It is easy to point out lessons others should learn from the 2010 midterm elections. So let me assuage my pain by indulging in some easy finger pointing about what others should learn, before moving on in part 2 to the more difficult lessons that self-conscious Leftists might learn as well.
(1) Voters with good reason to be disappointed and angry will hold those they perceive to be in power responsible for failing to alleviate their pain. Lesson #1 for Obama: Don’t raise hopes and make promises, fail to deliver, and expect to get away with it. It doesn’t matter if you are not responsible for the economic crisis. It doesn’t matter if the bank bailout without conditions was begun by President Bush and Hank Paulson. It doesn’t matter if a hypocritical and disloyal Republican opposition did everything in its power to obstruct legislation and programs that would have helped over the past two years. When you ran for office in 2008 you asked to carry the ball. After two years you own it. This is basic politics 101 and you have nobody but yourself and your political advisors to blame if you failed to understand this.
(2) In Presidential elections new voters, young voters, poor voters, minority voters, and wishy-washy clueless “independent” voters are more likely to vote. But not so in midterm elections, which are dominated by the party bases. For this reason a newly elected President needs to prioritize programs that please his party base, because only by energizing one’s base can one expect to do well in midterm elections. Lesson #2 for Obama: It is suicidal to not only to disappoint your base at every turn in your legislative agenda, but to go out of your way to pick fights with your base as well. Don’t exclude single-payer advocates from meetings with all interested parties to discuss healthcare legislation. Don’t denounce the leaders of social movements that are your base as “the professional left” when they accurately point out that your legislative agenda is wanting. Don’t blame the environmental NGOs for your failure to win any Republican support for any legislation to avert climate change. Don’t go on the Daly Show at the last minute to emphasize how much you disagree with John Stewart days before he is bringing out the largest and most enthusiastic crowd of the entire election campaign to denounce the rightist smack talkers who are attacking you and your agenda. Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush II listened to political advisors who understood this simple law of Presidential politics. Obama and David Axelrod may have gotten an A in “How to beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain by Running as an Outsider.” But Obama and his political team get an F in “How to Govern Politically in Your First Two Years in Office.”
(3) Just because those who are most successful at voicing voter frustrations get elected does not mean they know how to solve the problems of those who voted for them. Both the economic and ecological crisis are real and huge. Both require bold, serious policy responses. Those who got a boost in the midterm elections not only have no solutions for either problem, they will work tirelessly for policies that will predictably aggravate both crises considerably. Lesson #1 for progressives fighting for effective and equitable solutions to serious problems in healthcare reform, financial reform, labor law reform, education reform, immigration reform, civil liberties reform, and for an end to imperial foreign policy – not to speak of effective responses to permanent joblessness due to permanent outsourcing and a recession-without-end, and an effective program to reduce carbon emissions to avoid cataclysmic climate change: Only progressives, nobody else, has solutions. Neither Washington nor the major media will be discussing real solutions for the foreseeable future — which makes progressive campaigns for progressive solutions more important than ever. The public debate will consist entirely of sound and fury signifying nothing. No matter how marginalized from that echo-chamber progressive reformers remain, only progressives will be discussing solutions that solve problems that have already reached crisis proportions.
(4) There is no hope for moving any part of a progressive agenda forward at the national level for at least two years. Don’t be fooled by plaintive hype about “progress if not perfect,” or the passive-aggressive line “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” No part of the progressive agenda moved forward over the past two years despite the fact that Obama won a significant electoral victory in 2008 both in terms of the popular vote and especially the electoral college by asking people to “Vote for Change.” The Presidential election of 2008 was no “cliff hanger” like George Bush’s stolen elections in 2000 and 2004. And unlike Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, which was a gift from Ross Perot, and his re-election in 1996, which was due to an unprecedented (albeit unsustainable) economic boom, Obama’s margin of victory was truly a mandate for progressive change and whatever proved necessary to address the biggest economic crisis in over four generations. Moreover, from 2008-2010 the Democrats had larger majorities than the Republican Party enjoyed at any point over the past 80 years in the House of Representatives and the US Senate, all whining about Republican filibuster threats in the Senate notwithstanding. Lesson #2 for progressives: If a progressive agenda could not move forward in the last two years, if effective responses to the highest unemployment rates in 80 years were “off the table,” if the White House refused to get behind any climate bill, and the Senate would not even bring a single piece of climate legislation up for a vote, then only a fool would expect any better results in a Washington awash with triumphant Republicans and cowed Democrats.
(5) Lesson # 3 for progressives: Think long term, because in all probability the political situation in Washington will deteriorate further after the 2012 election. In 1934 FDR responded to demoralizing midterm election losses by calling out capitalists and Republicans who ridiculed him, and denouncing all who stood in the way of his New Deal agenda for ending the Depression. As a result he won re-election in 1936 in the biggest landslide in US history, sweeping many New Deal Democrats into Congress on his coat tails. If Obama does an about face and comes out swinging like FDR in 1934, confronts his critics, and denounces all who stand in the way of real solutions to unemployment, who knows what might happen. But every indication is that even before the electoral debacle proved to be worse than they anticipated, Team Obama had already planned to take their cue from Bill Clinton in 1994, not from FDR in 1934, and respond to midterm election loses by tucking their tail between their legs and seeking collaboration with Republican initiatives over the next two years. But this means that if Obama collaborates and “triangulates” a la Bill Clinton over the next two years there is no hope for moving a progressive agenda forward at the national level after the 2012 election. In this case one of two things will happen. If after two years of Democratic Party submissiveness and Obama triangulation the Republican Party avoids self destruction, Obama and more Democrats will be swept from office in 2012. On the other hand, if the Republican Party overplays its hand, and does something foolish — like trying to impeach Obama, or nominate Sara Palin as their Presidential candidate in 2012 — then a triangulated Obama might get re-elected in 2012. But even if re-elected in 2012, if Obama goes down the triangulation road he will be irrevocably tied to a Republican-led, anti-progressive agenda which further punishes victims while continuing to aggravate actual crises. In this scenario, not only would we be much deeper into economic and ecological crises, Obama would end up doing more damage to the progressive cause than Bill Clinton did during his second term.
(6) How much to prioritize work on electoral campaigns versus building social movements has long been debated among progressives. Whether to build a progressive electoral party outside the Democratic Party, concentrate on running progressive candidates in Democratic primaries, or engage in some sort of fusion strategy has also been a matter of much debate among progressives who work on elections. I don’t think any of these difficult issues have been successfully resolved, one way or another. But now there is a new matter all progressives who do work on elections must face. Lesson #1 for progressives who do electoral work: Campaign finance reform and repeal of the Citizens United v. Federal Electoral Commission Supreme Court ruling is necessary if progressives are to ever hope to make progress through electoral politics. There is ample evidence that large quantities of invisible money from out of state not only aided Republican candidates running against Blue Dog Democrats, it also targeted strongly progressive Democratic incumbents in 2010. While this was not sufficient to unseat most progressive stalwarts this year in districts that are solidly liberal, the threat and the trend line is obvious and ominous. Plotting progressive electoral strategy has become largely pointless absent an effective strategy for getting money out of elections. All who do progressive electoral work, independent of the strategy they pursue, are affected by what is a watershed change in US elections. Progressive Democrats, all progressive third party activists, and all who work on progressive ballot measures should make identifying and agreeing on the best strategy for overturning or out maneuvering Citizens United an urgent priority.