01 June 2010

Stormy Weather Ahead? : Dems Need a New Playbook

President Obama had a rainy Memorial Day. Meanwhile, the Dems are hoping for a change in the weather. Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast / AP.

Peeking through the clouds:
What's ahead for the Dems?

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / June 1, 2010

President Barack Obama recently gave the Democrats a theme they should use every day from now until the election. On May 13, 2010, he reminded listeners that the Republicans had created our economic mess and are now unwilling to help solve it.

Many frustrated Americans seem unwilling to remember this and they need to be constantly reminded. It is a matter of facing reality, and that can be tough. It is unlikely that the voters denouncing Democrats and Washington will face reality by November, but perhaps a few will.

If a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll is correct, it may be too late to dramatically change the grim results expected in November's elections. Pollster Peter Hart, a Democrat, said, "A lot has happened, but the basic dynamic of the 2010 elections seems almost set in concrete."

To make things worse, we now know that our economic situation is very similar to Japan’s long, flat decade. Full recovery and substantially less unemployment are a long way off. And it seems that most of our fellow citizens have been convinced we need policies that will prevent the regeneration of jobs for years to come.

The Republicans and their Tea Bagger wing have misdiagnosed the situation and said our situation is like that of Greece. They have convinced most Americans that the remedy to our situation is to avoid more stimulus, when that is exactly what is needed to avoid the fate of Japan. But when it comes to economics, most people prefer simplistic explanations and remedies, even when those theories underpin the same policies that brought on the Great Recession and the near destruction of our financial system.

Several primaries

What do the recent primaries show us?

The primaries in Pennsylvania were particularly difficult to read, and they even showed Dr. Terry Madonna, perhaps the best political analyst around, to be partly wrong. It is fair to say that many more Democratic activists supported Joe Sestak than Arlen Specter. But we still need to worry about the frustrated Democratic base. In Pennyslvania and elsewhere only 23% of Democrats turned out. If that occurs again in November, the disaster will be even greater than the pundits are now predicting.

Two other facts need to be considered. Sestak ran one of the most effective political advertisements ever, showing Specter saying darkly that he changed parties “to get reelected” and it included a clip of George W. Bush endorsing him. Specter’s age and health were a problem and it is very likely that the next governor will be Republican Tom Corbett, who would appoint a replacement from the far right to replace a deceased Specter.

Sestak had proven to be a good campaigner and has greatly raised his name recognition and can now present himself to voters as the populist who took on the establishment and won. but he will be campaigning in a state described as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between.” That is only a bit inaccurate as Harrisburg, located in central Pennsylvania seems to be becoming more blue. But no matter how bad the economy is, we can expect a large Republican turnout and vote in Pennsylvania’s Alabama.

There is a remarkable unpublished book that sheds light on this. It deals with International Paper’s battle to destroy the union in Lockhaven -- an effort aided by a Democratic governor. At the time, the workers were militant and proud of the stand they took, but as the years passed, the vast majority were powerfully reabsorbed by their conservative rural culture and came to think they had been wrong to battle the paper giant.

The great advantage Sestak has is that his opponent will be former Representative Pat Toomey, a rigid ideologue who until recently headed the Wall Street-backed Club for Growth. Toomey can be presented as the Wall Street candidate from now until the cows come home. Toomey speaks for the gamblers who wrecked out 401Ks and put pensions in grave danger. If Sestak hews to that line, he will be elected.

Republicans outspent Democrats 3 to 1 in an effort to seize John Murtha’s old seat and they tried to make the election about Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Mark Critz’s nine point victory in John Murtha’s district is no reason for much cheer. He won by defending guns, anti-abortion positions, and distancing himself from President Barack Obama, health care reform, and cap and trade. No doubt Democrats in other districts carried by John McCain will take note of his successful approach and emulate his tactics.

Murtha’s old district, the 12th in Pennsylvania, includes the communities with the so-called “captive mines” and the many towns that were screwed over and abandoned by the steel companies. This is the same area where hired thugs beat up unionized workers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and where the state sent in rural troops to kill and rough up immigrant workers from time to time.

There was a time when people there had a strong sense of their working class identity and knew exactly who their enemies were. But decades have passed, and more and more have succumbed to being manipulated by the hot button issue politics perfected by the right. This story illustrates how effective the Republican communications machine has been over the decades.

By the 1980s, many there were Reagan Democrats even though Reagan’s party was busy stripping away the benefits of miners and the power of unions. Today, it has almost destroyed non-public unions and is eying entitlements like Social Security for reduction. But still, the GOP manipulation of cultural variables works even where it should have no appeal. Today, only a quarter of Democratic seats in the House are in white, working class districts.

