2014: The Democrats’ Dilemma

Robert Borosage

Washington has been fascinated by Republican self-laceration since the 2012 election. Karl Rove triggered a circular firing squad by vowing to take out unwashed challengers in GOP primaries. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal begged Republicans to stop being the “stupid party.” Strategists say the party can’t survive as stale, pale and male. Tea Party legislators knee-cap GOP congressional “leaders” and well-funded political PACs strafe any who dare deviate from the party’s unpopular gospel. Republicans are even talking about changing “Grand Old Party” to something more fashionable.

Representative Paul Ryan’s newest budget will put every Republican on record voting to turn Medicare into a voucher, gut Medicaid, repeal Obamacare, savage investment in education and leave some 50 million Americans without health insurance. Not surprisingly, polls suggest Congress is less popular than colonoscopies, and Republicans poll at the lowest levels on record.

The reengaged president is pressing reforms on immigration, gun violence, gay marriage and climate change. These issues help consolidate his majority – the “rising American electorate” of young voters, minorities and single women.

All this has Democrats thinking wistfully about taking back the House of Representatives, holding the Senate, ending gridlock and driving a new surge of progressive reform.

Well, sober up.

The 2014 midterm election is more likely to be a debacle for Democrats than Republicans. It will take a true political miracle for Democrats to take back the House. Republicans need to win a net of six Senate seats to take the Senate – with six Democratic seats up in red states, and seven in swing states. Four sitting Democratic senators are retiring compared to only two Republicans, both from safe red states.

The Bi-election Blues

The party of a sitting president generally loses seats in a sixth-year bi-election in normal times – from voter fatigue if nothing else. Democrats face an additional obstacle because their base – that rising American electorate – tends to stay home in large numbers in non-presidential years.

As 2010 demonstrated, the 2014 electorate may be older, whiter and more male than the 2012 voters who re-elected President Barack Obama. House Republicans have exacted every edge possible in reapportionment, leaving only about 74 competitive seats in play in 2014. It would take a wave election to unseat their majority.

Worse, these are not normal times. For all the offensive extremism of the Tea Party-dominated GOP, there will be one overriding issue in 2014, just as in 2010: the economy. There the Democrats are likely to be in big trouble.

Voters tend to blame the party in power – the president’s party – for the economy. And the 2014 economy is likely to be lousy. Americans are struggling with falling wages and growing insecurity. More than 20 million people are still in need of full-time work. Most of the jobs now being created have lower pay and benefits than those that were lost.

The economy slowed at the end of 2012 even before Americans were hit with the end of the payroll tax holiday, which will cut an estimated $1,000 out of the typical family’s annual paycheck, and the sequester cuts that are likely to be more disruptive than expected. Growth is expected to slow to 1.5 percent this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. (CBO predicts a rebound in 2014 – but CBO always assumes the economy will rebound in the out years).  The richest 1 percent captured a stunning 121 percent of the income growth in 2009 and 2010, while 99 percent actually lost ground. That is only likely to get worse, not better, as growth slows.

The Democratic base is likely to be demoralized and disenchanted. Obama’s emerging coalition – the rising American electorate – is sinking together.

Blacks, Latinos, the young and the single and divorced have all lost ground over the last decade, compared to the country as a whole. Young people carry more debt. Blacks have double the unemployment rate as whites. Women have 36 percent of the wealth of men. African-American women have lost more jobs since the recovery began than they lost in the recovery. Meanwhile, Republican governors across the country continue their relentless assault on labor.

Democrats risk replaying the 2010 midterm debacle. When the Democrats gained control of the White House and Congress after 2008, they inherited an economy in free-fall. The recovery act, emergency action by the Federal Reserve and heavy lifting to prop up the financial sector staunched the collapse.

Obama, seeking to rise above partisan bickering, chose not to pound on the failure of conservative ideology. Worse, by the fall of 2009, he turned to deficit reduction, espousing what became the Bowles-Simpson Commission and calling for a freeze in government salaries in his 2010 State of the Union Address. His campaign team geared up to sell “recovery summer.” With mass unemployment, falling wages and millions of homeowners underwater, Democrats went into the election of 2010 seeking to tout what recovery we had. They were decimated.

