The Two Stories of the Election of 2010: A Biopsy Before the Autopsy

Anyone who writes a party's obituary six weeks before an election is always in danger of penning the headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman." But if the debacle of 2010 does come as expected, and Democrats either barely hold the Senate and lose the House or lose both Houses of Congress, they will have to make something of how they lost historic majorities in record time, and two stories will undoubtedly battle it out.

One is that Democrats overstepped -- that voters weren't really voting for change in 2006 and 2008, they were largely voting against the GOP, the state of the economy, and the Iraq War. This is the line David Brooks has been shopping for two years and that has scared many Democratic leaders into a self-fulfilling prophecy. By this account, Democrats really didn't have a mandate for much of anything other than small change, candidate Obama's soaring rhetoric and campaign slogan notwithstanding. As this line of thinking goes, Democrats blew it on the stimulus package with too much deficit spending when Americans were worried about the deficit. (Of course, they hadn't been worried about the deficit days earlier as George W. Bush finished running it up above a trillion dollars in 2008.) They blew it on health care reform by shooting too high -- by trying to reform the whole system when they could have just enacted the simplest, most popular health insurance reforms with the middle class (abolishing pre-existing conditions, annual caps, and lifetime caps on coverage). They blew it by not working enough with Republicans when the public was clamoring for bipartisanship.

The second story is that Democrats didn't deliver what they promised: meaningful change people could see and feel. They passed a stimulus package with job-creating provisions half the size most economists called for and filled up the rest with Republican tax cuts that had already proven not only useless but budget-busting. They failed to pass a jobs bill when it was clear that unemployment was going to hover near 10 percent. They passed health care reform from which no voter could see any tangible effects until this week, and paid for health insurance subsidies for working people at the low end of the totem pole years down the road with promised taxes on working people in middle of the pole instead of at the top. And while most voters are yet to see the benefits of health care reform, they've already seen their premiums skyrocket -- just as they saw their interest rates skyrocket after credit card reform. Having watched the wheeling and dealing over health care, and failed to see a clean break from the last ten years when legislation always seemed to favor big corporations and the rich over ordinary Americans, voters have the pervasive sense that governing is the art of splitting the difference between the public interest and the special interests. Of course, that would make this the time to introduce a wave of populist legislation, from the Fair Elections bill, which might actually change that, to legislation keeping toxic chemicals out of our homes, our bodies, and our children's cereal boxes (addressing the fact that our laws are so riddled with special-interest loopholes that the U.S. is the only nation with a GDP not dependent on bananas that can't even ban asbestos). The success of Wall Street reform -- perhaps the only piece of legislation Democrats have passed for which they've gotten any credit and which is widely popular -- should have been a signal to Democrats that, right now, populist rhetoric and legislation to back it up win left, right, and center by wide margins and put Republican politicians on the defensive, because GOP leaders are out of step with even their tea-party base every time they adopt a lobbyist.

The worrisome thing about the vote in the Senate this week not to act on middle class tax cuts is that it suggests that the lesson Democrats seem already to be taking away from 2010 may be the wrong one -- that their problem was that they did too much, when all the data suggest that the public's problem with Democrats has been that they couldn't see that they'd done enough. Colleagues and I just found that the overwhelming majority of voters -- particularly swing voters -- not only want to see middle class tax cuts enacted, but they strongly object to extending even the first $250,000 of those tax cuts to millionaires. The prevailing sentiment is that millionaires and their lobbyists have taken good care of themselves over the last decade while cutting the jobs and salaries of working people, and that we shouldn't be borrowing from the Chinese and taxing our kids to write $100,000 checks to millionaires.

Years ago psychologists found that under high anxiety, people tend to revert to well-worn patterns, and with 6 or 7 weeks to go before a high-anxiety election, Democrats seems to be reverting to habits that have served them poorly for years, starting with folding when they have a full house. When the lights go down in November, if things look as dark as they do today, Democrats should take the time to figure out how they misplayed one of the strongest hands any party has been dealt in decades. But as the GOP's Pledge to America showed this week, Republicans have nothing in their hand. Now is not the time to walk away from the table.

Now is the time to draw clear distinctions between the two parties in word and deed, and to remind the American people what will happen if they let the GOP deal the cards again.