Don’t Panic; Populize

There is no need for panic at the mid-term election results. Democrats lost 60 seats and their majority in the House because the unemployment rate is still near 10%, not necessarily because voters rejected Democratic policies. Independent voters simply don’t trust Democrats any more than they trust Republicans, so they opted to neuter Congress, putting the House in opposition to the Senate and the White House.

Of course, many of those disgruntled voters either ignored the lack of a coherent Republican economic recovery plan or believed the lies put out by Fox “News” and right-wing talkers on the radio and in pulpits about what the Democrats have accomplished in the past two years.

It would compound the mistake if Democrats panic and try to compromise with Republicans who clearly do not believe in compromise. Indeed, the GOP’s right wing, exemplified in the Tea Party, has shown that it will punish any Republican who tries to reach a true compromise with the Dems. And Democrats who move right will further alienate their progressive base.

But those progressives who sat out the mid-term election also made a mistake. In the first place, the House was not the problem for progressives. The House passed good bills and watched them get watered down or sat upon in the Senate. Republicans and corporate Democrats wielded archaic Senate rules to prevent good bills from coming up for a vote. Going into the election, 420 bills that passed the House, including the much-needed energy bill, were left moldering in Senate committees.

And that’s not even necessarily an indictment of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The Senate had a 60-Democrat majority for six months in 2009, but every vote of that majority was needed to shut down constant Republican filibusters. So Reid was at the mercy of centrist/corporate Dems such as Max Baucus (Mont.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sens. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and Robert Byrd (W.V.), whose failing health kept them out of action for long stretches before they died. And Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) shamelessly made Kennedy and Byrd come in from their deathbeds to cast critical cloture votes.

In the new Congress, Senate Democrats should eliminate the filibuster and anonymous holds on presidential nominations. All it takes is a simple change in the Senate rules at the start of the term. Republicans will do away with the filibuster altogether if they get the Senate majority and the White House in 2012 — because they would never allow the Dems to do to a Republican majority what the GOP minority has done to the Democrats.

As for rebuilding the Democratic Party for 2012, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg surveyed mid-term swing voters — the economically hurting middle class who supported Obama and the Dems in 2008 but now were turning to the GOP — and found the following, as Mike Lux noted at OpenLeft.com:

• Swing voters support challenging China on trade, ending subsidies that send jobs overseas and stopping NAFTA-like trade deals. They support those measures instead of increasing exports, passing more trade deals and getting government out of the way by 59-28.

• Swing voters also support ending tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year, adding a bank tax to curb speculative trading, cutting wasteful military spending and ending subsidies to oil companies. They support those measures instead of cutting $100 billion from domestic programs, raising the Social Security retirement age and turning Medicare into a voucher program by 51-37.

• 90% of swing voters supported a statement about cracking down on outsourcing and creating jobs by fixing schools, sewers and roads in disrepair.

• Swing voters said they were more worried that we will fail to make the investments we need to create jobs and strengthen the economy by 54-44.

Surprise! Economic populism sells, but it runs up against corporate privilege in Congress. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said the Democrats lost because white middle-class voters don’t see enough of a difference between the Democrats and Republicans, particularly on economic issues. Last year Webb was frustrated when he found little support for a one-time windfall profits tax on Wall Street’s record bonuses after the bank bailout. “I couldn’t even get a vote,” Webb told David Paul Kuhn of RealClearPolitics.com. “And it wasn’t because of the Republicans. I mean they obviously weren’t going to vote for it. But I got so much froth from Democrats saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fundraising.”

Webb added, “People look up say, ‘What’s the difference between these two parties? Neither of them is really going to take on Wall Street. If they don’t have the guts to take them on, and they’ve got all these other programs that exclude me, well to hell with them. I’m going to vote for the other people who can at least satisfy me on other issues, like abortion. Screw you guys.’ I understand that mindset.”

The same thing happens in Texas, which re-elected Gov. Rick Perry (R) to a third term and put nearly two-thirds Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature despite the GOP inattention to the needs of the working class and a $25 billion deficit coming up. But Bill White, the Democratic nominee with a creditable record as a business-friendly Houston mayor, promised to run state government smarter and support education and health care and he never got much traction with white middle-class voters.

The election proved that when it comes to two parties promoting fiscal conservatism, the voters prefer the Republican brand. Voters might respond to an economic populist message — that government should help working people and small businesses and limit the power of bankers and multinational corporations. Texans used to elect populists, and Democrats in Texas and those other areas that lost Democratic Congress members and legislators on Nov. 2 should give voters an economic populist choice again.

House Democrats Need a Fighter

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surprised many in the D.C. establishment when she announced she would seek her old job as minority leader. It was assumed that she would step down and allow current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to revert to minority leader, which would leave the rest of the Democratic leadership intact. But Pelosi proved herself a capable, progressive leader of the House, marshaling waffling Dems to pass the health and financial service reform bills. The House passed more progressive versions of both bills, which were watered down in the Senate in pursuit of “moderate” Republicans who never showed. Pelosi’s main problem was that Harry Reid could not get progressive bills through his chamber.

Hoyer is a well-meaning centrist who worked well with Pelosi but the difference in their approaches is illustrated in the House’s failure to act on the Bush/Cheney era tax cuts. Pelosi wanted the House to act on extending middle-income tax cuts before the election, which would force Republicans to vote against those tax cuts because they didn’t include the rich. Hoyer, responding to the concerns of centrist and vulnerable Democrats, apparently convinced the caucus to wait for the Senate to act first — which, of course, the Senate never did. Then, the Republicans went on to campaign against the Democrats for not extending the tax cuts for either the middle class or the rich, and the vulnerable Dems lost anyway.

Democrats need a progressive leader who will highlight the differences between their party — which at least occasionally represents the interests of working people — and the Republicans, who are wholly owned by corporate and banking interests. Nancy Pelosi was minority leader in 2006 when the Dems took back the House majority and she can take the fight to the GOP again. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2010


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