The esteemed Harold Meyerson noted a few months back that in the last election, 55 percent of white working-class voters trusted President Bush to handle the economy, while only 39 percent trusted Sen. John Kerry. And that means the Democratic Party has one simple question it needs to answer: is it going to be a party defined only by its orthodoxies on social issues, or is it going to be a party also defined by a renewed commitment to America's middle class?
The answer from some Washington, D.C. Democrats is, to be understated, troubling. The right-wing Washington Times recently bragged that "so far this year in the House, 50 Democrats helped pass class action reform...42 joined in legislation repealing the death tax, 73 supported the bankruptcy bill...[and] 41 joined the Republicans on the final version of the energy bill." Let me put that another way: at least 20 percent of elected Democrats in the House voted to limit citizens' legal rights, cut taxes for the richest 2 percent of Americans, persecute debtors, and shower wealthy oil companies with massive tax breaks. Worse, these same Democrats who stabbed America's middle class in the back actually demanded an apology from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) when she had the courage to say they were selling out. That shameless behavior has given Republicans fodder to attack Pelosi as well, even though she and her allies are doing everything they can to reconnect the party with the middle class.
But the answer from outside the Beltway is much more promising. In the "red" states, in particular, a new breed of progressive populist Democrats are forging a new path for the party. For instance, in Montana where I live, the new Democratic governor and Democratic legislature amassed a tremendous record in defending the middle class's economic interests during the last legislative session. In Colorado, New Hampshire, and Montana, Democrats are pushing forward with bills to reduce the influence of corporate special interests on government. And in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and New Hampshire, progressives are moving forward to raise the minimum wage, even as congressional Republicans tried to eliminate minimum wage protections for 7 million Americans.
Which vision will win out? It is hard to tell, but it will certainly be a battle. The tightly-knit cabal of Washington consultants and political operatives running the Democratic Party has been entrenched for a long time, pushing the same tired old ideas, comfortable on the cocktail party circuit even if they are in the minority. The rest of the country, however, is not so happy with this status quo. And that bodes well for those of us who want to see real reform, and those of us who believe the Democratic Party must once again be the defender of America's middle class if it is ever to be a majority party in the future.