The overwhelming reaction among some people I know to the election has been primordial despair. They flocked to Obama two years ago and allowed themselves to hope that the Bush Administration was a transitory phenomenon, an evil that could be overturned. Change was in the air and they dared to hope that the American political system had simply lost its way and could be reformed. After two years their hopes have been dashed, without the Democrats even really trying to roll back the damage done by the Republicans under Bush and Cheney, let alone move forward on the real reforms their supporters hoped for. The choice we faced this time around was between Democrats who will do nothing to help us and Republicans who will actively screw us. It seems Americans prefer an active agenda, even if it is wrong, to a passive one.
The general consensus is that anger at politics as usual in Washington fueled the Tea Party successes this year. There is no doubt that there is a deep and abiding anger at the grassroots on both the right and the left. In 2008 this anger fueled the Obama campaign bringing in the Democratic sweep of Congress on his coat tails. This year it brought in the Tea Party. However, it would be wrong for the Democrats to respond by trying to imitate Republican policies. Rather they should realize that they should have used their majority to push through the changes they promised in 2008. Even now, they can energize their base with a program of re-regulation, balancing the budget by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the rich and reducing the huge bite the wars take by ending them. They can put some muscle behind greenhouse gas reduction, alternative energy and environmental restoration, putting people to work in the process.
After the Obama victory, it was up to the Democrats to exert their newly found political muscle to enact a program that would justify their claim to be the party of change. Without concrete results to show for their efforts, they were vulnerable to being blamed for the problems they failed to solve. Problems that were caused by the Republican policies of the previous eight years. We are talking about 2 unpopular wars, a huge federal budget deficit, and the economic collapse that began in 2008, during the Bush Administration, and continues today. We are talking about massive federal bailouts of the Wall Street banks whose shady practices brought on the recession while their overpaid executives walked away with millions. All of this happened under the Republicans. Although the Democrats have given lip service to changing some of this, they have done almost nothing to change any of it and actively pursued some of the failed policies they were elected to change. So now the Republicans can come back and blame it all on the Democrats.
To be fair, the Republicans have pursued a relentless program of opposition to everything. Their strategy has been to paralyze the government and prevent any possibility of improvement in people’s lives so they can pin it all on the Democrats and win the next election. It was a sociopathic strategy but politically brilliant. And the Democratic response has been to repeatedly give in to Republican demands. They have moved steadily to the right to try to gain bi-partisan support. It was a fatal miscalculation because the Republicans never had any intention of compromising on anything.
The Democratic base of progressive voters feels abandoned. The debate on healthcare reform didn’t even allow their preference for single payer to be heard, let alone adopted. Obama has made a show of following George W Bush’s timetable for “withdrawing” from Iraq but even if he completes it, will leave a mercenary army of “contractors” even less accountable to anybody than the troops they replace. In Afghanistan, he proudly escalates the conflict without seeming to see that he is just adding fuel to the fire. The military budget continues to eat up half of our tax dollars. Bush may have started the bailouts but Obama continued them. And while Obama’s stimulus was a good idea, it wasn’t big enough to pull us out of the recession. Then he backed off.
But all is not lost. If the Democrats take this election as a wake up call, they can use the next two years to re-build their program and their base. Then they will have a chance to come back in 2012. But in order to do that they will have to convince people that they will follow through when they get the chance. Can they do it? Will they do it? I wouldn’t bet on it but I will be watching.