Yesterday, the battle for the future of the Democratic Party really began. The opening volleys focused around the wildly conflicting narratives and lessons about the meaning of the GOP drubbing of Democrats.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offered his strong views that union vote drives were the firewall that saved Democratic seats while he also denied there was a Republican mandate for victory. At the same time, President Obama infuriated some liberal pundits and activists for offering, in their view, a too conciliatory approach to Republicans, vowing to work with Republicans on measures ranging from immigration and taxes to green energy jobs.
But the president's olive branch was offered to a party that's already succeeded in regaining the House and sees little reason to change its "no compromise" position—especially when driven by Tea Party activists.
Obama's mild approach is the wrong lesson to take away from the election, progressives are arguing with little apparent success beyond the left wing of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times, are contending, "Mr. Obama may have to give ground and agree to at least a temporary extension of expiring tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, not just the middle class as he favors. He will be pressured to show that he is serious about reining in government spending."
Both Trumka and activists like Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are trying to shape the narrative about why Democrats failed so they can push the Democrats in power to take tougher stances, even in this darker political climate. Green said in a statement that summed up a widely held progressive view (via CNN):
"What the average voter saw of Democrats was weak, watered-down change -- and weak Democratic leaders who cut deals with the very Wall Street banks and insurance companies they are supposed to be fighting," Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a statement.
Green said Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, who lost his re-election bid Tuesday, was "dragged down in a national rejection of Democratic Party weakness."
"Progressives will be stepping up and insisting that the Democratic Party be bolder, not weaker," Green added, saying his group's mission is now to "save the Democratic Party from its own incredible weakness that savaged Democratic candidates in 2010."
Trumka made the case for continuing the fight for stronger jobs programs and opposing draconian cuts by, in part, emphasizing the AFL-CIO's commissioned poll results showing that most voters -- and even many Republicans -- reject key elements of the Republican platform when it's explained to them.
Unfortunately, in the real world of politics, the public doesn't receive neutral, fair-minded presentation of policy positions for their reasoned deliberation. Instead, they are bombarded by a non-stop barrage of Fox News-driven misinformation and fear-mongering, coupled with millions in corporate-funded attack ads defining Democrats as treasonous big spenders determined to saddle our kids with debt -- and promoting Republicans as champions for jobs and the average taxpayer.
And that message hasn't been effectively refuted by progressives in a way that reaches voters yet. So these poll results may not really reflect the unpopularity of some Democratic proposals -- especially health-care reform, which nearly 50 percent of the public now favors repealing (although you wouldn't know it from most liberal commentary) -- or the success of GOP messaging on tax cuts.
Even so, as the AFL-CIO press release pointed out:
The AFL-CIO poll, conducted in the top 100 swing congressional districts, shows that voters overwhelmingly reject privatizing Social Security and raising the Social Security retirement age; they oppose tax cuts for the top 2 percent who make more than $250,000 a year; they reject abolishing the Department of Education; and they oppose reducing or eliminating the minimum wage.
The report by Hart Associates pointed out, "Voters strongly oppose key economic policies embraced by GOP candidates in this election, and even Republican voters express less than 50% support. This suggests major governing challenges ahead for the new House majority."
But are the shrewd Republican leaders, who successfully completed a two-year battle plan to take back Congress and nearly won the Senate, openly arguing that they just favor tax cuts for the wealthy? Don't count on it. Indeed, just as progressive groups, the Democratic leadership and the White House failed to successfully define the health-care debate or the successes of the (weakened) stimulus law, liberals in the Democratic Party are now having trouble convincing others that moving towards the center and compromising with Republicans only reinforces the strategic errors of the Obama administration.
Yet even in Trumka's conference call with reporters he said he was going to making fighting for jobs his top priority, but he also pointed to arenas where he thought Republicans might be open to compromise.
"Realistically, both Democrats and Obama and the new House majority want to see job creation," he contends. One arena for common ground is "infrastructure -- we need $2.2 trillion worth of work on infrastructure and it's making us less competitive -- and we also need it for long term jobs creation," he said. He added that the nation needs to more forward on the Clean Water Act, clean energy (even if a broader climate bill is dead), and the surface transportation bill.
"We ought to be able to work together," Trumka said on these issues, despite the hard-line "no compromise" stance taken just today by incoming Speaker John Boehner. At the same time, Trumka says, "Now Republicans have to govern, so they have to move forward on creating jobs. If they do, we will stand with them, if they don't, we'll fight against them."
This may sound, at first, almost idealistic about Republicans' willingness to have a positive impact on the economy, but it appears, in fact, to be more of a rhetorical device to portray Republicans as intransigent.
Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, points out yet another way for progressives to try to recover from the "shellacking" they took on Tuesday and push the Democrats away from even more weak compromises. Even if seeking stronger measures faces an uphill battle, it's one worth making, progressives like Borosage say. He argues:
This election was overwhelmingly about one thing—the lousy economy. Democrats paid the price as voters expressed their discontent.
Conservatives in both parties are simply wrong to claim that the vote represents an ideological shift to the right. It wasn't because President Obama tried to do too much or was too liberal. If anything, it was because he did too little.
The recovery act is a case in point: It was too small, and the White House didn't fight aggressively for more. Democrats suffered because the economy hasn’t been producing jobs -- and the president failed to convince voters he was on a course that would produce them. And the absence of a forceful and sustained explanation of how conservative policies have failed and will continue to fail allowed a right-wing narrative riddled with empty slogans, fear-mongering and outright falsehood to gain traction in the debate...
In order to regain the trust of the majority of voters, Democrats and the president have to lay out a bold plan to get the economy going and fight for it against those standing in the way. Joining the Republican embrace of cuts to Social Security and harsh budget austerity would be bad policy and bad politics.
But it's not clear the White House or the Democratic leadership are really listening. Even though most members of the House Progressive Caucus got reelected (from overwhelmingly safe seats), who will be willing in the new Congress to push back against continuing Democratic centrism after liberal stalwarts such as Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson were booted out of office in the GOP tidal wave?
UPDATE: The Washington Post's Greg Sargent is reporting that centrists and liberals are debating the meaning of the lost independent vote emerging from new polls; the Obama-voting independents from 2008 didn't show up in enough numbers to help Democrats this time. Adam Green argues, citing the poll of independents his group commissioned:
Contrary to conventional wisdom that Dems "lost" Independents by "going too far" -- in reality, Obama-voting Independents weren't inspired enough to show up. Meanwhile, McCain-voting Independents did...skewing the "Independent vote" this year by a whopping 17% with a bunch of McCain voters. The solution for Dems: Be bolder. Fight harder. Re-inspire 2008 voters to show up in 2012.
This article originally appeared in the Working In These Times blog.