Democratic Senate: Progressives, Populists Win

It’s worth taking a moment to make sure Tuesday night’s Senate victories sink in. First, the big three.

Ohio

Sherrod Brown (D) – 50%
Josh Mandel (R) – 45%

Sherrod Brown is a tenacious, strongly pro-labor, staunch defender of Social Security and Medicare who introduced and pushed legislation to break up the “Too Big To Fail” megabanks (twice!). He’s pro-choice, pro-marriage equality and a key progressive force in the Senate. He also represents the most fiercely contested swing state in the nation. From the get-go, Brown’s re-election campaign was the top target of Karl Rove and corporate interests. They threw everything at him: $40 million worth of gold-plated kitchen sinks. Sherrod Brown, as the saying goes, has all of the right enemies. He also has all of the right friends and a willingness to fight for his core values and the interests of regular working people in Ohio. That combination helped him carry the day.

Massachusetts

Elizabeth Warren (D) 54%
Sen. Scott Brown (R) – 46%

Be afraid Wall Street, be very afraid. Elizabeth Warren just defeated your favorite Senator in her very first campaign.

Wisconsin

Tammy Baldwin (D) – 51%
Tommy Thompson (R) – 46%

Tammy Baldwin proudly self-identifies as a Wisconsin progressives and she happens to be openly gay. Tommy Thompson is a former four-term Governor who the Republican establishment was thrilled to get as their party’s nominee. Tammy beat Tommy by 6 points.

A similar story played out across the country. New Mexico, which up until recently was considered a swing state, is now represented by two progressive populist Democrats as Martin Heinrich joins Tom Udall in the Senate. Progressive Democrats Chris Murphy (Connecticut), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Ben Cardin (Maryland), among others, all won big.

This brings me to the widely and deservedly mocked pre-election piece by Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, which claimed that the make-up of the Democratic coalition means that Democrats have a progressive problem.

The pressure on Obama to deliver for this liberal base will be powerful. Already, top left-wing groups are pressuring him not to buckle on a grand bargain that includes any entitlement cuts.

The Senate races offer the perfect cautionary tale to this impulse. Democrats have a good shot in Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and Indiana because they have moderate Democratic candidates and incumbents who often see the president — and the party back in Washington — as out of tune with a center-right country.

Set aside for the moment that this isn’t a “center-right country” (the Democratic presidential candidate has won the popular vote in 5 out of the last 6 elections). Bob Kerrey, who embraced everything Beltway “centrists” have ever called for and then some, still lost in Nebraska by 16 points. Tim Kaine won in Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp won in North Dakota after running as mainstream Democrats on a lot of things, including the very popular earned benefit programs clueless inhabitants of the Beltway bubble would just love to hack away at. Kaine did an event with Social Security Works. When asked at a debate whether he would vote for the Bowles-Simpson co-chairmen proposal as it is, he said that he wouldn’t while rightly pointing out that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. Heitkamp talked about the budget deficit a lot but explicitly opposed “putting Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block.” She also ran on the Buffett Rule and the ACA. “Be a ‘moderate’ and cut Social Security and Medicare!” is a nonsensical statement. It’s not just progressives and virtually the entire Democratic voting coalition that oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It’s a clear majority of the country as a whole.

Democrats don’t have a progressive problem. Progressive Democrats win on the West coast and East coast. Progressive/populist Democrats win in the Midwest, specifically “blue collar blue” states Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Mainstream Democrats can win in the Southwest and New South. Going forward, Democrats won’t need conservaDems to build a durable Senate majority like we used to. They weigh us down (see: recovery efforts in 2009) and increase the chances that all kinds of Democrats will lose their seats, they drain resources that could go to other races and they still lose despite all of their playing to DC’s warped idea of what constitutes the “center.” Getting policy results matters. Turning out your coalition matters. Beltway positioning games? Not so much.

Of course, running progressive/populist Dems doesn’t mean we can always overcome bad fundamentals, like the awful economy and vastly different midterm electorate that defeated Democrats in 2010. Joe Sestak, for example, lost in Pennsylvania — but just barely. And he was just one of many cases of progressive/populist/mainstream Democrats outperforming conservaDems in similar races.

Every cycle I choose four of five Senate campaigns early on that I see as especially important to focus on. I’ve focused on winners before: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) and Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island) in 2006; Jeff Merkley (Oregon), Tom Udall (New Mexico) and Al Franken (Minnesota) in 2008. Tuesday night was the first time all of my picks — Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, Martin Heinrich and Mazie Hirono — were victorious. This does not make me, or any of the many others who advocated for these candidates geniuses. But it does help show why the timidity lobby should be largely ignored. Their model is fatally flawed.

How can Democrats keep the momentum going?

John Kerry and Dick Durbin may be headed for cabinet positions in President Obama’s second term, which would mean opportunities to elect new Senators in Massachusetts and Illinois.

2014 priorities include re-electing Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Tom Udall in New Mexico, Al Franken in Minnesota and Tom Harkin in Iowa. Republican Senator Susan Collins is up for re-election in Maine and someone like Congresswoman Chellie Pingree could challenge her.

In 2016, a presidential year, Republicans will be defending freshmen Senators in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

And last but certainly not least, filibuster reform ASAP.

The Supreme Court and Disaffected Progressive Voters

Final cases for and against voting to re-elect President Obama are now being made in progressive circles, with the Supreme Court at the forefront of the debate. Although I come down on the re-elect Obama side and always have for a number of reasons, I think the way this debate has played out has done a disservice to all involved.

A brief overview:

Calling the current iteration of the court a Republican majority isn’t simplistic and misleading as it would have been with the Rehnquist court in 2004. Since Souter and Stevens stepped down there are no moderate to liberal appointees of Republicans presidents left on the court and there aren’t going to be any more where they came from. Supreme Court justices now broadly reflect the party of the president that nominated them: five conservative Republicans appointees and four moderate to progressive Democratic appointees.

The conservative side has two relatively young George W. Bush justices, a George H.W. Bush justice and two Reagan justices. The Democratic side includes two relatively young Obama justices and two Clinton justices. Over the next four years the seats currently filled by Clinton and Reagan justices will be watched closely. Reagan appointees Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia are both 76. Clinton appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg will turn 80 early next year and has batted cancer. Clinton’s other addition to the court, Stephen Breyer, is 74.

That Anthony Kennedy, the champion of Citizens United, is the swing vote speaks to the nature of the conservative majority on the court. Kennedy is labeled a “moderate” because he changed his mind and broke with the right on Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Chief Justice John Roberts was effusively praised simply because he ultimately decided not to strike down in its entirety a health care plan that originated at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Kennedy and Roberts have successfully cleared a very low bar.

