Jim Kessler, of the left-leaning group Third Way, offers the Democrats a few rays of hope. He argues that this needn’t be a repeat of 1994, and the Democrats can avoid an electoral bloodbath this fall.
Were I a Democrat, I wouldn’t be so sanguine. Kessler’s ray of hope are meager indeed.
For example, he essentially asks Democrats to have faith in the Democratic leadership. And yes, Nancy Pelosi is not former Speaker Tom Foley, and Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel are not like the infamous Dan Rostenkowski. But that’s a debatable proposition. Speaker Pelosi represents a left-wing enclave far outside the political mainstream. And will voters fail to see the ethics scandals surrounding Reps. Waters and Rangel as anything other than a sign of rampant Congressional corruption? What evidence does Kessler have that the Rostenkowski scandal was manifestly worse than Rangel and Waters’ misuse of their offices? That’s not exactly enough to inspire confidence.
Kessler also argues that ObamaCare is not as bad as HillaryCare because ObamaCare actually passed. But that’s exactly why the Democrats are in trouble—the American electorate didn’t want ObamaCare any more than they wanted HillaryCare in 1994. Passing bill was a Pyrrhic victory for the Democrats. Despite all the predictions that the bill would become popular after passage, that has not come true. Moreover, it’s cemented several harmful narratives about the Democratic Party. It’s shown that the Democrats don’t really care about spending (the electorate does not buy the narrative that the bill saves money). It demonstrated that the Democratic leadership had no intention of listening to the American people. The polls were clear about the electorate’s dislike of the health care bill, but the Democratic leadership pushed it through anyway. And finally, Democratic legislators were on record as saying that they had not read the bill and didn’t even really know what was it. This shattered the idea that the Democrats were a party of competent governance. The average American voter sees something like Nancy Pelosi saying “we have to pass the bill to see what’s in it” and wonders what in the world she’s thinking. These narratives, along with the state of the economy, have turned the tables on the Democratic Party.
The First Step Is To Stop Digging
Unlike the Democratic leadership, Democratic incumbents aren’t willing to sacrifice their careers for the good of their party. This election cycle is unique in that Democrats are running against the national party. The 37 Democratic House members that voted against ObamaCare are running on their votes. Not a single Democrat is running on a pro-ObamaCare vote. The Democratic leadership would like to pretend that ObamaCare isn’t political poison, but candidates running for re-election don’t have the luxury of that delusion. They have to face a political environment that is more toxic to Democrats than even 1994. The American electorate is angry.
The recent special election in PA-12, where Democratic Mark Critz defeated Republican Tim Burns, is emblematic of how Democrats are running this year. Critz did not highlight his party identification. If an unfamiliar voter watched his ads, they would assume that he was a Republican himself. He ran against ObamaCare, against the Democratic leadership, and against many of Obama’s policies. This is the model that many Democrats are following.
What could Democrats do? If I were advising the Democrats (and I only give this advice in full confidence they won’t actually heed it), I would advocate running an insurgent campaign. Run as an independent Democrat. Do what Mark Critz successfully did—run against the national Democratic leadership. Would it change voters minds for an on-the-fence candidate like Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) if she said that she would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker? It certainly couldn’t hurt her.
But what Democrats need is a political “come to Jesus” moment. They have to admit that ObamaCare was a bad call. They have to admit that the leadership of the Democratic Party has not listened to the American people. The Democratic base would howl with fits of rage—but they would, more likely than not, still come out to vote for Democrats. It’s the massive loss of independent voters that has cost the Democrats so dearly in the polls. If Democratic candidates founded their own intra-party insurgency based around a rejection of the Democratic leadership, it could actually help them.
What the Democrats need, in essence, is their own Tea Party. But not a left-wing Tea Party, a movement within the Democratic Party that pushes a fundamental break from the unpopular policies of the past. The Tea Party has forced the Republicans to start talking about what they believe in as party—a conversation that was past due. The Democrats need the same. The leadership cares more about amassing power than about listening to their constituents. They are a radioactive commodity in this cycle. If vulnerable Democrats want to have a chance of saving themselves, they need to run as far and as fast away from the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as they can.
But even if they were to do that, it might not be enough. Political credibility and political capital are difficult to win and easy to lose. The Republicans learned this in 2006 and again in 2008. The Democrats will likely be given the same message this November. The best thing that the Democrats could have done to avoid their decline in the polls would have been to avoid it in the first place. There comes a point where electoral inertia becomes overwhelming—and the Democrats’ position may well be irretrievable at this point.