We told you so, or how Democrats squandered their opportunity

Peter Daou, a politcal consultant and former advisor to Hillary Clinton, has an interesting post on the Huffington Post discussing how Democrats have squandered their opportunity to govern:

It took more than half a decade, countless American and Iraqi deaths in a war based on lies, a sinking economy and the drowning of an American city to finally kill Bush-Cheney-Rove’s dream of a conservative realignment.

Democrats, controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, have managed to kill their own dream of dominance in 12 months.

How did it happen?

Theories abound, but two diametrically opposed narratives have taken hold:

The first, promulgated by conservatives, is that the new administration has moved too far to the left and alienated a large swath of independent and moderate voters.

The second, pushed by progressive activists and bloggers, is that the administration hasn’t been true enough to fundamental Democratic principles, has embraced some of Bush’s worst excesses on civil liberties, and has ditched popular ideas (like the public option) in favor of watered down centrist policies, thus looking weak and ineffectual.

The conservative argument is unpersuasive. After years of a systematic effort by the right to use Overton-style tactics to radicalize our national discourse, the center has moved so far right that the left is barely recognizable. With a military surge in Afghanistan, a denuded health insurance bill limping through Congress, Bush-era detainee policies reinforced, a deflated climate summit, and a windfall year for bankers, among other things, it’s almost ludicrous to claim that the new administration is run by a gang of lefties.

The case by progressives that Democrats are undermining themselves with faux-bipartisanship and tepid policies gets much closer to the heart of the problem. I’ve written a number of posts arguing that it’s all a matter of values and ethics. In essence: when you fail to govern based on a morally sound, well-articulated, solidly-grounded set of ideals, you look weak. All the legislative wins in the world won’t change that. People gravitate to people who exude moral authority. The vast majority of voters lack the detailed policy knowledge that would enable them to make an accurate assessment of policy differences, but they do have a visceral sense of when a candidate or an elected official believes in something and fights for it. It’s why campaigns are laden with moral arguments; politicians ask to be elected because they’ll “do the right thing.” The right thing in the current administration’s case was to be the anti-Bush, nothing more, nothing less. The ethical antidote to a radical administration. It was both politically smart and morally right. And it worked wonders for Democrats as the entire subtext of the 2008 campaign.

My take on where Democrats went wrong is simple: they spent far too much time talking about health care reform. I’m as big a proponent of meaningful health care reform as the next person, but given our nation’s economic issues, Congress should have spent its time working to create jobs and get the economy back on track. Health care reform is an issue that’s important, but I’m willing to bet it would have been an issue that would have found more support once the economy was in better shape. There’s no denying Democrats wanted a big legislative accomplishment to hang their hats on as the headed into the 2010 midterm elections, but there were any number of issues/problems Democrats could have addressed other than health care reform.

Then again, considering how ineffective Democrats have been at messaging when it comes to health care reform, perhaps they wouldn’t have been more successful in tackling another issue.


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3 thoughts on “We told you so, or how Democrats squandered their opportunity

  1. It’s so basic. Listen and respond to the voters…which from what I can see isn’t happening.

  2. Do you mean spent too much time talking about health care and little time doing something about it? If so, that is the correct version.

    As much as people badly need jobs, if we didn’t fix health care what ever you did now about jobs would be wiped out very shortly by rising health care costs.

    Something this big has to be done early in an administration or forget about it.

  3. Anon, how many locally elected Democrats for that matter are listening to the voters, none. They feel that they were elected and they can now do what they want. I know Gwen isn’t. I sent her an email outlining a couple of ideas for healthcare, very simple, but things that could have been effective. The response I got back was “I will do what’s right for this bill”. It’s not about what’s right for a bill, it’s about what’s right for the people.

    Healthcare costs have been rising for decades. it’s been a game between doctors and insurance companies, and we the consumers get the short-end of the deal. But to have meaningful healthcare reform, both of those groups need to be reigned in. It’s not just about giving 30 million additional people healthcare or mandating that people purchase healthcare or face potential jail time.

    Zach, I totally agree with you that they would have been far more effective tacking other issues. Rather than charging after everything at once, they should have prioritized based on what would affect the masses – ie. jobs and economic stability.

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