The Democratic majority has come unglued just two years after Barack Obama captured the presidency and four years after the party regained control of Congress. This wasn’t supposed to happen. How did the Democrats get here? The Democrats passed their agenda; polling suggests the electorate has buyers’ remorse. With the mid-term election just three months away, Democrats have one last quarter to show the public what they stand for. They must spend this time fighting for a climate change bill that will complete their domestic agenda. Only then will they be worthy of going before their constituents and standing for re-election.
Democrats won Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008 by capturing independent voters. This vital center abandoned the GOP because they saw the Republicans as corrupt and ineffective. The country grew wary about American military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered from Bush fatigue. The Democrats promised fiscal discipline and claimed that they would govern like grown ups. American voters prefer divided government and, tired of one party GOP rule, gave Democrats control of Capitol Hill.
The 2008 presidential election served as a referendum on the Bush administration. In that environment, the GOP had no chance. Barack Obama won a historic election and Democrats across the country swept into office on his coat tails. Democrats believed they had ushered in a new liberal epoch. Strategist James Carville captured this sentiment with his manifesto: 40 More Years: How Democrats Will Rule The Next Generation.
With that enthusiasm, it was no surprise that the Democrats believed the electorate had given them a liberal mandate. They overleveraged; Democrats pursued an ideological agenda instead of governing from the center. The party spent 2009 struggling to pass health care reform when Americans wanted Washington to focus on job creation. Democrats seemed out of touch with voters’ concerns by the end of 2009.
But President Obama spent little time focused on job creation. He wanted to fix the economy before moving onto his domestic agenda: health care, financial regulation and climate change legislation. Congress passed a $787 billion dollar stimulus a month after the president took office.
Thinking they had saved the economy and that government spending would stimulate demand and create new jobs, Democrats turned their attention to health care. They spent all of 2009 trying to usher a bill through Congress. The Senate passed its health care bill in December and this legislation passed through the House in March 2010. President Obama signed the reform into law on March 22.
But by then, the Democrats had lost the independents and the center of the country. Democrats seemed out of touch with the electorate. Americans cared about the economy and job creation, not health care.
The Democrats pivoted away from health care in April and turned their attention to financial regulation. This seemed like a sure winner. Everyone hated Wall Street after the financial meltdown of September 2008. Democrats said this bill would prevent another economic meltdown and offered Americans great consumer protection. It passed through Congress this month and President Obama signed the bill into law today.
Instead of winning public favor, the bill only exacerbated the electorate’s fears. The Republicans pounded the Democrats as job killers. The GOP framed the debate this way: health care cost jobs, financial regulations eliminated jobs, environmental legislation would destroy jobs.
That message resonated with the public as the unemployment rate continued to rise in 2009. It has slightly turned this year but still sits at 9.5%.
Republicans also defined the Democrats as big spenders. In a time when all Americans have tightened their pocketbooks, the Democrats went on a spending spree. Their policies exploded the 2009 deficit ($1.5 trillion dollars). This attack struck a chord with the electorate as well.
As Election Day nears, Democrats wonder why the public opposes them. After all, they fulfilled their campaign promises. Yet, their re-election efforts look dire. A Quinnipiac University poll out today showed that President Obama’s approval rating dipped to 44%. This is the lowest mark of his presidency. 48% of Americans disapprove of his administration.
Independents have abandoned the president. 52% of these crucial voters disapprove of his overall performance. This is a radical departure from twelve months ago. In July 2009, independents gave the administration a 52% job approval rating. That precipitous drop has taken place as unemployment has remained high and the administration seems incapable of handling the economy.
56% oppose the president’s handling of the economy. That number says it all: Americans have lost faith in the Democrats’ handling the public’s top issue.
Economic instability leads to political instability. History has shown that repeatedly. Voters kick out the incumbent party when unemployment escalates.
Oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. This took place in 2006 when Republicans showed they were incapable of governing after ruling Congress for a dozen years. Four years later, it appears that Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hand the gavel over to Minority Leader, John Boehner.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs set off a Democratic firestorm last week on “Meet the Press.” Moderator David Gregory asked Gibbs about the Democrats’ congressional hopes this November. The press secretary responded: “There’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control.” These comments magnify how uneasy congressional Democrats feel right now.
Speaker Pelosi blasted Gibbs’ quote and claimed Democrats would keep House control in January. Ms. Pelosi couldn’t keep the lid on the rest of her caucus members. House Democrats blamed the White House for writing off the lower branch as a lost cause and spending their energy trying to retain the Senate. This rhetoric illustrated the uncertainty Democrats feel about November. Some pessimistic members believe they can retain a legislative majority only if they halt their domestic agenda. Others insist they have to complete their agenda and fight for their principles.
These liberal realists claim that they must push climate change legislation and then let the voters’ judge their record in November. These members have looked at the polls. They know the electoral forecast is dire.
These liberals realize Democrats will likely lose in November. The public is against them. Poll after poll suggests Americans oppose the Democratic majority. But these progressives recognize their unique opportunity and know that this narrow window to pass climate change legislation may not open up again for several years. They claim that their party has one more hurdle to jump over this year.
The party has made climate change a top priority for years. The Gulf Oil disaster provided a unique opportunity to pass this energy legislation. The job is halfway done. Speaker Pelosi forced her caucus to cast a tough vote last summer in favor of the legislation.
It’s up to the Senate to act. Majority Leader Reid must find a way to get this vote to the floor. Democrats must reach out to moderate Republicans (a dwindling number that include New Englanders Scott Brown (MA), along with Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (ME.) Find out what these moderates require to get past a Republican filibuster and send the bill to the floor.
Pass some weaker legislation in the Senate if necessary. Then fix it in committee with the House.
The hour is late. The time to act is now. The Republicans have shown no willingness to address climate change. One cannot expect them to do so in the next Congress. If Democrats regain legislative control in 2012, there’s no guarantee that the party will have a representative in the White House.
Democrats must seize this moment. This is their chance to complete the liberal agenda.