And now the big party battle begins — not within the GOP but within the Democratic Party about how the Democrats and President Barack Obama should proceed after seeing key parts of their 2008 winning coalition crumble in the 2010 mid-terms. Our political Quote of the Day comes from Indiana’s retiring centrist Democratic Senator Evan Bayho who argues Obama needs to move to the center. Here are some of the key parts of his op-ed in today’s New York Times.
First he argues that the Democrats need to learn from their mistakes. He writes:
Many of our problems were foreseeable. A public unhappy about the economy will take it out on the party in power, even if the problems began under previous management. What’s more, when one party controls everything — the House, the Senate, the White House — disgruntled voters have only one target for their ire. And the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections.
Nonetheless, recurring patterns of history, broad economic forces and the laws of politics don’t entirely account for the Democrats’ predicament. To a degree we are authors of our own misfortune, and we must chart a better path forward.
It is clear that Democrats over-interpreted our mandate. Talk of a “political realignment” and a “new progressive era” proved wishful thinking. Exit polls in 2008 showed that 22 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals, 32 percent as conservatives and 44 percent as moderates. An electorate that is 76 percent moderate to conservative was not crying out for a move to the left.
For evidence that this was true you don’t have to go any further than to read many weblogs or watch some of the shows on MSNBC. The argument was indeed that the 2010 election meant a kind of repudiation of conservatism and endorsement of what used to be called liberal and is now called progressive. It is a fact that it was perceived this way. And it is a fact that the 2008 results were not a vote for an ideology but a vote to fire folks who had not delivered and left the country in a terribble economic mess. He goes on:
We also overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession. It was a noble aspiration, but $1 trillion in new spending and a major entitlement expansion are best attempted when the Treasury is flush and the economy strong, hardly our situation today.
But most Americans who lose their homes, are forced to sell to survive, or sell to downsize, or who can’t find jobs aren’t thinking about government spending. They are hoping conditions will change so they don’t lose their home, or can buy another — or can find a job. As I suggested HERE, the focus on health care reform was an image catastrophe. If the Dems had focused on jobs and there was no significant progress they still would have lost seats. But it seemed as if it was a party obsessed with health care reform at a time when many Americans were seeing their lives and families uprooted.
And we were too deferential to our most zealous supporters. During election season, Congress sought to placate those on the extreme left and motivate the base — but that meant that our final efforts before the election focused on trying to allow gays in the military, change our immigration system and repeal the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. These are legitimate issues but unlikely to resonate with moderate swing voters in a season of economic discontent.
With these lessons in mind, Democrats can begin to rebuild. Where to start?
Bayh suggests some specifics: the Democrats desperate need to communicate better — and not to blame the voters.
So, in the near term, every policy must be viewed through a single prism: does it help the economy grow?
He suggests tax reform…ban earmarks..short-circuit the GOP’s successful rebranding of Democrats as spendthrifts. A freeze on federal hiring and federal pay increases, some changes in entitlement requirements to save money.
If President Obama and Congressional Democrats were to take these and other moderate steps on tax reform, deficit reduction and energy security, they would confront Republicans with a quandary: cooperate to make America more prosperous and financially stable, running the risk that the president would likely receive the credit, or obstruct what voters perceive as sensible solutions.
Having seen so many moderates go down to defeat in this year’s primaries, few Republicans in Congress will be likely to collaborate. And as the Republicans — including the party’s 2012 presidential candidates — genuflect before the Tea Party and other elements of the newly empowered right wing, President Obama can seize the center.
I’m betting the president and his advisers understand much of this. If so, assuming the economy recovers, President Obama can win re-election; Democrats can set the stage for historic achievements in a second term. The extremes of both parties will be disappointed. But the vast center yearning for progress will applaud, and the country will benefit.
There are big “ifs” here, and as my grandmother used to say:“If I had wheels I’d be a trolley car.”
But IF you hear Barack Obama say today or soon that he has gotten the message from the election, or is going to refocus to meeting the voters’ needs, Obama could be going in Bayh’s direction.
If so, it won’t be pretty.
To Democratic progressives, Obama’s problem was that he didn’t use his post 2008 power wisely, do more power politics. His problem, they feel, was that he compromised on principle just to get a version of things he wanted passed, focused on getting Republican support when the GOP was out to obstruct and not cooperate in the end — and make him fail, to some Democratic progressives Obama proved to be a political wuss who let a historic opportunity slip through his nicotine stained fingers.
On the other hand, Ronald Reagan’s shift towards working a mite more with Congressional Democrats enraged conservatives at the time — and he won re-election. And although he is their hero today, when Bill Clinton started to “triangulate” taking the advice of the man who is now his cable nemesis (Dick Morris) he angered liberals and won re-election. In both instances the political parties emerged stronger since they were dragged kicking and screaming to offer voters a bigger tent than their party base wanted.
The key question — a genuine one given their flat-footedness that often bordered on political negligence — is whether Team Obama has the political skills and smarts to move the President and Congressional Democrats in a more clearly centrist direction so voters see it as such.
A big question…given the (lack of) skills shown so far…
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.