[T]here is a path for Democrats to get heard. [...] Democrats will make progress when they wake up every day focused on the issues most central to the struggling middle class. In order to be heard, Democrats must [u]nderstand that the main economic issue is the future of the middle class. —Democracy Corps.
Stan Greenberg and James Carville are pretty sharp D.C. political operators. And indeed what they say above seems not only obvious, but unassailable. What is interesting though is how they translate, in part, the above into political action:
Show serious concern with the pervasive debt at the heart of the crisis and commit to a progressive program of reduced personal and public debt, from helping homeowners to achieving long-term deficit reduction. [Emphasis added.]
The highlighted portion of the quote has been the received wisdom of D.C. Democratss since President Obama took office. Indeed, the president said, in his 2010 State of The Union Address:
I know that some in my own party will argue that we can’t address the deficit or freeze government spending when so many are still hurting. And I agree — which is why this freeze won’t take effect until next year when the economy is stronger. That’s how budgeting works. But understand if we don’t take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it could damage our markets, increase the cost of borrowing, and jeopardize our recovery -– all of which would have an even worse effect on our job growth and family incomes.
I understood the political reasons why the president said what he said—he could point to polls showing the American people care about deficits. There was no policy reason for it. It was, at best, meaningless from a policy point of view—nothing a Congress does today will bind future Congresses; at worst, it was bad policy in that it called for Austerity Now! when what was needed was much larger government action on the economy. No doubt the president was presented poll findings like those Carville and Greenberg point to in calling emphasis on "achieving long term deficit reduction."
No doubt the 60 Democrats who signed the letter to the Super Committee calling for a "Grand Bargain" have been shown similar poll findings.
The problem of course is if asked if they care about deficits, everyone will say they do. But it is a meaningless poll finding. No one actually does care about the deficit. No one will vote on the deficit. What they care about is, yes, jobs. While the Democracy Corps' "closed ended" poll questions (PDF) show a mishmash of utterly contradictory responses, common sense and history tell us what people want—jobs and a better economy.
Since the debt ceiling debacle, President Obama has, in his words, demonstrated that he understands the political imperative. He no longer is in search of the approbation of The Washington Post and David Brooks. In terms of policy, there is of course nothing he can do with a GOP House and a Beltway-centric Senate.
Unfortunately, the president has not persuaded the rest of the D.C. Democrats to follow his lead. They still live inside the Beltway bubble—a bubble whose interests lay with the 1 percent, not the 99 percent.
Because of this, it remains imperative that the Occupy Movement pressure the D.C. Democratic Party to do what is actually in their best political interest—fight for jobs, the middle class and the 99 percent.
In 2006, a similar phenomena was seen—where the D.C. Democrats, led by Rahm Emanuel, did not want to run against the Iraq Debacle, instead wanting to focus on Jack Abramoff and other political minutia. The anti-Iraq Debacle movement forced their hands to some extent and Democrats won a landslide, despite the D.C. Democratic braintrust.
If D.C. Democrats insist on playing the "inside game," a game the president has clearly rejected at this point, there seems a good chance that many will be, like in the political cartoon that illustrates this post, seeking new employment after the next election. And yet, it does not have to be that way. Consider the Democratic Party's history. In 1932, FDR ran on a platform that promised to cut federal spending and balance the budget. Of course FDR did neither in his first term. In his book The Democratic Party, Peter Ling describes a likely apocryphal conversation between FDR political lieutenant James Farley and FDR:
Legend has it that en route to Pittsburgh in 1936, FDR discovered that his speech was supposed to show how he fulfilled his 1932 election pledges given there, notably to balance the budget and cut the federal government. Having patently done neither, he turned to Farley asking "what do I do?" Aware of the public's shallow memory, Farley replied, "deny you ever said it or that you were ever in Pittsburgh."
FDR did not precisely do that, but he did harken to other things he said in 1932, like his Oglethorpe University speech:
I believe that we are at the threshold of a fundamental change in our popular economic thought, that in the future we are going to think less about the producer and more about the consumer. Do what we may have to do to inject life into our ailing economic order, we cannot make it endure for long unless we can bring about a wiser, more equitable distribution of the national income.
[...] The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.
That spirit was reflected in FDR's 1936 nomination acceptance speech:
For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor - other people's lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people's mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.
The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody's business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.
Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place. These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
[...] We are poor indeed if this nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude. In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.
And of course, in the famous "I welcome their hatred speech":
In the 1936 election, FDR won 61 percent of the vote and 46 of 48 states. The Democrats won 7 Senate seats to hold 76 of 92 occupied seats. They won 12 House seats to hold 334 of 425 House seats.
FDR and the Democrats had not balanced the budget, reduced the deficit or the size of the federal government. The opposite in fact. I'm sure polling would have shown the American people in favor of all that then too. But what they cared about was jobs. And that's what they care about now.
If D.C. Democrats don't know that by now, when will they? When they are voted out?