One can think of few areas that needed health care reform more. These are good, friendly people who have had much more than their share of pain and hurt. Driving through the beautiful valleys of the 12th district, one will see many conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches where people seek solace.

In Arkansas, Senator Blanche Lincoln was forced by Lt. Governor Bill Halter into a runoff election. Halter is more liberal than Lincoln. She has a dubious record on health care reform and a bad record on labor. The unions are punishing her by helping Halter, though it is difficult to imagine how he could win the general election.

A fact some miss is that the banking and financial service industries are also supporting Halter. Senator Lincoln voted for TARP, a position that is very unpopular in rural America. As chairperson of the Agriculture Committee, she tried to balance that vote by successfully inserting language in the finance reform bill that would limit gambling on derivatives. Her language would force banks to live with tougher margin requirements in these trades or spin off the departments that deal in derivatives.

It is a good provision -- not ideal, but the best we could expect. She has been unable to explain to voters that, in this instance, she really is doing something for Main Street and protecting ordinary depositors against wild speculators on Wall Street.

The bankers’ game plan now is to make the runoff so difficult that she will be unable to expend energy fighting to preserve her position as finance reform is marked up in conference committee.

On the face of it, a conservative Democrat is being punished. But her opponent has little prospect to win in November, and her defeat might also include still another victory for the bankers.

In Kentucky, libertarian and Tea Bagger Rand Paul defeated the hand-picked candidate of Senate Republican Minority leader Mitch McConnell. Democratic strategists might note that there was a 24 point gap separating Paul and the candidate endorsed by the Republican establishment. The gap does not reflect disdain for the dishonesty of people who employ obstructionism and call it something else, but it might mean that those voters know the Republicans were big spenders and were two faced enough to claim credit for blocking the stimulus bill while getting some goodies for the home folks.

The minority leader quickly embraced Paul and placed a very efficient political machine at his disposal. Rand Paul said Obama’s criticism of BP was un-American and he doubted the constitutionality of the Citizens with Disabilities Act. Dr. Paul was also critical of those who denounced the mining company associated with the recent big accident in West Virginia. Kentucky coal miners might be unsettled by this attitude. His suggestion that civil rights legislation should not extend to segregation in restaurants might not scare away many white Republican voters, but it will alarm blacks and give some white independents reason to think twice.

Republicans and leaders of their Tea Bag wing are not defending Paul’s comments on these matters even though these remarks seem to reflect sentiments found among many in the GOP. Democrats would be wise to hold up Rand Paul as the poster boy for the Tea Baggers and conservative Republicans.

Paul’s nomination may make the Kentucky race a slight possibility for the Democrats. Some say that the defeat of Senator Robert Bennett in Utah had the same effect, but that is very hard to imagine. If the economy improves a little more and some Republican Tea Bag nominees make enough mistakes, the Democrats might not face a complete route.

To the north of Kentucky is Ohio, where the GOP establishment easily brushed aside Tea Bag challengers. Maybe some ordinary Kentuckians had enough of Mitch McConnell or even knew of his very close ties to the mining firm that was connected with the last two mine disasters. At least, the Ohio results, combined with those from the Pennsylvania 12th district, suggests that the Tea Baggers are not uniformly strong everywhere.

In the process of pursuing bipartisanship, Democratic leaders in Washington have failed to win the support of independents and have dampened enthusiasm among their base. They need a new approach that provides reality therapy for the masses and reasons for the Democratic base to return to activism.

Counter big lies

It is too late to counter all Republican lies, but the Democrats must address four.
  1. Remind seniors that the health care reform improves Medicare and does not deprive them of a single benefit.
  2. The two most criticized Democratic programs -- cap and trade and health care reform -- are almost entirely repackaged proposals originally offered by the Republicans.
  3. Obama and the Democrats bit off too much. The Democratic agenda could have been enacted had it not been for consistent, almost wall-to-wall Republican obstruction. This even included blocking many dozens of Democratic nominees including a head for the Transportation Safety Administration. In the latter case, the Republicans denounced Obama when the TSA did not function perfectly. The election should be about obstructionism because it denies the basic democratic principle of majority rule.
  4. Most people believe that the health care plan will drive up the deficit. The CBO said it will reduce the deficit, and people also need to be reminded that the Democrats extended the life of Medicare by reducing costs without cutting benefits
Reactivate the base

By countering the chief Republican lies, an important first step will be taken to reactivate the Democratic base. The base might develop a better opinion of Obama and the party leadership when they see what we have been up against. Yes, our leaders have been guilty of unbelievable naïveté in their willingness to seek bipartisan solutions, but that it what people in democracies are supposed to do. Part of the debate should be about the wrecking job Republicans have done to our institutions and the refusal of the mainstream media to act as truth tellers or honest referees.

