It's bad enough that we lost progressive champions like Russ Feingold, and that the leadership and committees of the House will be taken over by advocates of domestic austerity and endless war. In addition, the airwaves and print media will now be filled with pundits saying that the lesson of the election is that Obama must move to the right and cut the budget, except the military. But the worst thing we must now face is that the 2010 election is likely a preview of 2012, unless at least one of two things happen: decisive federal action to boost economic growth and employment, now much more difficult to achieve than before, and some dramatic new element is introduced into our national politics that changes the character of national debate.
Jonathan Chait pointed out last week that based on the state of the economy, historical trends predicted a Democratic loss of more than 40 seats, enough for Republicans to take the House. In other words, on average, based on historical trends, the fate of the election was sealed when the Obama administration proposed and Congress enacted an economic stimulus package that was much too small to counter the fall in domestic demand resulting from the collapse of the housing bubble. Everything else that happened in the election has to be judged according to the baseline expectation of the Democrats losing at least 40 seats — enough to lose the House — due to the failure to restore economic growth and employment with a sufficient stimulus to counteract the fall in private economic demand.
Paul Wiseman of the AP noted this week that "a growth rate of 5 percent or higher is needed to put a major dent in the nation's 9.6 percent unemployment rate," but that isn't likely based on current trends: "Macroeconomic Advisers doesn't expect the labor market to recover all the lost jobs until at least 2013. Other economists say it could be 2018 or longer."
If 2012 is going to be different than 2010, there has to be dramatic action, and the record of the last two years, combined with the election results, suggests skepticism that the impetus for such dramatic action will come from Washington.
It could be tremendously helpful if there were a well-run Democratic primary for the presidential nomination in 2012. I will explain what I mean by a well-run primary and what I think such a primary could do.
First, a well-run primary has to meaningfully address the conventional wisdom among many Democrats — not just among Democratic leaders, but among the base — that a Democratic primary contesting a sitting Democratic president is likely to be destructive. The primary audience of a progressive primary is the Democratic base of people who potentially vote in Democratic primaries, so this is an absolutely essential starting point. When you suggest the idea of a 2012 primary, many people immediately point to the precedent of 1980, when Ted Kennedy ran against President Carter. Many Democrats blamed Kennedy for contributing to Carter's defeat. As a causation story, one could argue that this overstates the effect of Kennedy's campaign, but in an important way it doesn't matter: A person who wants to build progressive power doesn't suggest things that are only slightly destructive. The central goal of a progressive primary has to be to build progressive power, and it has to make a convincing case that it is doing so; otherwise, it is a mistake.
Consequently, a key organizing principle of a progressive primary has to be something that many may find at first counterintuitive: It must not be directed against President Obama.
Instead, the primary thrust of a progressive primary should be the need for decisive federal action to boost economic growth and employment.
Secondary thrusts should include: opposition to domestic economic austerity measures, including any cuts in Social Security benefits such as raising the normal retirement age; an attack on the degree of control of our democracy by corporations, including the need for a fundamental reform of campaign finance; a direct focus on building the infrastructure of progressive power at the base, including voter registration and education, building the membership of organizations that do progressive electoral work, and the organizing of more workers into labor unions; ending the wars, bringing our troops home, and cutting the military budget.
In our current media environment, it's extremely difficult for progressive voices to break through into the center of national debate and remain there. A progressive primary has a good shot of breaking through. If you think back to the last time that progressive voices had a sustained presence on a range of issues at the national microphone, it was the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. That primary put the Employee Free Choice Act on center stage; that primary changed the national conversation about NAFTA and trade policy; that primary helped bring about the agreement for a timetable for military withdrawal from Iraq; that primary changed the national conversation about US policy towards Iran away from the threat of war. In our electoral cycle, a Democratic presidential primary is generally the apex of progressive influence.
A well-run progressive primary will register many people to vote. In the two years between general elections, a lot of people move, particularly a lot of young people. In states without same-day registration, this can be a significant barrier to participation. A person who registers to vote in a primary is probably someone you don't need to register for the general election. A progressive primary will build the base of progressive organizations and increase the attachment of progressive voters to the political process. Note that this wouldn't necessarily require progressive organizations to make a candidate endorsement; it would only require them to take seriously the idea of a presidential primary as an organizing, education and mobilization opportunity: a 50-state Town Hall for Democrats.
A progressive primary will keep the need for federal action to boost domestic economic demand and create jobs at the center of national debate.
A progressive primary will act as a counterweight to the Washington voices who want to cut Social Security benefits, including by raising the retirement age.
A progressive primary will act as a counterweight to the Washington voices who want to extend the US military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to gin up confrontation with Iran. In particular, a progressive primary will counter efforts to make meaningless the drawdown of forces that President Obama promised next summer and will increase the pressure for real negotiations in Afghanistan to end the war. A progressive primary will counter those in Washington who want to reopen the status of forces agreement with Iraq so that US forces can remain there after the end of 2011.
A progressive primary will shine a national spotlight on local campaigns for economic justice, like Michael Moore's TV show TV Nation used to do, because those will be campaign stops, like in the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign: picket lines, lockouts, factory closings, hazardous waste dumps. A progressive primary will shine a spotlight on the need for labor law reform, to restore to private sector workers the effective right to organize that they were promised by the National Labor Relations Act.
A national progressive primary will encourage progressive candidates to run for Congress. It will boost their campaigns by adding attention and volunteers. Most progressives don't know who Bill Halter is, even though labor unions, MoveOn and other progressive Democratic organizations campaigned hard for him, and he campaigned on a platform of being more pro-Obama than his pro-corporate incumbent Democratic opponent. A national primary will drive attention and participation to these races.
Finally, a progressive primary will put demands for fundamental campaign-finance reform on the table for national discussion, in a way that Washington is likely incapable of doing without massive and sustained outside pressure.
A recent film by Francis Megahy, "The Best Government Money Can Buy," sounds the alarm about corporate control of Washington through the current system of campaign finance and lobbying by the suppliers of campaign finance, as well as the bind that reform of the system ultimately has to be enacted by incumbents that have been produced by the current system. The results of the congressional election have, of course, made Washington worse in this regard.
Megahy's film makes a convincing case that we need a sustained movement from outside of Washington to combat corporate control in order to reform the system. And a logical inference to draw from the film is that this movement needs to constantly tie the need for reform to the direct and major economic and political harms that that present election finance system is causing to working families.
The film documents, for example, how the current campaign finance and lobbying system has produced effects like $30 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas companies, a law barring Medicare from using its market power to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs, and a law prohibiting the import of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
If you're concerned about corporate control in Washington, get this movie, and use it as a tool for education and organizing.
And think seriously about whether a national progressive primary could help spawn an effective movement for fundamental reform, including, crucially, decisive federal action to drive down unemployment. Talk to your friends and colleagues about it. If we create a groundswell, we create the conditions in which an appropriate candidate will step forward.