If Romney were to win and replace Kennedy or Ginsburg the right’s majority would be solidified for a long time. If a “President Romney” were to replace both, a distinct possibility if he were to win, it would be difficult to overstate the damage the conservative majority could inflict — damage that would take decades to undo. If President Obama is re-elected there’s a good chance that he will replace a Reagan appointee and end the right’s majority. A durable majority consisting mostly of relatively young Obama appointees isn’t out of the question

Disaffected progressives contend that there isn’t much difference between the Democratic appointees and their Republican counterparts. Yes, Justice Kagan may be an open question on some things and other Democratic appointees only look like progressive stalwarts when compared to the right. But that doesn’t mean the differences on reproductive rights, effective regulation in the public interest, the right to organize, campaign finance and civil rights are small. They’re real and undeniably consequential.

Some of the disaffected argue that elected Democrats haven’t fought the right’s Supreme Court nominees and the specter of a long-term right-wing majority on the Supreme Court is being raised to scare progressives into supporting Democrats.  There is certainly some truth to both claims. I don’t doubt that in 2003, even though George W. Bush had lost the popular vote and it was well understood that his eventual nominees would be stealth regressives, there were Senate Democrats privately and perhaps publicly giving voice to the traditional view that a president should get to choose their justices, almost regardless of context and consequence. Some Senate Dems may have even patted themselves on the back for their display of inordinate reverence for what the process might look like in a perfect world in which elected Republicans are not, you know, elected Republicans. With that said, the Democratic caucus in the Senate is improving significantly. And what Romney appointees would do on the court really is scary.

Spend some time reading what progressives disaffecteds are thinking and it quickly becomes apparent that what they resent the most, and understandably so, is the notion that the two words “Supreme Court” render profound disagreements on other issues invalid. The Supreme Court is a very good reason to vote to re-elect the president if you’re a progressive voter, especially if you’re living in a swing state. It’s not and never should be used to end uncomfortable discussions. The disaffected are right that if something is wrong or counterproductive it doesn’t become any less so just because the president who is doing it is one we voted for; they’re right that dissent is integral to progressive change; and they’re right that on climate change and civil liberties (two issues they cite frequently) “better than Republicans” is a woefully inadequate standard.

I would hope that progressive voters in swing states making a last minute decision would separate the way the Supreme Court has been invoked from the issue itself. Because although it should never have been used, to whatever extent it was, to try shut down debate about foreign policy or anything else, the future of the Supreme Court is at stake in this election.

Reminder: Downticket Matters

Celebrate good times — almost.

If you’re a supporter of President Obama’s re-election and you believe the statewide polls are, despite claims to the contrary, not the diabolical tool of an effeminate wizard in need of constant unskewing, you’re feeling confident right now when you think about what the electoral map will look like. But remember that key downticket races are still up for grabs. Senate races in Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin) and Connecticut (Chris Murphy) are too close for comfort. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts have leads but are still under furious assault from the right-wing and corporate interests. Master of the obvious here: it’s going to come down to turnout.

Also, please help remind voters to complete their ballots. There’s Prop 2 in Michigan to support, Prop 32 in California to defeat and marriage equality on the ballot in Washington, Minnesota, Maine and Maryland.

Blue Dogma: Deconstructing ConservaDem Myths

Blue Dogma – The belief that the role elected conservaDems as we know them play in the Democratic Party is a necessary and productive one born of immutable laws of politics. This belief, built upon on a set of myths and misreadings promoted by those whose political relevance depends on them, keeps Democrats from clearly seeing the opportunities and challenges in front of us.

Admittedly, the proponents of the this belief have been pretty successful at getting influential Democrats to internalize their narrative. ConservaDems and their self-described “centrist” defenders go to great lengths to cast themselves as “realists” and “pragmatists” keeping the party tethered to the political mainstream. But if their claims were checked against the record, it would largely be on the grounds of realism and pragmatism that the decision would be made to stop propping Blue Dogs up. They have unrealistic ideas about elections, routinely overlooking fundamentals like economic security metrics and turnout. On the policy front they have little interest in doing what we know works if K Street or the right-wing object to it, as they always do. That conservaDems get away with doing this while laying claim to realism and pragmatism is a testament to the free ride they have received up until this point.

It’s natural to initially think that there must be a redeeming quality to elected Blue Dogs, otherwise they wouldn’t be the institution that they are. But the truth is that, for the most part, they owe their stature to a series of interlocking myths — and organizations, first the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) and now Third Way, that champion these myths for their own ends.

My argument is that from this point on Blue Dog electeds and candidates as we know them will do more to squander and prevent majorities than they will to enable them. While some of the most well-known Blue Dogs, Heath Shuler and Dan Boren in the House and Ben Nelson in the Senate, are on their way out, the model they use and the myths their boosters rely on will remain. It’s imperative that today’s Democrats question them. If more Democrats seriously consider the idea that Blue Dogs as we know them are outdated and counterproductive, I’m confident that is where they will come down.

Although the majority of recent Congressional Blue Dogs can be characterized as somewhere between useless and counterproductive, of course there are some exceptions. Former Pennsylvania Congressman Patrick Murphy was very good in the House considering his district. Murphy narrowly lost the race for the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania Attorney General recently, but he could still have a bright future. So to be clear, we’re talking about a majority of the Blue Dog Caucus, not all of it. Likewise, there are people who were at one point or another affiliated with the DLC who do good work.

With that said, the Democratic Party has a conservaDem problem that can no longer be ignored without major cost. In 2010, 16 years after the Blue Dog Caucus was founded, their ranks were decimated. Predictably, they claim the lesson from the debacle is that the party needs more of them. To paraphrase the often used line about movement conservatism: conservaDems cannot fail, they can only be failed.

The DLC acted as if the success of the party depended on its ability to secure the votes of conservative Southern voters. Their pitch seemed to be tailored to conservative white men in the South. This cohort was on its way to becoming a much less critical part of a winning Democratic coalition, but the DLC presented itself as the key to an all-important center that would determine the party’s fate. Third Way is the new DLC in the sense that they have their own conservative Southern voters: supposed “centrist” voters whose idea of a “centrist” matches up with the Beltway and who vote based on that alignment. If these voters actually exist outside of DC, there aren’t many of them, yet Third Way remains emphatic that the road to electoral victory lies through them.

Building A Myth Story

ConservaDems like to invoke lost elections. But practically none of the stories they tell about past elections are true.

“McGovern-Mondale”

The DLC labeled Democrats who they disapproved of with the pejorative “from the McGovern-Mondale wing of the party” to imply that said Democrats were going to suffer landslide defeats because they failed the conservaDem political spectrum positioning test. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that coming across as fringe can cost a candidates a few percentage points, but neither George McGovern in ’72 or Walter Mondale in ’84 reinforce the DLC-Third Way case.

