Damage Control for Democrats

The midterm elections for Congress are a little more than nine months away, and they can go one of two ways. Democrats can lose some seats, but not so many that the fundamental balance of power in Congress is changed. Or they can be obliterated, lose the House, and maybe even lose the Senate as well. If they're going to avoid disaster, they have a few things they need to do.

Ignore the pundits and reporters. When Scott Brown won in Massachusetts, the news media immediately proclaimed it The Most Important Political Event In History. You would have thought the GOP won 20 or 30 seats in that single election. Now, every time a Democratic politician walks down the halls of the Capitol, some reporter is sticking a microphone in his or her face and asking if the Massachusetts election means that all Americans have rejected the Democratic agenda and it's time to capitulate to Republican demands.

The conventional wisdom that Democrats are doomed is wrong. But if they accept its premises (as too many have done), Democrats solidify it. So they need to remember that they're still in charge. Democrats have the White House and large majorities in both houses of Congress. They get to set the agenda. No one should be fooled into thinking otherwise. It's not easy to tune out the din of voices telling them to discard what they were elected to do and cower in fear of the raging mob. But unless they tune out the pundits used to writing the story of Democratic failure and the Republicans who don't exactly have their best interests at heart, they won't be able to see clearly.

Get health care done. The first thing Democrats have to understand is that they already passed health care; they own the legislation. If there is an actual health-care program – however it got passed – then they can start talking about what it actually does. Sure, it will be a tough fight at first to convince people of health reform's benefits. But once those benefits actually become law, people will see that their grandmothers are not, in fact, being turned into Soylent Green. If Democrats don't pass the bill, the Republican caricature of it will be all that remains.

Conservative opponents are praying that Democrats will try to "go back to the drawing board" on health care, so we can go through the whole ugly process again. Then Republicans can, once more, pretend they might be persuaded to support something, all while they devise a whole new campaign of lies and fearmongering – "Death Panels 2: This Time, It's Personal." The process could drag on for months and months, then come to nothing in the end. The problem with health-care reform was never the substance; it was the appalling spectacle of the legislative sausage-making. That's what disgusted Americans (as many polls have shown, when you tell them what's actually in the bill, they like it quite a bit). We don't need more of that process. So the House should pass the Senate bill as soon as possible – no more restructuring, no more endless debate.

The second reason to pass health care is that no matter what, Republicans will be turning out in force in November. If health-care reform dies, the Democratic base will remain in the pit of despair in which it now resides. Progressives won't bother going to the polls to support what they'll rightly perceive as a collection of pathetic, ineffectual wimps. There is simply no way Democrats can avoid catastrophic losses if their own supporters are angry with them.

The last reason to pass health-care reform is this: It's the right thing to do. We all know that if it dies now, it will be a long time – a decade or more – before we have another chance at reform. So if you're looking for a reason to pass it now, how about the man who put off going to the doctor because he didn't have insurance, then found out his illness was inoperable? Or the woman who got diagnosed with breast cancer, then had her policy "rescinded" by her insurance company? Or the child who hasn't seen a dentist in five years because his parents can't afford the visit? Or the people who lost their jobs and their insurance in a doubly cruel blow? Those would be some pretty good reasons to pass reform now, even if it weren't to Democrats' political advantage.

Forget about bipartisanship. If Democrats get the urge to reach out to their colleagues across the aisle, they need to remind themselves that Republicans have no incentive -- or desire -- to do anything other than obstruct any and all legislation the Democrats might seek to pass. Republicans spent the last year crying "No, no, no!" to everything Democrats wanted to do, deciding to filibuster every piece of legislation that involved anything more significant than renaming a post office. And what did Republicans get for it? Not only did they win in Massachusetts, they have everyone believing they're in control of the country, despite being at an 18-seat disadvantage in the Senate and an 81-seat disadvantage in the House. So far, the GOP's strategy of opposition is working pretty darn well. They're not going to abandon it.

Try to get the unemployment rate down. The truth is that for all the talk of "jobs, jobs, jobs," only so much can be done in the course of the next few months to help the economy and its most visible indicator, unemployment. And it should be noted that Democrats have done some pretty significant things in the last year, like passing the $787 billion stimulus and bailing out the auto industry (nothing if not an attempt to save jobs). There are other things they can do, and President Obama will be proposing a few of them in his State of the Union address. Republicans will cry "big government!" at any proposal that doesn't involve tax cuts for the purchase of monocles and yachting accessories, but Democrats should ignore them.

Show some guts. The most poignant thing we heard last week may have been this e-mail a longtime Democratic Senate staffer wrote to Talking Points Memo:

The worst is that I can't help but feel like the main emotion people in the caucus are feeling is relief at this turn of events. Now they have a ready excuse for not getting anything done. While I always thought we had the better ideas but the weaker messaging, it feels like somewhere along the line Members internalized a belief that we actually have weaker ideas. They're afraid to actually implement them and face the judgement of the voters. That's the scariest dynamic and what makes me think this will all come crashing down around us in November.

It would be nice if for once in their careers, Democrats were guided by something other than fear. But the real problem isn't that they're a bunch of cowards – though they are – the problem is that they're afraid of the wrong things. Democrats are afraid they won't be able to find a calm spot within the shifting eddies of public opinion, when they should be asking what they can do to move public opinion. They're afraid that the public won't like what they accomplish, when they should be afraid that the public will punish them for not accomplishing anything. They're afraid of seeming too liberal, when they should be afraid of seeming too weak.

This is an old problem for Democrats. If they want to avoid catastrophe, they'll have to go against all their instincts and show the American people that they have some spine. The last thing they want to be saying to the public is, "Re-elect us, even though we are obviously incapable of getting anything done." They don't have a lot of time.

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