After the Disaster: Four Lessons for Democrats

In March, while driving in the California mountains, my car skidded on ice and hit a semi head on. The crash foreshadowed the disaster suffered by Democrats on November 2nd, where the Obama bus was mangled by a Republican freight train. The difference being that the Democratic catastrophe could have been avoided.

The Obama Administration should have anticipated the mid-term election disaster. They had ample warning but failed to take counter measures. If a similar result is to be avoided in 2012, if Obama is to prevail in the presidential election, Democrats have to absorb four critical lessons.

There has to be a permanent campaign. In 1980, Democratic strategist and columnist Sidney Blumenthal observed we'd entered the era of the permanent political campaign. Republicans have learned this. Democrats haven't.

At the onset of the Obama Administration, Republicans began their campaign to win the mid-term elections by opposing every presidential initiative. (In January of 2009, House Republicans unanimously voted against the stimulus package even though there was huge national support for it.) Obama did not appear to understand the dogmatic nature of Republican opposition. As a result he lost time, and allies, trying to obtain GOP support.

In August, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne observed that Obama seemed to shy away from politicking and said, "In a democracy, separating governing from 'politicking' is impossible."

As a consequence of the president's indifference about politiciking the 2010 Democratic campaign was incoherent and uncoordinated. One seasoned political operative termed it "political malpractice."

Democrats have to control the message. E.J. Dionne continued, "'Politicking' is nothing less than the ongoing effort to convince free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context." Republicans did this. Although experts such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen urged them to, Dems didn't.

Republicans talked in terms of themes -- "restore freedom," "give control of government back to the people" -- while Democrats talked about policies, many of which were incomprehensible to the average voter. Over the course of the last 21 months, the GOP implanted a big lie in the American consciousness: the Obama Administration caused the recession and Democrats favored "bailouts" because they were aligned with Wall Street. Dems didn't counter this.

The dominant 2010 Democratic message was, "Let's not go back to the Bush era." The subliminal content was: "We don't have anything positive to say."

The cornerstone message must be simple. At the core of the Democratic political context should be a single compelling idea.

The electorate's big concern is jobs. The Republicans had a simple response: "Lower taxes and fewer regulations create jobs." The Democratic response was "Trust us. We're not the Republicans."

The Obama Administration may have a straightforward plan that will fix the economy and create jobs, but no one outside the White House knows what it is.

Democrats must keep faith with their base. Just before the election, the New York Times ran a front-page article Obama Coalition is Fraying, Poll Finds. Their poll reported that key groups, like white women, were planning to vote for Republicans. If the reporters had dug deeper, they would have found a bigger story: the Obama Administration had managed to piss off their key supporters, both individuals and groups. This was the guts of the "enthusiasm gap;" Obama hadn't just lost white women, he'd shortchanged them -- at best they felt disappointed, at worst betrayed.

Of course the Administration managed to get universal healthcare passed, a fine accomplishment. But in the course of doing that, they -- for no apparent reason -- gave away key reproductive rights. They alienated progressive women and failed to communicate the positives of healthcare to American women in general.

In one progressive sector after another, the Obama Administration reneged on promises or gave up hard-earned progressive gains, all in the name of securing Republican votes that never materialized. It made many Democrats wonder if they could trust their president, their leader.

Waiting for Superman? In addition to learning these four lessons, Democrats have to decide what to do about Barack Obama.

In 2008, Obama ran such a strong campaign that many Dems were lulled into complacency. They knew America faced huge problems but they felt their political fortune was assured because they had Superman on their side.

In comic books, Clark Kent goes into the phone booth and out comes Superman. In 2009, Barack Obama went into the White House and out came Clark Kent.

After the mid-term disaster, Democrats have to make major adjustments: starting with the president, the leader of the party. Obama has to decide whether he is willing to spend two years fighting for Democratic principles and engaging in 'politicking.' If he is willing to fight, then he needs to begin on November 3rd. If he isn't, then someone else needs to take over the leadership of the Party. There's too much at stake. America can't afford a repeat of 2010 in 2012.