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Jewish Journal

A Democrat’s lament, and a glimmer of hope

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

December 7, 2010 | 2:55 pm

There is a sick feeling of demoralization settling over Democrats, like drizzle on a cloudy day. It’s not because of losses in the midterm elections; it’s the unnerving realization that we are on our own.

When Barack Obama came to Washington, he promised to change the town. I thought that was a pretty cool idea.

Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Washington has been a toxic city for Democrats. The Sunday talk shows are dominated by Republicans, no matter who wins elections. Democratic senators who hold up needed legislation because “it goes too far” or simply because they wish to ponder it deeply, are held up as great statesmen. Austerity is in, as long as it is for middle- and working-class Americans only.

This town makes it too easy for Democratic presidents to cut themselves off from their base and their party and to abandon their fighting spirit. And there are always political advisers on hand to edge a Democratic president in that direction.

Obama was the first Democrat in my lifetime to have an actual movement of people behind him, ready to march at the first sign of leadership. The party was tingling with excitement all the way down to the grass roots in red states, where for bleak decades Democrats had barely hung on by their fingernails.

I dared to dream that once Obama got to Washington, he would use his movement to reshape the Democratic Party in his image and make it once again a confident, effective vehicle for fairness and justice. But it was not to be. As early as 2009, it was clear that the great army of Obama was being quietly mothballed, and that Obama had only limited interest in his party. He was going to do it on his own.

Obama had fixed his mind not on building the confidence of his own party but on healing partisan conflict itself. Obama’s legendary outreach to Republicans survived even their most egregious attacks on him. And the Democrats became bit players in the drama.

The irony of Obama’s sincere plan to “change” Washington is that his approach matched and even bolstered the Capitol’s conventional wisdom that Democrats, especially liberal ones, really don’t count. It made it difficult for Democrats to win popular acclaim for their considerable accomplishments. This dynamic reached its apotheosis with the president’s compromise on taxes reached this week with the Republican leadership.

A president elected by a movement who has accomplished more with the help of his party in Congress than any president since Lyndon Johnson has ended up demoralizing his movement and party. Go figure.

There are times when compromise is the right thing to do. Credible political leadership earns the flexibility to make deals. A brave leader who fights for things has lots of room to compromise — to, as Ronald Reagan used to say, accept half a loaf. “Nixon goes to China” only made sense because Nixon had spent a lifetime opposing communism.

But when you have only a distant connection to a base of support and no clear principles to stand on, every compromise seems like a betrayal. George H.W. Bush used to grouse that Reagan raised taxes bunches of times and held his party’s support, while Bush lost his for one itty-bitty tax hike. But Reagan had a base that he had carefully and durably nurtured, while Bush did not. Reagan made it good to be a Republican, and the base has stayed loyal to this day.

Obama’s latest deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for a series of much-desired tax breaks for working Americans may yet turn out to be a better bargain than Democrats initially thought. I like to think that he simply could not imagine letting millions of Americans lose their unemployment insurance and was willing to pay blackmailers in order to prevent that from happening. It may turn out to be one of those awful compromises that had to happen, or it may not. But he will pay a tremendous political price within his own party, where there is little belief in his willingness to draw the right line in the sand. Two years of seeking the mythical center at the cost of his actual base are now coming home to roost.

Yet, if Democrats feel depressed and leaderless in Washington, they are jubilant in Sacramento. In the red wave of 2010, California went very blue, as all statewide races went to the Democrats. Added to that, Proposition 25 will allow the legislature to pass a budget on a majority vote (but not raise taxes, which still requires two thirds). Democrats can produce a budget without Republican votes.

Now California Democrats must show that government can work. Much of the so-called “ungovernability” of California has been due to late budgets. Most other states have budget messes, some with bigger shares of their budget in the red than ours (such as Texas), but only California fails to pass any kind of budget when it is supposed to.

Democrats now should have one overriding short-term goal: pass a state budget on time.  It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to resolve every unmet need.

A Democratic governor and legislature will have their problems. There will be many saying that Jerry Brown needs to pick a fight with his party. Hopefully, he won’t make Obama’s mistake and try to go it alone without a base of support.  Schwarzenegger’s governorship showed that it is hard to govern without a party base.

Gray Davis, the last Democrat to have party control, alienated Democratic legislators by publicly stating that their sole purpose was to carry out his vision.

The older and wiser Brown can lead his party without being owned by it. He has the full veto and the item veto if he needs them. He has the bully pulpit. If he stakes out principled positions, he will be very formidable.

Democrats in the legislature must realize that in the middle of the ongoing budget crisis, winning this kind of power is not a blank check. The first compromises will be between liberal and moderate Democrats. But a confident and united Democratic majority might have numerous opportunities to cooperate with Republicans.

With Proposition 25 in place, the pain of budget cuts will be spread everywhere, not just among poor and working-class communities. That may even help change the dynamics of the revenue debate.

California in Democratic hands will be a huge asset to Obama. Building on Schwarzenegger’s support of global warming legislation and health care exchanges, Democrats can demonstrate the value of Obama’s imperiled initiatives. With other states trying to break the administration’s momentum, California can have Obama’s back, whether or not he appreciates this bunch of Democrats coming to his aid.

Maybe the Obama people will be watching and will notice that in politics, peace comes from strength, not weakness, from a unified block of support that has your back. Wouldn’t it be something if Democrats in the nation’s largest state showed their overmatched peers in Washington how it’s done?

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