Remember Osama bin Laden? Anyone who thought his death would determine the 2012 elections only had to wait a few weeks for the story to disappear and the bad new job numbers to remind us that the economy is still the main issue in American politics. The 2012 election is certainly looking more competitive.
Democrats are feeling upbeat for the first time since their shattering 2010 defeat, and it’s mainly because of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare as we know it. Democrats have already picked up a Republican congressional seat in New York state and are running ads around the country against Republican House members who were foolish enough to vote for the Ryan plan.
But with a struggling economy, Democrats will have no choice but to do more. They will have to pick a side on the economy and defend their own ideas and their own record with vigor and courage.
I give Republicans credit. Despite all the noise about birthers and the other mishegoss, the Republican Party in Washington has remained true to its one heartfelt commitment: to ensure the welfare of the wealthiest individuals and corporations. They will fight for it. They will lose battles for it. They will trade away things that should matter to them in order to protect it. Remember how much they gave up in the post-election negotiations with President Barack Obama in order to keep the tax cuts for the wealthy?
Despite evidence that the stock market does better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones, the wealthy and corporate America know that the true protectors of their interests are the Republicans. They know that Republicans will risk public ire and political attack to preserve their base. And so the base pours cash and energy into electing as many Republicans as possible to office. Does the Democratic base have that kind of confidence in the Democrats in Washington?
Democrats in Washington must look beyond the Beltway to envision those Americans who are invisible in official Washington — the forgotten people: the unemployed worker in Ohio, the elderly Floridian worried about retirement but also about his or her children’s economic prospects, the homeowner in the Inland Empire whose home’s value is under water. The president needs to publicly use all available executive authority when legislative action to help these people is blocked. Amid all the rhetoric, it’s hard to get a message through to the Democratic base, but it can be done.
This has nothing to do with ideology. The great internal battles of the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s were about keeping divisive social issues, such as abortion rights, from obscuring the party’s basic economic mission. Today, those social issues are no longer at the top of the nation’s issue agenda. The payoff was supposed to be a Democratic Party that could stay on message and speak boldly about the economic needs of most Americans. Hopefully, the political necessity of defending their turf in a struggling economy will bring the Democrats together to deliver on that promise.
When the state of the economy doesn’t speak unambiguously on its own, as it did in 1964 and 1984 for Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, only clear messages can win.
The Democratic Party does not need to be more liberal or more centrist. It needs to be more confident that its economic ideas and record are better than those of the Republicans. Democrats must be willing to fight, even if they lose some battles, over these ideas. Their commitment must cut through the fog of public discourse.
For Obama, this means recognizing that what elected him was not a vague promise of hope and change, as appealing as that was, but a bad economy, for which he and his party offered better solutions than the other side.
If his appeal in his first run for president was that he was more cutting-edge in a cultural sense, a cool and cerebral minority candidate with an inkling of where the new century was heading, it’s time now to move away from the rhetoric to address the immediate problems that people have paying their mortgages and planning for retirement while hoping that their ill health won’t sap all their savings and security. It’s time to talk directly to the students who have no idea how to pay for college. These practical concerns, juxtaposed against lofty aspirations, remind me of Woody Allen’s line: “I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife, but I’m bringing along a change of underwear just in case.”
Obama’s difficulty up until now in winning over white working-class and elderly voters certainly has had a lot to do with race and culture. But the road to bringing them into his camp will be fixing the economy and delivering a concrete focus on their day-to-day needs.
In the morass of public debate in this country, it will take a simple message to cut through the noise. Obama’s administration already has taken concrete steps, and he needs to remind the voters of what he has done every day. And he will have to clearly and consistently make the comparison to what the other side is offering. This will go against his own desire to blur differences to win compromises, but that won’t work if he wants to be re-elected.
The Democrats must show the forgotten people that somebody really is watching out for them.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.