The conservaDems’ interpretation of ’72, that McGovern’s landslide defeat to Richard Nixon was due to McGovern being too much of a Democrat, is wildly misleading. For the sake of the positioning debate, take Hubert Humphrey (former Minnesota Senator and LBJ’s Vice President who narrowly lost to Nixon in ’68 after being nominated at the extremely divisive convention following the assassination of RFK) or Terry Sanford (former Governor of North Carolina) and add McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam war, in substance if not in style, and you have a solid Democratic nominee to challenge the incumbent Republican.

About that incumbent: Richard Nixon was closer to today’s Democrats on economic security issues than he was to today’s Republicans. Nixon pushed through an increase in Social Security benefits before the ’72 election. Third Way wants today’s Democrats to needlessly cut Social Security now.

Rick Perlstein on McGovern vs. Nixon:

George McGovern… spoke to working-class concerns less than any Democrat had before.

Without even getting into how the economy helped Nixon or the Thomas Eagleton fiasco, the idea that ’72 is a point in the conservaDems’ favor collapses. If anything ’72 speaks to the importance to Democratic success of the brand of economic populism that Third Way-types oppose.

1984 is the election that the DLC’s proponents seized upon to make its case. (The other part of the story of the rise of the DLC has to do with an argument about fundraising; this post is meant to addresses the argument about positioning.) The DLC’s proponents argued that someone like the more “moderate” Gary Hart could have beaten incumbent president Ronald Reagan where the more “liberal” Walter Mondale lost badly. Because of the direction of the economy (steady improvement after Reagan’s GOP was crushed in the ‘82 midterm), barring the emergence of a magical perfect candidate who somehow spooked Reagan so much that he couldn’t help but commit horrendous gaffes on an hourly basis, nobody could have beaten him. When the economy is headed in the right direction, voters tend to be much more content with incumbent presidents. (This concept continues to elude prominent “centrist” pundits for some reason.)

For the record, the line in Mondale’s convention speech about raising taxes was a product of Robert Rubin, the quintessential Wall Street Democrat. Mondale made the budget deficit a lead attack on Reagan. Voters unsurprisingly didn’t like the nebulous concept of the deficit but the economy was improving. Reagan won every state except Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and DC.

Maybe Democrats should ask ourselves who really represents the election-losing “McGovern-Mondale” wing of the party. If we do, I don’t think DLC-Third Way devotees are going to like the answer.

1992

The pervasive myth about this race, second only to the notion that Ross Perot’s campaign was responsible for Bill Clinton’s victory, is that Clinton won mostly because he campaigned as a “centrist.” Clinton’s campaign had a more prominent populist streak than is often acknowledged. Some of the populist rhetoric President Obama has adopted in recent months mirrors Clinton. After November of ’92, Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan convinced the newly-elected president to go their route, which conflicted with the more populist Clinton campaign. The more populist Clinton would later reassert himself when he successfully ran for re-election on protecting “M2E2″ (Medicare, Medicaid, Education, the Environment).

1994-1995

After the ’94 midterm losses, which had at least as much to do with cyclical factors and a depressed base as it did with political spectrum positioning, the Blue Dog coalition was formed. Their ostensible purpose: a balanced budget.

2002-2003

ConservaDems thought that any Democrats who wanted to be president any time soon had to support the war in Iraq. Meanwhile in Illinois, a state Senator named Barack Obama gave a speech opposing the war.

2006

Rahm Emanuel was tasked with running the DCCC and asked to do whatever it took to get a House majority. Along with his energy and combativeness, which served the party well, Emanuel brought his Beltway Goggles affixed, which meant a tendency to look to the right of where candidates needed to be. One example of this dynamic was the campaign of John Yarmuth, the populist Democrat running in Kentucky’s 3rd district. Emanuel wrote off Yarmuth, believing him to be too “liberal” of a Democrat to win. (Self-avowed “centrists” often mistake populism that resonates outside of the Beltway bubble for “too liberal”-ism.) Yarmuth won his race and has twice since been re-elected, outlasting many of Emanuel’s prized recruits while compiling a much better record. To his credit, Emanuel reportedly offered a sincere apology to Yarmuth. But this isn’t about Emanuel as a person, it’s about his theory of positioning.

Note: The fact that 2006 was the second midterm of the disastrous Bush presidency did a lot to make the big Democratic gains possible.

2008

Illinois State Senator turned US Senator Barack Obama is elected president, winning the nomination that put him in a great position to win the general election in significant part due to his opposition to the war in Iraq. In the general election he scores impressive wins over John McCain in the Midwest, Southwest, and New South. This scenario would have been laughed off by DLC-types just a few years prior.

Granted, Obama ran after 8 years of George W. Bush and the Crash of ’08 ensured the Democratic nominee would win. But that’s kind of the point: Beltway political spectrum positioning is overrated.

2010-2011

Democrats were always going to lose seats, especially in the House, due to the nature of the midterm. But it didn’t have to be as bad as it was. ConservaDems stood in the way of more effective economic policy to double underline their Blue Dog status. It didn’t work. They still lost and the bad economy they enabled dragged down more mainstream Democrats with them.

Broken record time for me here, but the best way for Democrats to protect themselves politically is to get policy results and focus on working middle class economic security.

What Blue Dogs Say They Do

A Noun, A Verb, And the Deficit

Blue Dogs are all about the deficit, except when they’re not — which is most of the time. Many of them supported the ideas that paved the way for the Great Recession and helped cripple efforts to get us out of it; they supported and continue to support the Bush tax rates for the most wealthy, some even going along with Grover Norquist’s fringe crusade to get rid of the estate tax; leading Blue Dogs endorsed the repatriation scheme; many of them supported the Iraq War; they’re far too close to AHIP and PhRMA to do anything positive about health care costs, the driver of any long-term deficit problem; and because of their fealty to Wall Street they won’t be supporting a financial transactions tax or serious efforts to reign in a decidedly reckless financial sector.

It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that Blue Dogs are either clueless about the very issue that is their self-proclaimed reason for existing, or much like elected Republicans they don’t really care about the deficit as much as they like to use it as an all-purpose excuse, often an incoherent one. You could approach Heath Shuler with a proposal that is broadly popular good policy that happens to reduce the long-term deficit, but if K Street objected he would oppose it, alluding to “the deficit” and “the center” as his reason for doing so.

Mainstream

Blue Dogs, when not collecting K Street cash to funnel into their often doomed campaigns, like to pronounce themselves to be the political mainstream. Their fundraising model infuriates the actual mainstream and feature parts of their issue profile are in direct opposition to the Main Street mainstream position, but that won’t stop Heath Shuler, Dan Boren, Walt Minnick and company from telling you how mainstream they are.