The next step is to start rebuilding enthusiasm by getting in touch with what the party stands for and defining every day how it differs from the GOP.

The Republicans won control of the national agenda in the Senate, and it is there that the Democrats must counterattack with proposals that are good for the country and important to the base. Democrats have only six months more to act before they might lose actual or effective control of that chamber. Perhaps they need to continue their pattern of surrendering to the Republicans and banks on financial reform simply because the present bill, however weak, is needed and might slightly cushion the impact of the next financial collapse.

A new agenda might look like this. If the Republicans try to block votes, Harry Reid should let them carry out real filibusters.
  1. Bring up a modified version of the Employee Free Choice Act. Due to an effective publicity campaign, too much of the public is opposed to the card check provision. Democrats should try to pass those portions that level the playing field and put real teeth into prohibitions against unfair practices on the part of employers. Most people realize that there has been a long and successful campaign to weaken the Wagner Act, beginning in 1947 with the Taft Hartley Act.

  2. Enact an alternate method of enforcing labor law in cases when the NLRB cannot function. At any time when there are two vacancies on the five member board, the departments of Justice and Labor should have the option of bypassing the NLRB by taking charges before federal courts. By filibusters and "holds" the Republicans have prevented the board from acting for 14 months.

  3. Bring up a measure to gradually restore the Glass-Steagall Act provision forbidding traditional banks from highly speculative activity such as purchasing derivatives or investing in hedge funds. Things are now so dicey that this would have to be phased in over a period of years.

  4. Support Blanch Lincoln's bill regulating derivatives. No one can call this very conservative Democrat a flaming radical. This would be the first step in the right direction.

  5. Repeal all legislation that encourages through tax breaks sending jobs abroad.

  6. Lift the anti-trust exemption from the health insurance industry.

  7. Place an excess profits tax on the energy industry and all providers in the health care field.

  8. Place a heavy tax on the bonuses of investment bankers and traders.

  9. Follow the example of Europeans and place a small tax on all leveraged debt on the books of any firm or bank that deals in derivatives and hedge funds. This might slow down casino finance. This would include some manufacturing firms that use funds for speculation rather than creating more American jobs.

  10. Mine Safety legislation should be strengthened and the number of inspectors greatly increased. Inspectors should have the power to shut down mines where conditions are manifestly unsafe. Mitch McConnell will find some deft way to oppose this, but there might be one Democratic senator smart enough to corner him on this issue.

  11. Provide employer tax incentives and employee subsidies for people who get involved in job sharing. If two or more people agree to share work, each working 80% of the time, they should take home 90% of their previous income and retain benefits. This plan will speak to many women who would welcome job sharing to insure continued employment and more time to be with their children.
If the Democrats fight for as many as six of these proposals, they will succeed in reactivating their base. They may not trim losses in November by much, but they will be on the way toward rebuilding for 2012.

The long term prospect

Americans are basically optimistic and resist the idea that things are not likely to get much better for the middle class. But at some level, most people have a growing sense of what is going on -- the slow deterioration of the middle class. They just don’t want to believe it, so they still opt for simplistic answers and rose-colored projections that defy common sense.

Democrats will never do well playing to the emotional issues. The Republicans own that turf. Democrats must bet on the people eventually wanting to see what reality is and to deal with it. Given this situation, liberals must continue to educate the public on how our current problems emerged. Reality therapy will take a lot of effort and may not work immediately. Without it, the GOP will go on convincing people in our economically blighted times that the politics of race and cultural resentment will somehow make their lives better.

We are hearing that unemployment will remain high for years to come. The financial system will not recover anytime soon as banks and investment houses need to hoard cash to cover likely losses and make fresh gambles in hopes of improving their balance sheets and generating large bonuses for their personnel. That means there will not be a lot of money out there for small businesses and manufacturers. This situation also makes it hard to show much mercy to people facing foreclosure.

Eventually people will come to see that our long term debt and preservation of entitlements will require a smaller appetite for wars of choice. This will not happen overnight. We have become a nation of warriors who refuse to recognize that we fight essentially to line the pocket of people in the top 3%. Even single-payer health care will eventually seem reasonable when voters conclude that the present plan is too expensive because Republican obstructionists forced liberals to provide so many goodies for the insurance industry.

All this will take time, but the Democrats need to start rebuilding and preparing for when all the consequences of market fundamentalism and deregulation come home to roost.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. A retired history professor, he also blogs at Sherm Says and on DailyKos.]

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