Debacle: Get Ready for the Real Fight

Robert Borosage

Debacle. Bloodbath. Call it what you will. Democrats, as expected, fared poorly in red states in an off-year election. Worse, unpopular Republican governors survived. This was ugly.

Yes, the electorate was as skewed as was the map. Many Republicans won office with the support of less than 20 percent of the eligible voters. Voters over 60 made up a stunning 37 percent of the electorate (up from 25 percent in 2012 or 32 percent in the last bi-election in 2010). Voters under 30 were only 12 percent of the electorate, down from 19 percent in 2012. Democrats won women, but lost white men big. Republicans lost ground with Hispanic voters, but in most of the contested states, they weren’t much of a factor.

The election was fundamentally about frustration with a recovery that most people haven’t enjoyed. Hysteria about ISIS and Ebola didn’t help, but wasn’t the central source of frustration. The Republican theme was to blame President Obama and tie Democrats to him, arousing their base. Democrats chose not to run nationally against Republican obstruction, assuming that technique and right-wing social reaction would mobilize their base.

There is no mandate for right-wing policies here. Arkansas voters chose to raise the minimum wage while electing a senator who opposes doing so. Colorado voters are pro-choice and elected a senator who isn’t. Voters want action on climate change and gave the Senate over to those who are in the pocket of Big Oil. The most rational, given what is coming, were D.C. voters who chose to legalize pot.

The Coming Battle

Mitch McConnell, who drove the Republican strategy to obstruct every Obama initiative to paint him a failure, now warbles the soothing tones of bipartisan cooperation. Republicans made election night conversions from negative partisans to claim a mandate for bold, pro-jobs policies.

Any “cooperation” will be on their terms. They will invite the president to join in corporate tax “reform” that will lower corporate tax burdens, in cutting back Social Security or lifting the retirement age, in budgets that savage the vulnerable and lard the Pentagon, in ruinous trade deals that undermine American workers. They’ll champion “repatriation” of the dough that corporations have stashed abroad to pay for infrastructure, handing multinationals a massive tax break and an incentive for even more tax avoidance.

This is the Wall Street “bipartisan” agenda ready to go: a grand bargain cutting Social Security and Medicare, fast-track trade authority, repatriation, corporate tax “reform.” The president will be invited to secure his “legacy” with big reforms, while being warned not to spoil the mood with action on immigration or clean energy. This kind of bipartisan cooperation will make us long for obstruction.

President Obama will have to decide. Will he choose now to lay out what the country needs, make his case and make the choices clear, and stand against those who would take the country back? Or will he provide cover for deals that stack the deck even more for the powerful and against the rest of us? He shouldn’t be left to make that choice in isolation in the White House.

The Strategy for Revival

In the circular firing squad already blasting away, the loss will be blamed on Democrats being too liberal. They will be urged to return to the center, to cooperate with newborn “moderate” Republicans. They’ll be told that the way back to power is to appeal to white men by embracing “centrist” policies on trade, on tax reform, on entitlement reform.

But exposed in this election were the fallacies of the Democratic establishment. Social issues alone can’t provide victory, since Republican candidates found it possible to rouse their base while donning sheep’s clothing on choice, or going silent on gay marriage. Sophisticated campaign targeting and get-out-the-vote operations can’t substitute for passion, clarity, and vision to motivate Democratic base voters to vote. White men and married women will be won not by adopting a corporate agenda or by joining in rigging the rules against them. They will be won by driving an agenda that will address the pressures they feel.

There is a populist majority waiting to be forged. Majorities will rally for full-employment economics, for fair taxes on the rich and the corporations, investment in rebuilding the country and educating the children, strengthening retirement security, making college affordable, lifting the minimum wage, curbing CEO excess, empowering workers, guaranteed paid family leave, paid sick days and paid vacations, balanced trade to make things in America again, taking on the corruption of our politics by big money, investment in new energy and innovation that will create jobs and more.

This election will make progress even more difficult on any of the challenges most Americans face. Some change can come in states and cities. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren has it right. Voters are cynical; they think government is corrupted and doesn’t work for them – and they are right. If the country is to deal with the real challenges it faces – extreme inequality and economic decline for the majority, catastrophic climate change, an oppressive war on working people – we have to stand up and fight. Democrats will have to make it clear that they are ready to join in.

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