Independents

ConservaDems claim that they’re the party’s best hope for winning over Independents. “Independent” is a catch-all term. It does not mean “centrist.” Most independents lean toward one party or another (see: Ruy Teixeira). Truly persuadable voters respond to policy results — their own well-being and the direction they feel the economy is headed, more than anything else.

The “Liberal” Self-Identification Metric

Constant reminders that the segment of the country that self-identifies as “liberal” is relatively small are central to the conservaDems’ case. Third Way loves this argument.

This talking point has been addressed before, but since it’s going to come up again, here’s a quick four-part takedown.

  • The “progressive” label does very well.
  • On a broad range of issues, the progressive position receives majority support.
  • A significant block of voters identify with the “conservative” label but are operationally progressive.
  • Policy results and turnout are much more important than the popularity of specific labels

The citing of the self-identified “liberal” numbers may be followed up with transparent responsibility-shifting in the form of assertions that Democrats who don’t put some kind of apology in front of their name should focus more of their energy on winning voters over. This would be a fair point if it was backed up by something concrete. It’s usually not. The reality is that on a number of high-profile issues and themese — the Bush tax cuts for the most wealthy, truly strengthening Social Security, reigning in Wall Street — grassroots Democrats have the popular position and it’s conservaDems and “centrists” who are out of step with public opinion. As much as they like to pretend otherwise, DC “centrists” may be a decent barometer of where DC is at, but they’re not a good barometer of where the country is at.

The main obstacle to strong Democratic legislation isn’t public opinion, it’s K Street and Wall Street’s lobbying operations. This can be overcome with organizing meant to turn public opinion into public pressure and then into public policy. Doing this requires the kind of appeals that the Democratic coalition responds to but Third Way is sure to warn against.

What They Really Do

Prevent Results

Again, persuadable voters respond to results or lack thereof. Making legislation less effective, as Blue Dogs in Congress have done, enables the conditions that push swing voters to the other party. Catering to economically irresponsible Blue Dogs leads to Democrats losing winnable elections.

Cycle of Self-Fulfilling Doom

Blue Dogs are always going to be vulnerable. When they freak out and lurch to the far-right they fail to help themselves, if not making things worse by turning the fundamentals against them, while hurting Democrats in majority-making districts. Blue Dogs have shown themselves to be unwilling to recognize, let alone break, this cycle. When a lot of Blue Dogs lose, as they did in 2010, they blame their nominal party’s lack of complete devotion to propping them up (under the guise of “the deficit” and the “the center”), but they show little interest in getting the right answer to not very difficult question of why so many of them lost.

Undermine Our Coalition

Just a brief list:

Heath Shuler partnered with Tom Tancredo on extreme anti-immigration legislation.

Blue Dogs helped block long overdue labor law reform, which on top of being a big problem from a policy perspective, did major damage to the Democratic coalition in Midwest swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

ConservaDems dragged out the health care reform process for so long that it turned voters against the finished product. ConservaDems also watered down the legislation (note the considerable group of voters who oppose the bill because it doesn’t go far enough). To finish the political malpractice trifecta, “deficit hawks” pushed back the implementation timeline.

Blue Dogs signed on to the right’s attacks on women’s health.

Every Senate Democrat except Arkansas conservaDem Mark Pryor voted to allow debate on the Buffett rule. Maine Republican Susan Collins voted with the Democrats, setting up the “bipartisan support, purely partisan opposition” contrast DC usually thinks is a big deal. But Mark Pryor did his conservaDem thing and didn’t even let the bill get an up or down vote.

ConservaDems push for needless cuts to Social Security. Some are going along with Paul Ryan’s plan to take a hatchet to Medicare as we know it (see: Joan McCarter on former conservaDem Senator turned lobbyist John Breaux).

ConservaDems pushed for something like 2011‘s Contraction for America, which harmed prospects for recovery, their own stated goal of reducing the deficit, and Democratic chances in 2012.

ConservaDems generally aren’t good on environmental issues. Some are practically indistinguishable from elected Republicans.

There’s much more where this came from.

In the Blue Dogs’ defense, as long as we’re not talking about women, working people in labor unions, minorities, seniors, younger voters, progressive independents, people who care about the environment (including donors who care about climate change), Democrats who actually believe in things, and voters whose decisions are influenced by the economy, elected conservaDems as we know them don’t hurt the Democratic Party. Just exclude most of the people who would conceivably vote for Democrats and almost everyone who works to elect them and Blue Dogs are fine.

GOP BFF

Here’s a not at all unrealistic hypothetical: ConservaDem Ben Nelson says that he won’t even vote for cloture on a major piece of legislation unless the “moderate” (read: surrounding by Tea Party extremists, clears a bar so low it might as well be on the ground) Republican Olympia Snowe does too. But if Olympia Snowe votes for it, Mitch McConnell will make her Senate life miserable. A nominal Democrat has just put McConnell, someone whose twin goals are the destruction of the Democratic majority and the defeat of the Democratic president, in the driver’s seat.

Thunder On The Left

Elected conservaDems, through their contributions to the ongoing Great Recession, their decision to take part in the obstruction of things Democrats have campaigned on for a long time, and their painfully apparent detachment from core Democratic values, encourage disaffected progressives to disengage from electoral politics. Among the “nowhere to go” doctrine’s many flaws is the assumption that those on the receiving end of it will remain invested in electoral politics.

As a partisan Democrat, I obviously take issue with assertions that people shouldn’t worry about voting or that elections are meaningless. Those who focus on issue advocacy or movement building do vital work that is every bit as legitimate as electoral politics. It takes all three — advocacy, movement building, and electoral politics — to be effective. That’s entirely different from the school of thought that disavows electoral politics altogether. Their sentiments can be maddening.

Still, I realize that conservaDems as we know them, and the broader rejection of the idea that the Democratic Party can and should improve, is a gift to those who call for disengagement from the two-party system or elections more broadly. If someone who is currently involved comes to the conclusion that electoral politics is a dud, they might end or greatly reduce their involvement, especially if they became involved recently. Clearly, this doesn’t help those working on the electoral politics part of the equation. It’s not 1995 anymore. Between the blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook, and progressive opinion leaders on TV, conservaDems who make the rest of the party look lame do so in real time in front of people who should be part of our activist base.

Boost The Other Party

Republican: “We’re great. Here’s why… (long list of right-wing talking points)”

ConservaDem: “Here are all of the ways that I’m like a Republican… (long list of affirmations of right-wing talking points).”

