William Galston

How Democrats Can Get Themselves Back in Shape

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When the history of the Obama administration is written, this week may well be regarded as the moment when Democrats’ anxieties crystallized into genuine alarm. Factional fights within the party exploded into public view. Howard Deanregarded by many progressives as a leader on health reformdenounced the Senate bill, declaring that it “would do more harm than good to the future of America.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made it clear that the Obama administration would be left on its own to make the case for its Afghanistan policy; odds are that a large number of House Democratsperhaps even a majoritywill oppose funding it. Thirty-eight House Democrats, many facing tough races, joined forces with the Republicans to turn the vote on a new jobs bill into a cliff-hanger that forced the Speaker to spend an hour on the House floor personally lobbying wavering members. Even E. J. Dionne Jr., an ardent liberal and congenital optimist, worried publicly that while “[a]n increasingly bitter and negative Republican Party may not be able to win the midterm elections … Democrats definitely can lose them.” The reason: Democrats’ “turmoil and backstabbing are making what is a rather good [health care] plan look like a failure while persuading political independents that they are a feuding gang rather than a governing party.”

Two highly respected surveys underscored the gravity of the situation. The NBC/Wall Street Journal found that only 33 percent of respondents think that the country is headed in the right direction, down ten points from April. President Obama’s job approval is down to 47 percent, the lowest of his presidency, and only 39 percent are confident that he has “the right set of goals and policies to be president of the United States.” Only 32 percent think that Obama’s health care plan is a good idea, compared with 47 percent who think it’s a bad idea.

Congressional Democrats fared even worse. 34 percent of respondents regard this year’s Congress as “one of the worst,” up eleven points since July. Only 35 percent report positive feelings about the Democratic Party (down from 49 percent in February), while 45 percent are negative. When people are asked about their preferences for party control of the next Congress, Democrats and Republicans end up in a statistical tie. When they are asked how they would feel about a congressional candidate “who has supported Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s issue positions over ninety percent of the time,” 20 percent said this fact would make them more likely to support the candidate, while 52 percent said less likely. (The attack ads just about write themselves.)

The Pew survey underscored other troubling trends. Only 53 percent say that Obama has a “new approach” to politics, down from 66 percent in February, while 37 percent characterize his approach as “business as usual,” up from 25 percent. Forty-five percent see him as tackling too many issues, up from 34 percent in April. Sixty-three percent of independents say that Obama has kept “only a few” or “almost none” of his campaign promises. The survey notes “unabated economic gloom,” with 91 percent rating conditions as only fair or poor. And while Democrats continue to approve of the Democratic congressional leaders, support for them among independents has declined by seven points since June. (Democrat’s only consolation is that Republican leaders receive even lower ratings.)

The ten and one-half months between now and the midterm elections are an eternity in politics … and not long at all. If Democrats are to turn things around, they must quickly agree on their best strategy, and then execute it relentlessly. Here are my suggestions.

  • Get health care done as quickly as possible. The House should recognize that any Senate bill that can garner 60 votes is likely the only bill that can do so. Logic suggests that the best course would simply be for the House to pass the Senate bill, avoiding a useless and time wasting conference.
  • Pivot hard toward the economy and jobs, and keep the focus there throughout 2010. That means keeping divisive issuessuch as immigration and cap-and-tradeoff next year’s legislative agenda. It also means more actionsuch as expanding the flow of credit to small businessto promote job creation in the private sector.
  • Acknowledge that public concern about spending, deficits, and debt is high and rising. That doesn’t mean turning toward fiscal restraint next year, while the economy remains fragile. It does mean endorsing the creation of a bipartisan fiscal commissionalong the lines of the Base Realignment and Closure Commissionwith the power to make recommendations after the mid-term elections to which Congress would be required to respond early in 2011.

Beyond these specifics, Democrats will have to shift their mindset and recalibrate the balance between stability and change. It turns out that the “change” average Americans most wanted in 2008 was getting rid of the Bush-Cheney administration. (The NBC/WSJ poll shows that they remain the two least respected public officials of the past decade.)  A year later, most Americans are feeling anxious and beleaguered, and much of what’s coming out of Washington is just making things worse. They want their government to be a rock of security in uncertain times, but it seems to them instead to be exacerbating insecurity. They want reassurance, jobs, and temporary assistance until they can find them, not a new New Deal. They will accept sensible change in measured increments, but not pell-mell and all at once.

Yes, this means slowing down and doing less for a while. But as every poker player knows, going all in and then overplaying your hand is a good way to go broke in a hurry.

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