Why Are Democrats So Defeatist?

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The Nation

Why Are Democrats So Defeatist?

The Republicans are openly introspective about why they failed to regain the presidency and the Senate. It is time for the same kind of rigorous self-analysis by the Democrats, who floated through their failure to regain control of the House without apparent dismay. Their failure to dislodge Speaker John Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor assures that President Obama and congressional Democrats will get very little done for the next two years.

In the last Congress, Democrats were up against the cruelest, most extremist, most corporate-controlled Republican Party in history—a party far too extreme for the likes of Senator Robert Taft or Ronald Reagan. Last fall, the House Democratic Caucus issued a list of sixty outrageous Republican votes. If these bills had not been blocked in the Senate, the legislation would have been very unpopular with most voters.

The list cited GOP votes to protect massive tax breaks for the wealthiest, end the universal Medicare guarantee, jeopardize Social Security, oppose measures that would protect seniors from abusive financial practices, attack women’s health and safety, weaken consumer protections, undermine the Pell Grant program for low-income students, favor corporations shipping jobs overseas at the expense of American workers, slash the food stamp program, weaken protections to ensure that every voter’s vote counts, and allow big oil companies and speculators to drive up gas prices along with a raft of brazen anti-environmental bills that would have despoiled our air, water and soil. 

House Republicans even blocked bills to help veterans, including one that would have guaranteed our soldiers’ pay during any GOP-led government shutdown. One can easily imagine how the party of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson would have eviscerated Republicans who took such an arrogant plutocratic record into the elections of their eras. Today’s Democrats are of a decidedly different ilk.

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Early in 2012, I asked a number of high-ranking House Democrats the same question: “If you believe that on their record this is the worst Republican Party ever, why aren’t you landsliding them?” Their replies, preceded by wistful smiles, ranged from citing the difficulty of regaining gerrymandered districts to big-money support for the Republican Party. But the most candid response came from a high-ranking Democrat, who blurted, “Because we’d raise less money.” In other words, the Democrats are so beholden to their own big-money contributors that they can’t fight on issues that they know have overwhelming public support. Plainly, the House Democrats raised enough money. They benefited from their gerrymandering, too. On the issues, the Democrats had a huge advantage. Yet instead of confronting Republicans in district after district with the vicious Ryan budget and the Boehner Band’s voting record, the Democrats displayed open defeatism.

At least 70 percent of Americans polled favor a minimum wage adjusted to inflation—but so indentured, so cautious, so distant from these workers and their children are today’s Democrats that none of them would push the issue unless President Obama championed it.

When I asked veteran House Democrats in the spring of 2012 how many seats they thought they would gain in November, the highest estimate was twelve to fifteen (they needed twenty-five to win the House but gained only eight). So even six months or more before the November elections, they were predicting defeat. Defeatism with no offensive agenda is not a winning strategy. Granted, they did call for protecting Social Security and Medicare. But they kept harping, repeatedly and vaguely, on the “middle class,” as if 100 million poor and near-poor Americans didn’t need to hear from them. 

In June, former presidential candidate and Senator Gary Hart told me that in Denver, where he lives, “Democrats don’t know what the party stands for.” A few weeks later, Hart received confirmation of his observation. Joining nineteen other prominent Democrats, including former New York Mayor David Dinkins and Public Advocate Mark Green, Hart signed a letter to House and Senate Democratic leaders, including Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, beseeching them to be more aggressive in giving people concrete reasons to vote for Democratic candidates. They never received a response. 

The decay of the Democratic Party can’t be better confirmed than by the actions of its leader. During his 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama championed a federal minimum wage—but after winning, he fell silent. The 1968 minimum, its historic peak in real-dollar terms, would be the equivalent now of $10.50 per hour, compared with the present minimum, $7.25, one of the lowest among major Western nations. Thirty million working Americans laboring between those two hourly rates are making less than workers made in 1968. 

Tens of billions of overdue dollars annually for these hard-pressed workers would be a very effective stimulus program; the increased purchasing power for a stressed and indebted working class would immediately increase consumer demand and thus create more jobs. At least 70 percent of Americans polled favor a minimum wage adjusted to inflation—but so indentured, so cautious, so distant from these workers and their children are today’s Democrats that none of them would push the issue unless President Obama championed it. Obama finally lifted the party taboo in his recent State of the Union address, when he proposed a $9 federal minimum wage by 2015—a weak contrast to his 2008 proposal for a $9.50 minimum by 2011.

After the elections, Democrats privately blamed Obama for not running with the congressional Democrats and refusing to share campaign money from the president’s $1 billion stash. Truly, Obama ran a very selfish campaign. He knew he could get votes and money for Democrats in close races, and he knew he really could not achieve much at all unless the Democrats won the House. But his electoral strategy was all about Numero Uno. Obama’s relations with his party in Congress— including the Congressional Black Caucus—are terrible, even though the strain has usually not erupted in public. On a radio show with me last October, Representative Maxine Waters did sadly acknowledge that “unlike Clinton,” Obama did not campaign with the congressional Democrats.

Democratic defeatism has continued into the New Year. There are no signs of a leadership-driven progressive agenda for workers, consumers, the environment or corporate reform.  The diluted and marginalized Progressive Caucus in the House has put forth good proposals, but it has no organized power in the party’s hierarchy. The leadership is still reluctant to represent the more than three-quarters of the American people who want big business to be held accountable for its special privileges, reckless behavior and disregard for people’s livelihoods. Many senior Democrats are settled in their own safe seats and care little about the overall prospects of the party winning a majority in the House.

There is no effort by the Democratic leadership to question the failed strategies of 2010 and 2012. For 2014, it is likely to be more of the same: raising the money and taking care not to offend business interests by talking vaguely about the middle class and ignoring the growing poorer classes that are the Democratic Party’s natural constituency. What all this presages is another loss in 2014—unless the Republican Party takes an even more extremist stand for the rich and powerful and saves the Democrats from their own unprecedented stagnation.

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