There is a plethora of blog posts from people on the left trying to explain why Tom Barrett lost to Scott Walker in the WI recall election on Tuesday. So far, the consensus seems to be that Barrett simply couldn't overcome Walker's huge cash advantage. The cash imbalance did make the race much harder for Barrett, and it's one of the main reasons why Walker prevailed. It's true that we can't compete as well when we're being outspent by huge 7:1 ratios. But blaming this loss solely or mostly on spending is too easy, and it does nothing to address the real problems contributing to the GOP's continued nationwide appeal.
As people firmly on the left side of the spectrum, we know that the GOP has gone off the rails. Everyone knows that the GOP has gotten quite radical of late. We're up against a Republican party that wants to radically re-shape American society in a way that most people would find appalling. They should be alienating themselves, but this and the 2010 election show that that's simply not happening. Why is that?
Barrett's problem (and the problem facing the Democratic Party nationwide) is much more basic than a lack of money--and much harder to remedy. He lost because he didn't present a solid argument for supporting him over his opponent. He didn't just not have a clear, coherent ideological platform; he seemed to be relying entirely on Walker's radicalism to make his case for him. Clearly this strategy isn't working. It didn't work for John Kerry in 2004 or Congressional Democrats in 2010, and it didn't work on Tuesday. It's just not self-evident to the average voter that the GOP has morphed into a crazy caricature of itself, and assuming that voters agree with us on this issue is not working. The Democrats can't be a successful party if they're not strongly advocating for their own positions, instead of arguing against the Republicans'.
This recall election came out of a truly inspiring moment in progressive politics: energized citizens rising up and occupying the capitol building, protesting for weeks the extreme overreach of a newly-empowered far-right administration. However, after the protests began, the left totally dropped the ball when it came to transforming this nascent public outrage into sustained support. The Democrats in Wisconsin should have taken this chance to counter the GOP's radical agenda with their own, rather than running on a platform of opposing things the GOP has already done. The WI Dems should have used this moment to explain not just that busting public unions was bad for the state but also why, and then take the next logical step: arguing not just for the preservation of unions, but for their expansion and (re-)empowerment.
This is a much larger and more basic problem than just the Democrats' failure to defend the unions. They're failing to make a winning case for their own policies--to the point where it's difficult to explain the party's stance on most issues. Where do they stand on the the Affordable Care Act, today in June of 2012? Everyone reading this diary can name the standard GOP position on healthcare reform: repeal and replace. But what do the Democrats at large think? Was it a triumph, or just a start? Should we be working to expand its reach, and if so, how? Do the Democrats still stand for universal healthcare? But this also isn't just a problem with one issue. Name any issue, and the GOP's official stance on it can probably be stated in a single phrase: tax cuts create jobs, abortion is murder, social security is insolvent. But the Democrats have very few clear principles like those.
And perhaps more worryingly, the GOP seems to be on the offensive on every issue, offering their ideas first, while we on the left sit back and let them frame each debate. We have been put in the position of fighting to protect once-popular things like unions and abortion rights, while they get to seem like they're arguing for something new--and it doesn't matter whether the right truly is offering new or even good ideas; the fact that they're loudly arguing something while the Democrats flounder is what's keeping them popular despite their radicalism. This has to stop. We've got to focus on arguing for the policies we truly want, instead of just meekly defending what we've already accomplished.