The Knife In Your Back

ConseravaDems have a track record of becoming high-profile surrogates for Republicans, Zell Miller attacking John Kerry in 2004 and Joe Lieberman attacking Barack Obama in 2008 being two prominent examples. ConservaDems also like to switch parties. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, the Birther-curious Wall Street toady Republican, used to be a conservaDem.

Evan Bayh vouches for FOX News’ “balance” while simultaneously serving as a bipartisanship validater for K Street. Harold Ford, when not riding around in his helicopter looking for a Senate race to drop in on, does the same thing. After former Blue Dog Congressman Artur Davis lost in the 2010 Democratic primary for Alabama Governor thanks to his Blue Dog record, he railed against the victor. Last year Davis started giving cover to the right-wing’s voter suppression efforts. A few days ago he made his party switch official.

Moving Forward: A Better Way

Democrats from different states will give voice to different variations on a theme, they’ll emphasize different issues, and have some different positions. This is an uncontroversial concept. It’s the warped extreme Blue Dogs take this to that is objectionable.

Ask yourself the two relevant questions:

Can a mainstream Democrat win 270 electoral votes?

Can Democrats elect enough congressional majority-makers without relying on a 1995-style Blue Dog Caucus?

I would submit that the answer to both questions is yes. It comes down to the two things conservaDems and “centrists” avoid an honest assessment of.

1. Demographics and the make-up of the Democratic coalition.

2. The real drivers of election results.

ConservaDems may be forced to nod to all of this sometime soon, but when they do I wouldn’t be surprised if they attribute the party’s standing to their approach and start talking about further expanding the map; a segue into their argument that amounts to “conservaDems can expand the map because of their positioning.” As partisans, we like talk of expanding the map. But it’s important to recognize that the map expands because of demographics, economic conditions, organizing on the ground and competent candidates. And the map has already expanded.

Solid Democratic majorities can come from the West coast, the Northeast, the Midwest (MN, IA, WI, IL, MI, OH, PA), the Southwest (NV, AZ, NM, CO, possibly TX) and the New South (VA, NC, FL). There’s little need to rally around conservaDem congressional candidates in states like Mississippi and Wyoming who are weak across the board but at least aren’t Republicans. Democrats don’t have a lock on Ohio and Wisconsin in the Midwest or North Carolina and Florida in the New South, but they are winnable fights and they will continue to be. The Southwest looks promising. Combined, these developments put Democrats in a position to hold candidates to a better standard than whether they’re simply a little better than increasingly extreme right-wing Republicans. This more cohesive party would allow us to make the most of our emerging advantages.

The Presidency

We don’t need a conservaDem in order to win the White House. Full stop.

Take 2016 for example. Unless it comes at the end of years of a weak economy that can be attributed to a Democrat, the map will offer multiple paths to 270 and beyond. The newer swing states are here to stay.

The battleground states will most likely be the “blue collar blue” Midwest (think Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa) the Southwest (think Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and possibly Texas) and the New South states President Obama won in 2008 (Florida, Virginia, North Carolina).

To get a general idea what this looks like, here’s a customized future map that would be difficult to call overly optimistic. And here’s a second map that highlights the three battleground regions: dark blue = the first to fall into the Democratic column, blue = more likely to be fiercely contested on a regular basis, light blue = potential pick-ups. (Note: The contrasts in party identity that will help us build the winning coalition in the these states come from fundamentally progressive Democratic values.)

The Senate

The days of the Ben Nelson-style conservaDem who votes for a Democratic majority leader before right before they start doing things that increase the chances others voting for that majority leader will lose their seat should be coming to an end. There will be too many good opportunities to get non-destructive votes elsewhere.

In the current cycle and the two after that Democrats have potential pickup opportunities on the coasts (MA, ME) plus the Southwest (NV, AZ) the Midwest (WI, IA, IL, OH, PA) and maybe a couple more in the New South. Team Blue can sustain a majority in the mid 50s by solidifying our base states, doing well in the three battleground regions, and splitting with the GOP most of the states that have recently shown a willingness to elect Democrats at the statewide level but not at the presidential level.

I’m not saying that any state should be completely written off. I’m saying that candidates in red states could be evaluated on a case by case basis and not held up and not declared worthy simply because they would be better than a Republican. Of course candidates shouldn’t have to be with the national party all of the time, but they shouldn’t completely obstruct the mainstream of the party when it matters most either.

To see how this could work in practice, look at the 2012 Senate map. Five of the races that are key to retaining the majority feature Democrats who the party’s base can get enthusiastic about: Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Martin Heinrich (or Hector Balderas) in New Mexico, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, and Mazie Hirono in Hawaii. We came very close to having a sixth with Chellie Pingree in Maine. Three of these races take place in states generally considered to be battleground states. Not every pivotal Senate campaign will feature Democrats who the progressive base can get enthusiastic about. But there’s no reason to start out expecting the list of decisive campaigns to include a bunch of conservaDems.

Democrats working in the trenches at the DSCC and DCCC might argue that the next cycle isn’t a good time to re-evaluate standards. The work they do makes them inclined to echo this sentiment the cycle after that and the cycle after that too. It’s never going to be a “good time” for Democrats under immense pressure focused solely on reaching or retaining a majority to rethink assumptions about what constitutes a quality candidate. But ultimately, being excessively dependent on conservaDem votes is more costly to the goal of Democratic success than the appropriate changes would be. It may not be a convenient time to update standards, but it’s a really bad time to keep the status quo.

Those in the party leadership who are alarmed by the prospect of some of the groups that make up the Democratic base asserting themselves here could meet the base part way. Activists would have much less of a problem with conservaDem Senators and candidates if the leadership scrapped the filibuster (take it down to 55 votes at the least) and/or adopted a cloture standard: enough conservaDems have to vote for cloture as to not enable a Republican filibuster.

If the filibuster problem was addressed, grassroots Dems could rally around the candidates they like and spend less time clashing with the committees. There would still be contentious primaries for open seats and primary challenges to weak incumbents could still occur, but most of the progressive energy could go toward re-electing allies and electing new ones.

Getting conservaDems to at least vote for cloture is easier said than done. Senate Majority Leader is already a difficult job. But something has to change. The status quo combination of the filibuster and no standards for conservaDems is indefensible.

The House

Beltway “centrists” talk as if the Blue Dog Caucus is the default home for majority-makers. That’s just not the case. The Populist Caucus, which formed in early 2009, is already home to many solid majority-makers. It’s much more current and a positive force within the party.

Between the Progressive Caucus (by far the largest Democratic caucus), the Populist Caucus, the New Dem Caucus, and the unaffiliated option, the 21st century Democratic Party is covered and a more cohesive majority is made. No myth-based Blue Dog Caucus required.

