Albuquerque, a fairly Democratic town, just elected a Republican mayor because of low Democratic voter turnout. Democrats are in danger in both of the big gubernatorial races coming up in New Jersey and Virginia. The generic congressional polling numbers are in a statistical dead heat, and Democratic base voter enthusiasm is trending down.
There is no reason for Democrats to panic, as demographics are still trending in our favor and the Republican brand is still in tatters, but the warning signs for my party are out there and should not be ignored. What Democrats need to be extremely well focused on is short term deliverables for real people. On health care, on jobs, on banking legislation, on immigration reform, on climate legislation - on all of these major initiatives and more, they of course should be thinking about what's best in the long term, but better damn well be focused on delivering real and tangible benefits to voters before the next election, or Democrats will suffer a bruising defeat in November 2010.
Let's start with health care. When you are working to re-structure 17% of the American economy - and probably the most byzantinely-structured 17% there is - there are a lot of complications, and it is obviously going to take some time. Some of the features of the plan will need time to phase in, which is understandable. But some of the benefits need to be apparent to Americans right away too. If we spend a year and a trillion dollars passing health care reform, and no one sees any benefits to them by November 2010, we Democrats have a really big problem in the next election.
Another key point on this issue: if a public option doesn't go into effect for a while, say until 2013, insurance companies better not be free to raise their rates at will until they finally have competition, when the public option enters the scene. There is nothing that will guarantee voters turning away quickly from health reform, and the politicians who voted for it, more than letting insurance companies hike up their insurance costs over the next four years, and we know they would have because they already promised to do it.
Health care reform needs to have immediate benefits - no pre-existing conditions, no lifetime caps, all of those insurance regulations we've been hearing about need to kick in immediately. But even more importantly, if a public option gets delayed, there has to be a short term way to keep insurance company greed and power in check. To leave the public utterly at the mercy of the arrogant insurers who have already promised they would raise their rates after this is passed - like consumers were left at the mercy of credit card companies for many months after the consumer protection bill passed - is not only unfair to people but is truly terrible politics. If you think these insurers won't jack rates through the roof, and then blame the rate increases on reform, you are truly naïve. Don't make voters feel like it was a bad idea to pass health reform because they are seeing only the downside in the short term.
On the economy, the macro-economists in the administration like Larry Summers love to say that, "jobs are a lagging indicator", that eventually in the long run, that jobs will start getting created. Even if they are right (and I tend to be skeptical when economists tell me that in the long run, things will eventually trickle down to working people), neither the economy nor the Democratic Party can afford for there to be another year where no jobs are being produced. To have that many people in trouble exacerbates the foreclosure crisis, weakens the housing market, forces more cuts in the state and local budgets, and a higher federal deficit: and it is a complete political disaster for Democrats. Jobs need to be created ASAP, lots of jobs, not a few here and there, and should not be seen as the lagging indicator that will take care of itself someday. In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes liked to say, we are all dead, but the Democrats will be dead in the short term unless we start producing lots of jobs quickly. The stimulus is certainly helping, and Obama deserves credit for that, but it is not enough. Democrats need to think bigger on creating jobs.
On financial reform, as with health care, much of what needs to be reformed will take a long time to kick in, and in fact much of the goal will be to keep disaster from happening in the future - a harder thing to get credit for. (Which by the way, is the main thing the Obama White House is claiming about the economy - that we would have had a disaster if not for the US. It's a hard thing to win votes on.) But a strong policy of consumer safety in financial products will be noticed by people who went through the outrages of being ripped off over the last few years, and there are other things that could be done that voters would notice and cheer. How about a tax on financial transactions, structure to cost the most for the biggest traders, where the proceeds would go to new job creation? Based on private polling I was shown recently, that would get about 85% support. How about anti-trust actions against the biggest banks? How about throwing some of the worst violators of the financial system in jail, and returning their ill-gotten gains to the people they ripped off? There are plenty of things to do in the financial sector that would get voter attention and would be seen as an immediate benefit.
On climate change, the first item of business should be dramatically expanding green jobs. On immigration, families ought to be reunited right away. On issue after issue, we need to get things done, and make sure that what we get done has immediate benefits to regular people.
George W. Bush was a disastrous President, rated by many historians as the worst President of all time, and he handed Democrats a terrible mess that we will be digging our way out of for years. But blaming the other guys for bad times doesn't cut it in American politics, and it shouldn't: we need to deliver real things to real people. Trying to convince voters that it would have been so much worse if it wasn't for us, and that our policies will help them someday in the long run, is not a winning strategy. We need to deliver things that make a difference in voters' lives now.