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The Democrats' Big Challenge
Right after the Republican convention in Tampa, I bumped into a neighbor at the grocery store. She had been out canvassing for Obama, she told me, but was giving it up.
People were too hostile, she was tired of all the negative reactions, she just wasn't going to do it anymore.
Since I had just emerged from the RNC bubble, I first imagined she was talking about Republican voters.
It took me a moment to realize that, of course, here in Madison, Wisconsin, the hostile voters she was talking about were progressives.
Out here, far from the excitement at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, people are still angry that Obama did nothing to help Wisconsin in the recall battle against Republican governor and rightwing rock star Scott Walker.
Things have changed since 2008.
The incredible outpouring for Obama four years ago was, in part, a cathartic release as eight years of George W. Bush finally came to an end. But the record voter turnout, especially by young people and people of color, was a feat of grassroots organizing and sheer connectedness between the national Democratic Party and a lot of ordinary people who had long felt disenfranchised.
The Republicans have tried to exploit the incumbent's natural weakness in a down economy with their big talking point of the last few days: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
Democrats struggled with that--sending mixed messages about whether Americans are, in fact, better off.
(Best comeback so far: Joe Biden on why we're better off--"Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive.")
It shouldn't be that hard for Democratic Convention planners to think of a few more good zingers. After all, by reminding the nation of how we were doing four years ago, the Republicans are going right to the topic they spent the whole convention avoiding: the presidency of George W. Bush.
The waning days of the Bush Administration, which squandered the surplus, plunged our country into debt, and dug us into a deep recession, were hardly the high-water mark for American's sense of overall wellbeing, whether economically, in terms of our faith in our government, or our standing around the world.
But the Democrats have a bigger job to do than just scoring rhetorical points at their convention.
The harder job is underscored by my friend at that grocery store.
How does Obama recapture the excitement of 2008, and motivate people to get to the polls so he can pull off what most think will be a narrow victory in November? After all, especially in a swing state like Wisconsin, he will need an enthusiastic got-out-the-vote effort.
The Democrats need to make a credible case that they are going to stand up for working Americans--that the fight to defend the poor and middle class is their fight. They must stick up for civil society, for excellent, free, public education, for rebuilding our infrastructure, a robust system of social insurance, and the other community investments that make the promise of equal opportunity more than a cynical lie.
And they must do this not just with words, but with a more forward-looking, less defensive vision than they have shown lately.
In their great new book, The Betrayal of the American Dream, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele show how both political parties have abetted corporations in destroying the underpinnings of a just and prosperous society. Corporations have had plenty of help from Democrats and Republicans alike in rigging the tax code, hollowing out manufacturing, deregulating industry, making it legal for companies to renege on their pension obligations, sending jobs overseas, and bailing out the banks while letting corrupt Wall Street titans go free after they defrauded their customers and destroyed the economy and many people’s lives.
While the Republicans only offer more of the same on steroids with the Ayn Rand-inspired Romney-Ryan plan, the Democrats have yet to truly take the people's side against the oligarchs who have gotten so much of what they want in Washington.
The Democrats are hamstrung because they have given so much ground already. Obama himself talked about the need for "entitlement reform." He offered a stimulus bill that injected half as much public spending as was needed, according to Keynesian economists like Joseph Stieglitz, to turn around the recession. He has coddled Wall Street banks--no surprise since he was the biggest collector of campaign contributions from Wall Street in history in his first Presidential run.
If he is going to win reelection, Obama is going to need to recapture some of the magic that brought people out in droves to the polls four years ago--in the belief that he would really do something to change the whole game, to restore a connection between ordinary people and their democracy.
The Obama administration's failure to grab hold of the uprising in Wisconsin was disappointing because it offered just such an opportunity.
The grassroots network of activists who stood out in the snow and sleet would have been a formidable force for the Obama campaign in the fall. Instead, those same people are slamming doors or, like my friend who has given up on canvassing, feeling discouraged.
The consensus in Washington, and among many of the mainstream media folks I spoke to at the Republican Convention, was that the historic protests and the recall effort against Walker were a fluke, an outbreak of the kind of loopy politics you might expect in Madison (or Berkeley or Boulder). The recall election itself, unusual and rarely used, was a sideshow, in the opinion of many political professionals and commentators. It wasn't on their regular schedule. They couldn't buy a skybox to cover it.
So, like the President, they took a patronizing half-interest in it.
Yet everyone knows that the Democrats need to put up a more aggressive fight against the Republicans in order to win. Showing that they are actually fighting back against the social Darwinism of the Romney-Ryan ticket is crucial.
It's not too late.
If the Democrats could forcefully argue the other side of the austerity debate--and offer a vision of investment in public education, expansion of health care (at least the President is finally admitting responsibility for the Affordable Care Act--his most significant achievement) a fairer tax code and trade policies that could rescue American jobs, people out in the recession-racked Midwest might sit up and listen.
Most of all, the President must offer a vision of a politics that is not entirely bought by billionaires and big corporations. A politics that serves the interests of ordinary folks. A politics worth fighting--and voting--for.
Already, we hear a theme of the Democratic Convention will be grassroots organizing--trying to overcome the other side's money advantage with people power.
We have seen that kind of effort here in Wisconsin. A key ingredient: the sense that people have a personal stake in what they are working for--a stake so great they are willing to work long hours in all kinds of weather.
Obama needs to demonstrate that he can offer that.