ConservaDems have in the past countered those who believe House Democrats as a group can and should be better from a core Democratic values perspective by suggesting that the pursuit of improvement will lead to unrealistic standards for candidates everywhere. Harold Ford Jr. has cited guns in rural Mississippi as an example of how the “better Democrats” ethos could get out of hand. On every score (region where a Democratic majority will be built, state, and issue) this is plainly not what advocates of “better Democrats” are talking about. If a candidate who is otherwise pretty solid runs in a rural part of the country with a different position on guns than the one erroneously associated with the national party by their Republican opponent, that is to be expected.

In states like Montana and Kentucky, where actual Democrats have been known to run, guns are about a lot more than guns. This isn’t a secret and it’s not something the Democratic activists broadly speaking have much of a problem with. Ford could ask Rep. Steve Cohen in Tennessee, who currently holds his old seat, Gov. Brian Schweitzer in Montana, and Attorney General Jack Conway in Kentucky if he is confused about this.

“You know what I’m all about? Deep South Democrats need to be much closer to where I am on guns!” – no one

Grasping at strawmen is all professional conservaDems have left.

(Blue) Dog Bites (Straw) Man: Responses

But The Republicans Did It!

This argument takes a false equivalence, adds a false choice (2 is way too low, 10 is too high, let’s pretend 7 doesn’t exist), and tops it off with the kind of thoughtlessly partisan “but they did it!” sentiment I thought “centrists” were opposed to. If Republicans didn’t jump off a bridge, would you?

The Democratic coalition has growing demographic advantages and public opinion strengths in majority-making districts and states. In the Tea Party’s case the opposite is true. They’ve taken primaries to an extreme that the Democratic base wouldn’t.

In 2006 the Republican base groups that have since rallied under the Tea Party banner ran a very conservative primary challenger against Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island. Chaffee was the only Republican who stood a chance of winning in Rhode Island as the GOP was beginning to face serious headwinds nationwide. Four years later the GOP base challenged Mike Caste in Delaware… with Christine O’Donnell. No progressive group has talked about anything that could be honestly compared to the GOP base challenging Lincoln Chafee in ’06 with an extremely conservative candidate or elevating Christine O’Donnell, nor would they. In every case where the Democratic base has really taken sides in a Senate primary in recent years, their favored choice was a solid general election candidate.

If “better Democrats” was taken to a counterproductive place, the same people advocating for it now wouldn’t hesitate to say so. Democrats are talking about a more cohesive party compatible with the mainstream, while the Grover Norquist Republicans are racing to the far-right on everything, everywhere.

Would You Rather Have Republicans In Charge?

Of course not. And it’s Blue Dogs who help put Republicans in charge. I would rather challenge the Blue Dogs’ myths than watch them continue to help sink Democratic majorities and undermine the progressive coalition. I would rather not give a free pass to Blue Dogs who help Republicans set the agenda when the GOP is in power and even when it’s not. I would rather look at the many opportunities to elect quality majority-makers than accept the nonsensical talking points of Blue Dogs who contribute to the undoing tomorrow of the very majorities they seem to enable today.

Self-Centered

The Blue Dog Research Forum recently rebranded itself as “Center Forward.” Let’s just cut to the chase here. The only thing they’re the center of is their own fantasy land. “Center Forward” takes an agenda packaged solely for K Street and mindlessly slaps the word “centrist” on it even though its signature components aren’t popular. Before the DLC closed down they tried rebranding themselves as “the new DLC.” The Blue Dog Research Forum has earned the same fate.

Big Tent: Post-Pennsylvania Warnings

The usual suspects have cited two recent Blue Dogs losses in Pennsylvania primaries as evidence that Democrats are in danger of losing our big tent. Third Way board member, JP Morgan executive, professional unicorn-spotter, person who has been demonstrably wrong about every strategic challenge facing Democrats for years on end and failed White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley used this same line when Alabama conservaDem Parker Griffith switched parties.

What happened in Pennsylvania that triggered the concern trolling? In an incumbent vs. incumbent primary for the Democratic nomination in the new 12th district, Mark Critz defeated Blue Dog Jason Altmire. Though Critz is far from a progressive stalwart, he was considered to be better and more reliable than Altmire on economic issues, which earned him the backing one of the United Steelworkers, among others. Blue Dog incumbent Tim Holden was also defeated, losing to proud “true blue Democrat” Matt Cartwright in the 17th district.

The Cartwright and Critz wins were neither surprising nor disconcerting. Those who vote for and work to elect Democrats in a key state support Democrats closer to the mainstream of the party over conservaDems. Both candidates can win in November. No tent problems here.

Though the “big tent” can be a useful metaphor, invoking it to defend Blue Dogs across the board is misguided. Blue Dogs as we know them don’t ensure that the Democratic tent is sufficiently big, they ensure that it collapses down on top of all of us.

It’s almost comical that DC “centrists” continue to share their thoughts on electing Democrats in the Midwest. The notion that Democratic candidates would help themselves in blue collar blue Midwest states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa) by going all Third Way borders on delusional. A statewide Democratic who followed Third Way’s script on Social Security, Medicare, trade, tax fairness, Wall Street and related themes in these states wouldn’t be able to make the contrasts with Republicans opponents that rightfully resonate in these states and the Democratic coalition would be thoroughly underwhelmed. Look at where current, former, and prospective Democratic Senators from these states stand and you’ll notice very little overlap with Third Way on economic security issues.

I think most Dems who win statewide in these states believe in an authentic Democratic agenda, many of them passionately so (see: Sherrod Brown, Harkin, Stabenow, Baldwin, Feingold, Franken, Wellstone, Dayton, Strickland, etc). It’s also true that Third Way’s agenda is a horrible fit politically in the blue collar Midwest. These states are crucial in presidential elections and fights for control of the House and Senate. This should be a big problem for Third Way’s claim on realism and pragmatism.

The Era of Big ConservaDem Is Over

If an ideologue is someone who, as Bill Clinton put it, is impervious to evidence, Democrats and progressives have every reason to believe that elected Blue Dogs as we know them and their professional defenders are hopeless ideologues. Whether they’re so frozen in their own version of the 90‘s that they can’t see the present for what it is or they’re just overall disingenuous, they are relics best looked back on, not seen as models for the present and certainly not the future.

Understandably, some progressive want to be careful about moving past the Blue Dog era. The want to guard against unintended consequences, an admirable instinct in many respects. They see the truth in the noncontroversial statement that there are some districts and states a Blue Dog has a shot of winning that a more authentic Democrat doesn’t. But let’s finish that thought:

There are some districts and states a Blue Dog has a shot of winning that a more authentic Democrat doesn’t… but they are increasingly less important to a Democratic majority and all too often the conservaDems elected there end up dragging other Democrats down.