2014 Re-Run

Will 2014 be a re-run of the horror show? Obviously, if the economic takes off and starts creating jobs and lifting wages, Democrats can argue they’ve led us out of the mess – despite Republican obstruction. More likely, most Americans still won’t be feeling much of a recovery.

Washington won’t be providing much hope. The political debate still focuses on fixing the debt, not the economy. Voters are offered a choice between Republicans who want to slash spending and Democrats who want a “balanced” plan of spending cuts and tax hikes. Neither party champions a strategy to make this economy work for working people again.

Both assume that the economy is recovering, so it’s time to get our books in order. This debate misleads Americans into believing that deficit reduction helps the economy, directly undermining what’s needed to get it going.

Obama continues to seek a “grand bargain,” reiterating his willingness to cut Medicare and Social Security in exchange for Republican acceptance of greater revenue – largely from closing loopholes. Entrenched Republican opposition to any tax increase has thus far saved the country and the president from any deal.

But the president’s very public pursuit makes more and more Americans aware of the proposed terms. Republicans show their base that they are standing staunch against any further tax hikes, while pushing hard to slash spending. In contrast, the president suggests to his base that he is open to abandoning the commitment to defend Social Security and Medicare if the price is right.

Unless the economy enjoys a remarkable growth spurt early next year, Democrats will run on a “recovery” that has failed to bring down unemployment dramatically or lift wages. The prospects for many in the rising American electorate will remain bleak.

By November, 2014, the deficit will have come down more rapidly than at any time since the demobilization after World War II. But voters don’t reward politicians for balancing the books – they reward them for making the economy work.

A Hope, a Prayer and a Plan

Yet the prospects for Democrats are not completely hopeless. Republicans are deeply unpopular. The Tea Party activists and Boardroom zealots could again nominate insurgent wingnuts that hand Democrats Senate and House seats otherwise out of reach. The one recent time when the party in power picked up seats in a sixth year of an incumbent president was in 1998, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s personal assault on President Bill Clinton ran into public optimism generated by the growing dot.com boom.

But relying on Republican extremism is a hope and a prayer. If Democrats have a shot in 2014, they need a plan.

Voters have one key question: Who can make this economy work for me and my family? They are no longer bedazzled by Republican trickle-down, supply-side remedies.  They are disgusted with Washington’s gridlock, and tend to blame Republicans more. But they are still likely to hold Democrats, the party in power, responsible for failing to fix the economy.

So Democrats must break out of the crippling deficit debate and lay out a bold integrated strategy to make this economy work for working people. Then they must define clear fights with Republicans again and again – to show which party is standing in the way.

That strategy can’t be simply another short-term stimulus – like the $100 billion in spending tacked onto the Senate Democratic deficit reduction proposal. It must have coherence and scope.

Democrats could expand on signposts that Obama set in his State of the Union address: investment to rebuild America and modernize our infrastructure to be competitive; investment in providing our children first-class education and training; taking a lead in the green industrial revolution that is sweeping the world complemented by a trade strategy that confronts unsustainable trade imbalances. They should also champion a fair-share agenda, to insure that workers gain from the profits and productivity they help generate – raising the minimum wage, empowering workers to bargain collectively, ending perverse CEO compensation schemes.

Democrats should also fiercely defend the pillars of security that families increasingly rely on – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Obamacare should now be added to this list.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, they need to push specific reforms now – roll back tax breaks for moving jobs and hiding profits abroad, impose buy-America requirements on government contracts, invest in preschool and public schools, champion renewable energy standards at the state and national level, create an urban corps to put young people to work retrofitting buildings to save energy and create jobs.

All these will likely have to overcome a GOP Senate filibuster, only to run into the House Republican roadblock. Little if anything will pass. Admittedly, there’s a risk in this. Voters usually do not to reward failure. They expect effective politicians to get things done.

But Democrats have little choice but to run hard, making it clear that the GOP is standing in the way, reinforcing attitudes that voters have already formed.

This is both good politics and good policy. Democrats can’t expect to be rewarded by the rising American electorate if those voters are sinking in a stagnant economy.

The country cannot afford a lost decade of drift.  Fundamental reform is essential to rebuild a broad middle class. If Democrats champion that reform, they will not only deserve to win in 2014, they just might create an opportunity to win.


This was originally published by Reuters News Service.

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