The Morning after the Day Before
The Monday morning quarterbacks are in full flow, and the post-mortem is already on. The alternatives are being immediately staked, and the relevant policy changes demanded. Depending on whom you read, the Democrats lost so many seats in the mid-term election because Obama wasn’t centrist enough or because he was too centrist. They lost the electoral support of independents because they (the Democrats) appeared too partisan, too much like the old politics Obama promised to change; they lost the seniors because of the threat to Medicare Advantage, the middle class because of tax and debt fears, and young voters because there was no change. The Democrats lost across the board because of the economy and unemployment, their stimulus package either being too small or too large. They lost because the administration bailed out Wall Street but not Main Street, and Main Street is where people vote. They lost because, having bailed out the rich, the rich responded by slush-funding the Republicans. They lost because too much of their vote in 2008 was an anti-Bush vote, not a pro-Obama one, as easily lost as gained. They lost because the foreclosure crisis is deepening and the Obama administration has no answer to it. They lost because the Republicans mobilized their base and sung from their usual hymnbook, while the Democrats did not. The Democrats went into the mid-term elections divided, their base demoralized and their message unclear. They have come out of it chastened, with their future uncertain. When Harry Reid wins by a whisker and that is treated as a major achievement, we know that Obama and the Democrats are not the force they were just two Novembers ago.
Post mortems can be very noisy affairs. This one certainly is. It is likely to go on for some time still. Everybody will have a view and in some perverse way everyone will be at least partially right!
What therefore should we conclude, and more importantly what should we do?
1. This, first: we should prepare for defense. The Congressional Democrats lost, and they lost big. They lost the House, and the House was the launching pad for the Obama reform program. However moderate that program was, its launching pad has now gone. It is true that the Democrats did not lose the Senate – not quite – but even when they had a clear majority there, effective Senate control proved very illusive – and it will again. All of which means that any chance of major reforms of a progressive kind this side of 2012 has now vanished. There will be no immigration reform worthy of the name, no green house gas limits, and certainly no new stimulus package. At the level of policy, defense of what has been achieved will be the dominant order of the day. Defense of the new health care settlement. Defense of the Medicare and Medicaid programs inherited from the 1960s settlement. Defense even of the Social Security system inherited from the New Deal settlement of the 1930s. Defense of what remains of American public services – starting with education and the jobs of teachers. Defense! Such a different agenda to the “change” one that framed the previous electoral cycle.
2. Forget bipartisanship. It will not happen, not from this Republican Party in this Tea Party mood. Offer it, of course, but do not expect it, and certainly do not surrender principles to get it. It will not happen on any terms that progressives should accept because of the one important thing on which both sides do agree: namely that the country is going to the dogs – and rapidly – and urgently needs a completely new direction of policy. What they profoundly disagree upon, of course, is what that new direction should be. So centrists beware. Chasing Republicans only encourages them to run faster, and makes you look foolish. Electorates fed up with the race eject blue dog Democrats just as easily as they do progressive ones. If you doubt that, look at the mid-term results on the blue dogs. Of the 34 who voted against health care reform, only 12 avoided defeat last Tuesday. No, turning the Democratic Party into a better kind of Republican Party will not win back independents. Winning them back means turning independents into Democrats: and you can only do that, if you can do it at all, by making a convincing Democratic pitch at them. And convincing pitching, as any baseball fan knows, requires both a very strong arm and its regular deployment.
3. Which means that, in the political climate now around us, the best form of defense is actually offense – policy offense, program offense, and crucially ideological offense. Each of us (starting with the President) needs to reject the Republican specification of our problems and their solutions on each and every occasion that that specification is asserted, countering it with our own. How? By defending discretionary public spending, obliging Republicans to say what they will cut. By advocating infrastructure modernization and a new stimulus package, making Republicans explain why neither is necessary. By challenging the nonsense – the sheer idiocy – of at least two of the claims made by Rand Paul in his acceptance speech on Tuesday night: the claim that governments do not create jobs, and the claim that because families have to balance their budgets week by week, the federal government must do the same. We need to talk again about the importance of teachers and the value of Keynesianism. We need to defend the vital role of big government in periods of crisis, and the essential role of civilized public policy in times of calm. We must not let the Republicans get away with their regular assertion that markets work best when regulated least. That nonsense got us into this crisis, and it will not get us out.
Parties do not work well together when they treat the programmes advocated by their opponents as the key immediate cause of America’s problems. We have a clash of philosophies here, not just an incompatibility of personalities or policies. You can’t duck that clash. You have to win it. Democrats may no longer control the Congress but they still – for the moment at least – control the bully pulpit of the Presidency. Obama needs to use it or lose it – starting now!
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.