If you’re worried about unintended consequences, reassess elected conservaDems.

Third Way, a nominally Democratic-leaning organization, won’t do this because it can’t. Third Way specializes in repackaging conservaDem myths and they are shameless in their constant wrongness. Third Way isn’t about helping Democrats win, they’re about self-preservation — if that means working at cross-purposes with Democratic political success (and it does), so be it. Third Way can only get away with putting the fetishes of the financial sector first, knee-jerk opposition to populism and recycling the same tired memo if people buy into the premise that core Democratic values are inherently unappealing and Third Way’s approach is how Dems must compensate. What Third Way has as much as admitted in recent years with their lack of an argument that checks out is that they don’t have much if anything to back up their recommendations. They’ve simply been good at not getting called on it. But there’s an easy way to change that.

It’s the Third Way Challenge. All you have to do is ask Third Way or their apologists for an example of them getting a major strategic decision facing Democrats right since the beginning of the Obama presidency. Don’t expect an answer. There isn’t one. That’s the point. The conservaDem establishment is, ironically enough, bankrupt. Speaking this truth is not in the interest of complete party unity at any cost but is in the interest of Democratic electoral and legislative success.

The Blue Dog era is not our era. The Blue Dogs era as they perceive it never really existed. If Democrats are serious when we speak of this perils (and promise) of this moment in history and the response it demands of us, all kinds of Dems — activists, electeds, prominent voices, rank and file  — will need to stop letting unjustified fears push aside justifiable confidence and a realistic assessment of what we are, what we can be, and what does and doesn’t win elections. We can no longer afford to let myths and gross distortions from a fabricated past determine the present and future of the party. It’s long past time to discard the dogma.

Related reading:

1984-2007

Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party by Glenn Hurowitz

Although there are bound to be differing assessments of the Democrats profiled, Hurowitz adeptly illustrates how the idea that Democratic timidity is politically necessary became conventional wisdom.

2005-2010

Herding Donkeys by Ari Berman

The story Berman tells of competing theories of change and what happens when a governing strategy doesn’t track with an election strategy is an essential one.

iHawk

There’s never a shortage of candidates and prominent commentators who portray themselves as hawks: vigilant, proactive, ready to descend onto a threat. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is that too many of these self-styled political hawks are hawkish about the wrong things. They’re more like peacocks (trying to call attention to themselves) or ostriches (head in the sand). If there was a bird that let out some kind of “Yeah, look at me! I’m so hawk-like!” noise before crashing itself into the ground with great ferocity, they would be like that bird too.

This brand of political hawk goes through a four step process.

1. Be very proud of yourself
2. Ignore the most pressing threats and opportunities
3. Remain very proud of yourself
4. Repeat

The “hawk” label is frequently used as it relates to foreign policy, as a crude and dated way to denote whether someone is supportive of military action. It may have outlived its usefulness. Self-professed “hawks” misled our country into the disastrous war in Iraq. They want to keep us in Afghanistan, as if years 11, 12, 13, and 14 would be the charm. The younger voters whose peers have had to fight these wars for inordinately long periods of time aren’t very big on foreign policy hawks of any kind, but they’re downright infuriated by the “chickenhawk” variety of the foreign policy hawk, and rightfully so. Chickenhawks are all for rushing into wars in a litany of places as long as they are nowhere near the action. Chickenhawks posture, casually send their fellow Americans to war, and then go AWOL on PTSD, brain injuries, joblessness and homelessness among veterans, and veterans care in general. Nobody likes a chickenhawk, to put it gently.

On economic policy front we have self-proclaimed “deficit hawks” like leading “fiscal conservative” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The fiscal conservative label Ryan wears so proudly is meant to, through the sheer force of the word “fiscal,” cast a highly destructive and incoherent set of positions as inherently virtuous. Fiscal conservatives fail to articulate a credible view of when and how a budget deficit negatively impact the real economy while simultaneously making wildly inaccurate statements about what is driving the deficit.

Fiscal conservatives talk themselves up as noble tellers of “hard truths.” This is ironic, not just because their “hard truths” are aggressively deceptive (so much for the “truth” part), but because they’re the ones who haven’t yet been sufficiently and publicly confronted with what for them will be a hard truth: there’s little reason to believe they care about the deficit at all.

Paul Ryan-style “fiscal conservatives” aren’t genuine, let alone realistic, about the deficit. They’re trying to use it as political cover for their long-standing agenda. This goes back to Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo that became a blueprint for the conservative movement. Yelling “look at the deficit!” when there’s a Democrat in the White House is important to conservatives. The deficit isn’t. The conservative movement these fiscal conservatives are part of seeks to redistributes even more wealth upwards, give even more tax breaks to the most wealthy despite their already very low tax rates, and cut or eliminate Social Security and Medicare because these programs work. “Fiscal conservatism” is the name that gets slapped on all of this to give it a vaguely respectable sheen.

Those in the media who covered Paul’s Ryan’s “Listen To Me Say ‘Deficit’ A Lot” Tour in a favorable light might prefer to ignore the assertion that Ryan is a blatant fraud with goals far outside of the mainstream. But this view is backed up by Ryan’s voting record, the content of his proposals, his stated beliefs, and the conservative playbook. In other words, pretty much everything Ryan says, does, and by his own admission believes on the relevant issues makes it clear that his “concern” for the deficit is disingenuous.

The deficit is something “fiscal conservatives” cite, usually in a nonsensical way, to justify their opposition to things they oppose. It also gives them something to attribute a bad economy to and a theory of how electing them will fix it. Their expressed concern for the deficit runs into an obvious problem when they make one of their top domestic priorities eternal, ever more extreme tax cuts for the wealthy. In an attempt to paper over this glaring inconsistency, fiscal conservatives trot out discredited theories like Arthur Laffer’s infamous Laffer curve and/or the right-wing spin on “dynamic scoring.” This is the only fig leaf Republicans like Paul Ryan feel they need to declare with one breath that the deficit is a terrifying threat before yelling “Tax cuts! Thurston Howell III, come get more tax cuts!” with the next.

Note that movement conservatives like Grover Norquist openly talk about “starving the beast.” This translates to decimating revenue in order to give conservatives a pretext for hacking away at things that work and people like but make Zombie Ayn Rand cry. Norquist has actually been pretty straightforward about this. They’re not really concerned about the deficit and of course they want less revenue.

