I'd like to move beyond the blue dog/progressive infighting argument in assessing what went wrong over the last two years, and whether we have the power to remedy it. We clearly shouldn't be arguing in favor of a less-diverse party if we want to win big majorities. This election was lost because we lost the propaganda war.
The populist anger created by right-wing propaganda outlets against every single policy that helps the middle class has made it nearly impossible to govern this country in a way that helps people without paying dearly at the polls. And Republicans were able to tap into this anger and turn the side-effects of their own government mismanagement (the debt) into the cause of our economic problems. The debt is not causing our economic problems. It was specifically caused by: 1) unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2) the unfunded Bush tax cuts, 3) the unfunded Medicare part D, 4) the economic crash from the housing/banking bubble, and 5) the stimulus. The first three of those factors were purposefully unfunded by Republicans. The fourth was a byproduct of deregulated markets. The fifth was tax cuts for the middle class, COBRA, and unemployment benefits, and state aid meant to remedy #4.
Five factors. Very simple. This needs to be articulated to the public do defray the notion that it's vague "government spending" that is causing all the problems. These are specific Republican policies that are causing the deficit. Republicans need to be called on to fund their own policies.
There has been zero attempt by Democrats to get this simple message across to the public. It's not even that they've tried and failed. It's that they haven't even tried. "Bush mismanagement" and "debt" should have been uttered in the same sentence millions of times since our victories in 2008. But it wasn't. And that allowed Republicans to attach their problems to Obama. Obama decided to go the high road, which was probably good, but somebody or some surrogates should have been repeating over and over again since 2008 "Bush mismanagement = debt." Five factors is a lot, but if you repeat those to people 1,000 times, it might sink in. People have to be taught that our nation's debt comes from some very specific programs -- and is not just some vague problem of "big government."
After midterm defeats, it's common for the President to acknowledge some errors. But if Obama's going to go all "Bill Clinton" on us and say that "the era of big government is over," he's just feeding into the Republicans' own propaganda frame of the world. The difference between Republicans and Democrats isn't "Big Government" vs. "Small Government." Neither side wants to make government more powerful. The difference is "mis-managed government" vs. "competent government." If Obama truly wants to move to the center this time, he should not say that "the era of big government is over," he should say that "the era of government mis-management is over." We can all agree on that, and it doesn't feed into this phony idea that "big government" is the problem.
Another thing that has to be made clear is that it was not realistic for any one to be able to turn the first 4 factors around in just two years. Republicans approved of Obama extending our involvement in Afghanistan, and it would have been irresponsible to have ended it for the sake of eliminating our debt. And finding a way to fund that war by raising taxes during an economic crash would have been catastrophic. The Bush tax cuts are another thing that is creating debt that the Republicans absolutely will not repeal. And I'm not sure what Republicans suggest we do to fund Medicare part D. Or what we do to recoup the lost revenue from the economic crash. Or what alternative measures should have been taken to soften the blow of the recession besides the stimulus (which was mostly tax cuts and unemployment benefits anyways). Should we have just let working families starve by cutting off their unemployment? Should we have not given tax cuts to the middle class?
A good-sized chunk of the public has been convinced that policies that hurt them are policies that really help them. Such beliefs are so deeply ingrained after a 30-year reeducation effort funded largely by business groups that realty simply doesn't make a difference to people. They've created a populist movement in this country whose main goal is to destroy the middle class and enrich the politically well-connected. The notion that "government is the enemy" is toxic to the middle class in this country. Historically, it has been labor laws, progressive taxation, and unions that have built up the middle class -- raising standards about how you treat workers. It has been government -- not elite business groups -- that has enabled this. But people have been convinced that if you take away their rights and political power, the filthy rich will be nice to you by giving you a decent job.
But the bottom line is that you can't cut taxes, buttress military spending, and balance this budget -- especially if you want things to get better for people. Things will never get better in this country until people realize that tax cuts for the rich are not stimulative for the economy (and all they ever do is create budget deficits), and that the majority of actual spending is spent on maintaining and expanding our world empire. And that the majority of the work in deficit reduction in this country is to find a way for Republicans to fund their own unfunded programs. Why the Democrats can't seem to connect the Bush tax cuts with deficits is beyond me. And why they can't seem to defray the notion that tax cuts for the rich are good for business is also beyond me. Have giving tax cuts to the rich ever worked? The rich are richer than they ever have been before...so where are the jobs? Why don't the Democrats try and frame things this way? "Republicans say that if we give the rich more money, that they will give us jobs. Well, the rich have more money than they ever have...BUT WHERE ARE THE JOBS??" Not only does that frame things in a way where it's not "big government" that is the oppressor, it makes Republicans' #1 policy argument look silly.
But Democrats can't just use logic. People don't really take the time to think about these things. They vote with their emotions, and they vote with their gut. And right-wing propaganda targets those emotional feelings and channels them into opposing policies that help people. Any progressive movement has to counter by targeting these same feelings. Just making logical arguments won't work. And to do that, we have to re-frame this notion of "Big Governemnt." It makes it too easy for conservatives to paint government as the all-powerful oppressor, when, we know as a fact, that oppressor is well-funded shadowy industry groups and lobbyists. Big business owns our government. Not the other way around.
And the reality is that these oppressors don't work through laws, they work through propaganda. The reality is (and has always been) that people are susceptible to misleading propaganda -- even smart people. Effective propaganda targets your emotions, not your intellect. And even smart people forget a cardinal rule to keep in mind as you go about your life is that "you are far more emotional than you think." Propaganda can be used to twist facts and create the guise of an intellectual argument, but, in the end, it's people's emotionality that seeks out "facts" that justify their own internal emotional narrative. Many people feel victimized and helpless in this kind of economy, and conservatives have made the oppressor out to be "government" and, in effect, any government policies that might help the middle-class at the expense of big business. The facts, such as the richest 5% getting astronomically richer and richer ever since the Reagan revolution, completely belie this notion that government is standing in the way of the business owner. But conservative propaganda has found a substitute oppressor it can use to cloud people's judgment and still allow their justified feelings of victimization to have a target. The only way to fight this is to fight viciously to expose the real oppressors -- NOT by compromising with them.
So, in the end, trying to explain our losses away as if "it's the Blue Dogs' fault" or "we weren't conservative enough" really just miss the point. The point is that we haven't emotionally connected with the voters, and we haven't made our case emotionally. You can't pontificate your way into the public heart. And it's not that people are all stupid and emotional, either. It's just that they don't filter out bullshit very well. We're probably more intelligent and educated than ever before. But many voters simply have not used their "bullshit" screen as well as they should have. Such a screen would easily filter out assertions that the deficit is the result of the general and vague "government spending" and look further to see that the specific causes of the deficit are actually mostly a byproduct of the Republicans mis-management of both the budget and the economy from 2000-2008. An effective bullshit screen would also tell you how ridiculous it is to think that tax cuts will help the deficit. But let us remember that the enemy here is not people, it's the conservative bullshit that they should be more skeptical of.
So, moving forward, I think it's imperative that Democrats not move more to the right (since they're already governing from the center-right), but simply to speak with more emotional, populist rhetoric that reflects the reality of who is really our oppressor, who really holds the oppressive power in our society (it's definitely not government), and what policies will stop those oppressors for running roughshod over the middle-class. And hopefully, we can then make it clear that the only way to fix this nation's budget is to demand that Republicans pay for the programs they refused to fund.
Nevertheless, now that Republicans run the House and come up with the nation's budgets, they should be forced to fund their own programs that created the debt, and they are going to be forced to deal rationally with the irrationality of their political messaging strategies. And to that, I say, "good luck."