
manufacturing, including investment in infrastructure
and science, an aggressive trade policy, Buy America
procurement policies and an end to tax breaks that
encourage moving jobs abroad. It was favored by 80
percent of voters, more than half of whom expressed
strong support.

Americans are still looking for answers that are
commensurate with the scope of our challenges. The
president would be well advised to present himself not
as a chastened politician but as a transformational
leader, championing the fundamental reforms needed to
revive America and rebuild the middle class.

A Strategy for Progressives

Progressives also need to rethink their own strategies
moving forward. A majority for progressive reform can
still be forged but only with a revival of bold vision,
populist energy and independent organizing. Barack Obama
provided a vehicle for that energy in 2008, but
progressives had paved his way. We stopped Bush when he
sought to privatize Social Security. We built the
movement that opposed the Iraq War and brought Democrats
their majority. We provided the drive for a transition
to renewable energy and leadership in the green
industrial revolution. Those successes gave an African-
American freshman senator the sense that there was
something big happening, something he could tap into. It
is vital to rekindle this independent energy. To allow
the corporate-funded Tea Partyers to capture the
populist anger at Wall Street bailouts and special
interests is simply political malpractice.

We're headed into a period of defensive struggles-
against cuts to Social Security, unemployment insurance,
education and Head Start; against the continuation of
two wars and increases in military spending; against the
climate change know-nothings. Progressives must fight
these battles, but we should also be prepared to
challenge the limits of the debate.

We need a broad mobilization for jobs, a call to rebuild
America that challenges trickle-down economics, special-
interest politics and the divide-and-conquer strategies
that are destroying America's middle class. That
requires mobilizing working families, the unemployed and
citizens of conscience to challenge both the cautious
White House and the conservative Congress.

This can be complemented with an inside-out strategy,
defined not by the White House but in conjunction with
progressive members of Congress. In this election, the
House Progressive Caucus lost only three seats, while
the Blue Dogs lost thirty, leaving Democrats smaller but
more liberal. In the minority, they have no chance of
passing legislation. But acting collectively, the
Progressive Caucus could reinforce movement protests,
defining choices with a bright line, exposing how
conservatives cater to corporate interests over the
common good, while putting forward an alternative
direction. Outside organizing could help magnify and
broadcast this agenda-insisting on withdrawal from
Afghanistan, exposing the climate deniers while pushing
for green jobs, detailing the reforms needed to take
back our politics from corporate money and interests.

The rear-guard battle against cuts to the social safety
net could be reinforced by a poor people's campaign that
ends the shameful silence about poverty. Legislators
should join the vibrant movement for immigration reform
in pressuring the White House to act administratively,
while confronting Republicans with the prospect of
losing Latino voters for a generation. This effort
should be complemented with a push to recruit true
progressive champions and finance and staff their
campaigns. Progressives should gear up to run in the
primaries of the seats just lost-while putting Democrats
on notice that we are prepared to challenge those who
stand in the way.

With Washington more and more gridlocked, citizens must
move. Americans fear this country is headed into
decline, while their government caters to special
interests that feed off their tax dollars. They are
searching for answers that conservatives cannot supply.
A majority for progressive reform can still be forged.
But it will require independent action to revive the
energy and, yes, the hope that the past few years have


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