Republican strategists try to spin all of this into something they can pitch as constructive. Because of their agenda’s status as a miserable failure, and the fact that almost all of its component parts are unpopular, it has to be repackaged often. It’s trickle down economics, no it’s supply side, no the empowerment agenda, no “supply side economics for the working man,” as the Wall Street Journal and now Rick Santorum put it. (More accurate title: four flat tires for the driving man.)

Shorter Trickle Down Re-Re-Remix: Here’s the latest slight variation on the same agenda. We’re going to claim it addresses problems we don’t really care about and have never cared about. This will allow us to continue our efforts to dismantle the successful policy we’ve always hated.

For the record, elected officials who are genuinely concerned about the long-term deficit would be talking about rising health care costs. They would be proposing things that infuriate AHIP (insurance companies) and PhRMA (drug companies). Grover Norquist would be their lifelong sworn enemy. And if they’re truly interested in economic responsibility, elected officials in either party will be adamant about putting job growth first. The deficit is a symptom of the Great Recession, not the disease itself.

Again, the hawkish impulse isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just being misapplied. As an example, here are some threats and challenges that warrant a hawkish outlook:

Unemployment

Any improvement on this front is obviously welcome. And while it’s certainly true that the GOP’s Mitch McConnell strategy and the demonstrable (and predictable) failure of austerity hysteria slashonomics have blocked and hobbled recovery, Democrats and progressives shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that we’re a painfully long way off from what should be our goal: fully employment. We’ll never get anywhere close to where we need to be if we’re satisfied with clearing a relatively low bar. As far as the election goes, it would be helpful if Democratic candidates remembered that most people will react negatively to statements that comes across as in any way self-congratulatory. You really can’t blame them for this. We’re still in a bad place and at this rate we will be for quite some time. It’s much better to talk about determination to make progress, and how we’ll go about doing that, than to tout improvement most have yet to feel. There’s a point at which improvement will make people receptive to more positive language, but we’re not there yet and we won’t get there anytime soon unless the improvement is significant and sustained.

Once the economy crosses that point, the political capital Democrats gain needs to be put towards the kind of recovery effort that can get more results. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: we don’t need to “pivot” to unemployment as much as we need to kick the jobs crisis in the face, repeatedly, until it goes away. And for the sake of actually learning from history and the 1937 mistake, let’s not prematurely pivot away from jobs (again). (See: Paul Krugman)

Investment deficit

Other countries aren’t hesitating to build a 21st century infrastructure, Meanwhile, we’re falling behind. Combating the crumbling of America (details from the American Society of Civil Engineers) is a no-brainer. It’s as practical as it gets. Yet we’re still not doing it. Every day that we don’t act we fall further behind China and the European countries that take infrastructure seriously. Those who sleep on this challenge embody the old caricature of a “liberal” as someone with their head in the clouds. Politicians like to talk about competitiveness and American greatness, but if they’re not investment deficit hawks their talk of economic patriotism is empty.

Note: Manufacturing, the trade deficit, and China’s predatory practices fit in here or in the broader discussion about jobs.

Union busting

Labor unions built the American middle class and are essential to rebuilding it. We’ve seen a systematic and unrelenting attack on labor by the extremely well-financed union-busting lobby. This attack has delivered for those, like the Koch brothers, who put insane amounts of money into it. Virulently anti-union right-wingers and special interests have dramatically tilted the playing field against unions. This has a profound negative impact on all working people, whether they’re in a union or not (see: wages). The wrecking crew is knocking out the pillars of the middle class.

As a recent CEPR report shows, it’s the forces who target unions for political reasons, not other factors, that are responsible for the decline in union membership. We never had a strong, broad middle class without the right to organize and we never will. If the labor movement dies, it will not be due to natural causes. And if the labor movement dies, the hopes for a vibrant American middle class die with it.

Climate change

Climate change is right at our front door. Yet the same Republicans who talk about not wanting to pass things on to future generations ignore that anyone planning on being alive in 10 years, let alone their children, is going to be most angry with those in power over the destruction wrought by catastrophic climate. The absolute least the Inaction Caucus can do is start looking into cameras and saying what those with any shred of honesty know to be true: their inaction means catastrophic climate change and/or serious conversations about geoengineering sooner rather than later. Politicians who deploy forward-looking rhetoric about science can’t ignore what the scientific community is in heated agreement about right now. In a few more years, the harsh reality will make it next to impossible for all but the most stubborn FOX News viewer to deny climate change science. But we don’t have years to wait.

Defending Social Security

Most voters don’t reflexively line up with either side in the debate over the role of government. They don’t agree with conservative’s selective devotion to “small government” (or they’re in the large “ideologically conservative, operationally liberal” contingent), nor would they agree with the mythical liberal who wants what the right calls “big government” for its own sake.

Side note: I have yet to come across one of these “government is its own reward” liberals. They’re political Bigfoot. Let me know if you find one and it’s not just David Koch wearing the Bigfoot suit.

Voters want effective government. And that’s precisely what Social Security is. It’s a testament to Social Security’s undeniable success that those who want to needlessly cut it have to resort to saying that a couple of decades from now, after what will at that point be almost a hundred years of success, the intensely popular program will have an easily fixable, relatively small problem. That’s the knock against it.

To my fellow Democrats I would ask a straightforward question: If Social Security isn’t worth defending and truly strengthening, what is? We believe in and advocate for effective government. People want effective government. Social Security is effective government.

If we take part in unnecessary cuts and undermine retirement security despite broad opposition to cuts, when are we going to stand up for anything the right-wing wants to dismantle? If we won’t stand up for what we know to be right (and popular!) — one our party’s defining achievements, which is absolutely essential to retirement security, when exactly are we going to locate our backbone? Much too late, if ever.

I don’t quote him lightly, but the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) is apt here.

“If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.” – Paul Wellstone

K Street’s influence

Conservatives and Republican operatives like to say that campaign finance reform is “unrealistic.” It’s true that getting K Street and Wall Street out of a position from which they can dominate our politics is going to be an epic battle requiring ongoing effort. A movement that can bring about campaign finance and lobbying reform with teeth is key, but it won’t mean the end of the story. This problem will require vigilance long after it’s contained.

But what’s really “unrealistic” is for conservative Republicans to expect to win much without the influence of corporate special interests giving them an assist in elections and legislative battles. They’re on the wrong side of demographic changes, history, and public opinion. Their solution to their problem: make it more difficult for people who are likely to support Democrats to vote (the ongoing GOP voter suppression tour) while making it even easier for K Street and Wall Street to drown out the voices of those who do vote (the Citizens United decision, other right-wing efforts to undo anything that acts as a check on corporate interests’ involvement in elections). This is what a desperate party looks like.

It’s also unrealistic to think that we’ll be able to truly address our major problems without reducing the influence of big money and countering the pull of K Street.