Democrats: Where do you go from here?
Story by Chris Graham
You talk to one Democrat, and the party definitely, no question, needs to restrategize toward the middle. The blowback from voters in Massachusetts is an obvious clear signal. The nation isn’t comfortable with the direction things had been headed on health care and the stimulus. Time to pull things back in for a while.
Talk to another Democrat, and that first Democrat is either an idiot or worse, a sellout. Exit polls in Massachusetts indicate that a strong majority of voters there like their state-level version of universal health care. The blowback was local, aimed at a poorly-run campaign on the part of the Democratic nominee, Martha Coakley.
Changing the course now will bring about a repeat of 1994, when Democrats threw in the towel on health-care reform and suffered at the polls in a historic GOP takeover of the House that November.
“There’s no profit in moving to the center,” said Robert Borosage, the co-director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Campaign for America’s Future, which bills itself as the “strategy center for the progressive movement.”
“Republicans have already profited handsomely from their policy of obstruction that they’re not about to cooperate to get things done. You just end up looking weak and like you don’t stand for anything because you’re spending months with supposed moderates like Chuck Grassley negotiating on health care, and then he ends up spreading the lie about death panels,” said Borosage, who like many progressives thinks Democrats need to take health care to a vote in Congress, basically playing a game of brinksmanship with Republicans.
“If Republicans want to stop it, then let’s take it to the country and let the people decide in November,” Borosage said.
A poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee would seem to bear that strategy out. The PCCC polled voters in House districts that went from Republican to Democrat in 2008 and found that 68 percent of the voters in the selected districts want a public health-care option, and significantly finding as well that 52 percent of Democratic voters in those districts report that they would be less likely to vote in the 2010 elections if Congress doesn’t pass a public option.
Among the districts included in the survey was the Fifth District, where Democrat Tom Perriello upset Republican Virgil Goode in ’08 and is facing a tough re-election battle this year, with seven candidates vying for the Republican Party nomination in the Fifth.
The PCCC poll put Perriello at greater risk than the average freshman Democrat – with 57 percent of Democratic voters saying they would be less likely to vote in November if Congress were to fail to pass health-care reform.
“This polling is proof that the key to Democratic victory in 2010 for candidates like Tom Perriello is bold populism. On health care, that means fighting for the popular public option that the big insurance companies fear. If Obama preaches watered-down reform in his State of the Union, he’ll be asking freshman Democrats to walk the plank,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and an alum of the University of Virginia School of Law.
Christopher Newport University political-science professor warns that Democrats need to be mindful in their discussions of where to go from here that they don’t overreact really in either direction.
“I think it would be a mistake to double-down and go way left, but I also think it would be a mistake for them to say, Well, we’ve got to chart a course to the middle because our efforts haven’t produced anything,” Kidd said. “I think what they need to do is continue with the policies that they’ve been pursuing, but actually get something done. Break this health-care bill into pieces, and pass several pieces of it over the next couple of months, then shift the agenda over to the economy more than it already is.”
Kidd’s thinking is based on what he saw in the exit-polling data from the Massachusetts Senate special election, which was not frustration over the direction the country has been going in, but rather the basic inability of Democrats to get anything done in terms of their legislative agenda.
“What do Democratic voters have to be proud about in the last two years except for getting rid of George Bush? What can they point to? What piece of legislation? What policy change? The answer really is nothing,” Kidd said. “And they can point to some things they’re not happy with – the bank bailouts and that sort of thing. So on top of not getting anything accomplished in the first year, the things that have been accomplished seem to be the things that the majority of Americans from the middle left don’t want.
“What’s happening with the Democrats nationally is they’re being weighed down with the lack of results and the lack of a sense at the presidential level that there’s both a short-term and a long-term set of objectives,” Kidd said.
Which isn’t to say that the soul-searching isn’t warranted. Anything resembling a course correction in politics requires the level of attention being paid by Democrats to the new reality. University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Isaac Wood points out that we’ve seen Republicans publicly licking their wounds to this end for several years running now.
“Now you have liberals saying, We have a strong majority in the House and the Senate, so if we’re not going to get anything done to satisfy us now, it’s never going to happen,” Wood said. “You’re seeing a lot more infighting on the Democratic side now, and liberals seem to be willing to say, Look, if we’re going to lose seats in the midterm elections, let’s at least do it fighting for what we believe in. There’s no moderate tack we can take that’s going to save every Democratic member of Congress, so some are going to have to lose, but let’s make sure we at least get a few things done while we’re there.”
Wood’s boss at the UVa. Center for Politics, UVa. political-science professor Larry Sabato, is projecting Democratic losses in November – as many as seven seats in the Senate and in the area of 20 to 30 seats in the House.
As pessimistic as those numbers may sound, it would still leave Democrats with majoriities in both houses of Congress, with a Democratic president. And a loss that still leaves Democrats with working majorities might send a signal to party leaders heading into the presidential year of 2012.
“The Republican strategy is very clear. It’s thus far been very successful for them. I think Democrats, even if you thought there were grounds where you might find agreement without losing your principles, I don’t think you’re going to find any of those areas now, because that’s not where they are,” Borosage said.
“It’s much more important to me to be fighting the right battles, and forcing them, if they want to oppose taxes on the banks to repay the country, let’s have that fight. If they want to oppose breaking up the big banks because they’re too big to fail, let’s have that fight. If they want to oppose another jobs program that will actually put people to work directly and get the economy going, then let’s have that fight. Let’s go to the election with that,” Borosage said.
“My hope is that the 2010 election sends a message to Democrats, and they start getting serious and tougher and start taking on the battles that the country needs,” Borosage said.