Massachusetts election could save Democrats from themselves

Democrats must use this moment to recommit themselves to the progressive agenda that got President Obama elected.

As a Massachusetts voter, I was not happy to see Scott Brown win the Senate seat that Ted Kennedy held for 47 years. The loss is no doubt a huge boon for conservatives, a monumental embarrassment for Democrats across the nation, and a massive political problem for progressives. 

The election, however, does offer a silver lining. The Democrats can no longer pretend they are on the right track. Indeed, the end of the “supermajority” held by the Democrats held in the Senate may force them to fight – boldly – for serious change. If they do not, they will be unable to fend off this effective populist, right-wing movement, which now has all the momentum going into the midterm elections this November. 

The Democrats should use this moment to make a sea change in their strategy and move in a far more populist, progressive direction on healthcare, jobs, and financial regulation.

In the past year, the Democrats have shunned their base. These loyal liberals donated sweat, time, and money to elect President Obama and helped cement large majorities in both chambers of Congress. Yet within days of his historic victory, Mr. Obama started keeping his base – and more important, its progressive goals – at arm’s length.

Obama’s appointments were the first ominous signs of the troubled direction he would take with his administration. His choice for chief of staff was the first mistake: progressives have long disliked the centrist Rahm Emanuel. His appointment of a group of Wall Street insiders who had ties to the financial crisis – most notably Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Summers – was another major mistake. 

Obama’s team has acted predictably. They have been woefully soft on banks, having failed to pass any meaningful financial regulation. 

Just days ago, news leaked that Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, was considering dropping the major cornerstone of the Democrats’ proposed financial regulatory reform – an agency that would regulate financial credit products. The Democrats did pass a needed stimulus bill, but it was too small and the rising unemployment that followed its passage is hampering the Democrats greatly. 

The healthcare plan has been the biggest misadventure. Progressives were rightly excited about the prospects for a public healthcare option, and most were willing to concede a universal, single-payer plan and back this effort. When the public option collapsed, supporters were still willing to get behind an expansion of Medicare

But Obama did not see fit to fight hard for these issues and they soon died at the hands of Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The president did, however, seem eager to make nice with Big Pharma and the insurance companies, who celebrated the final bill that came out of the Senate as an unambiguous victory and cheered as their stock prices rose on the day the public option died. 

The approach has been a disaster for several reasons. One, it has deflated the progressive base that elected Democrats. Two, it has allowed the Republicans to attack the Democrats from a populist angle, emboldening the growing “tea party” movements. Lastly, it has given Americans of all stripes the distinct feeling that Obama and the Democrats are acting on behalf of the Washington insiders he ran against in 2008, and not on behalf of the people. 

Mr. Brown’s big win last night made these realities glaringly obvious, even to the most hardened Obama fans. And as a result, the Democrats – for political reasons if nothing else – will have no choice but to fight on behalf of what the public wants and not cave to the power brokers in Washington. 

This means, contrary to what so many pundits allege, that Obama needs to fight for a strong public healthcare program. While the healthcare bill that came out of the Senate is disliked by many on the left and the right, polls show that Americans do support the idea of public healthcare. The problem is not that Obama is overreaching; the problem is that he gutted all of the bill’s popular provisions – Medicare expansion and the public option – and left in unpopular items such as the mandate to buy insurance. 

Now that Obama and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, they are no longer beholden to the wishes of Mr. Lieberman, who just lost most of his leverage when Brown won. 

But the need for 60 votes is a myth; Bush never enjoyed an 18-seat majority in the Senate – as the Democrats do now – and he passed several radical pieces of legislation. The 60 vote rationale is now irrelevant, and Democrats can aim to pass much better healthcare reform through reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes (or 50, so long as Vice President Joe Biden votes to break a tie). This means a public option and Medicare expansion can be put back on the table. 

Obama should go after the big banks aggressively, with effective new regulations, limits on executive pay, and a strong consumer protection agency led by Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren. This is both greatly needed and likely to please voters who do not make common cause with the bankers, who are pulling in huge profits while many Americans suffer. Obama should also work to pass a new Keynesian jobs bill that makes up for the inadequate one passed in 2009. 

Had the Massachusetts election not resulted in this mammoth upset, the Democrats would have passed – and owned – a healthcare bill that was loved by industry and loathed by voters. They might well have paid for it by losing one or both branches of Congress in 2010 and maybe the presidency in 2012. And they might well have continued down the wrong-headed path they were on. 

Now they have a unique opportunity to change the way they govern – before it’s too late. One can only hope they don’t become more timid and assure more electoral losses in coming years. 

But if the Democrats use this astonishing election in Massachusetts as a chance to take an honest look in the mirror, it could turn out to be the moment that saved the party from itself. 

Michael Corcoran is a journalist who focuses on business, media, and public affairs. He has written for The Nation, The Boston Globe, Extra!, Alternet, Campus Progress, and other publications. 

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