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What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November

To say that the American people are angry is an understatement. The only question at this point is how to mitigate the damage when the bomb detonates in November.

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So that is where we find ourselves today: a Democratic Party and Democratic base that is demoralized and unlikely to vote in high numbers in November; a Republican Party that is selling replanted Bushes with tremendous enthusiasm; and a vast political center filled with voters who are utterly confused and unsure who to turn to but certain that things aren't going well.

In January 2009 no one could have predicted that Democrats would be in this predicament today. Perhaps Democrats might lose a few seats lost in an off-year election, but certainly no more than that. We had just seen -- and the American public knew we had just seen -- the most disastrous performance by a president and party in living history, and the American people had elected a tremendously charismatic young president with enormous Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. They had given the president and Congress a strong mandate for whatever kind of change was necessary to get us out of economic free-fall and to put Americans back to work.

But there were red flags already by the end of Obama's first week in office that led me to offer the following advice to the new administration: Tell the story of how we got in this mess or you'll own it. Tell a coherent story about deficit spending. Re-brand government because there's only one story out there now (Reagan's), and it's not one that supports a progressive agenda. Never let attacks go unanswered, because doing so only emboldens your opposition and leads the public to believe that you have no answers to them. And if you throw a bipartisan party and no one comes, don't throw another one. All of what followed has been as predictable as it has been unfortunate. A year and a half later, the White House hasn't consistently done any of these things, although the President is now intermittently doing some of them, and when he does, he does them well.

The question today is whether Democrats can channel the populist anger we are seeing around the country this late in the game. The answer is that we'd better try. Having recently tested messages on economics and jobs, including how to talk about deficits and taxes -- widely assumed to be Democrats' Achilles Heel, particularly now -- there is little question that if Democrats and progressives from center to left simply say what they believe in ways that are evocative, values-driven, and speak to people's worries and anger, many stand a good chance of surviving November, particularly when their opponents have nothing to say other than warmed-over rhetoric about cutting taxes to millionaires and multinationals and fiscal restraint except where it cuts into profits of their campaign contributors. Even the most evocative boilerplate conservative messages fall flat against honest messages that speak to the need to get Americans working again. And on issue after issue, no message is more resonant right now than one that sides with working and middle class Americans and small business owners against special interests, big business, and their lobbyists.

But actions speak louder than words, and Americans want to see action. It may be too late for the kind of jobs bill we should have seen a year and a half ago, but it isn't too late for Democrats to go on the offensive against the Republicans -- virtually all of them -- who opposed extending unemployment insurance to millions of Americans who were thrown out of work by the Republicans' corporate sponsors. It isn't too late for Democrats to contrast their support for the highly popular aid to state and local governments that just saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters, and police all over the country with Republicans' desire to throw them out onto the street. It isn't too late to make a voting issue out of the bill the Republicans are stalling that would give small businesses a fighting chance in an economy stacked against them, and to make clear that one party stands for small businesses, which create 75 percent of the new jobs in this country, and the other party stands for big businesses that outsource American jobs and offshore their profits to avoid paying their fair share of American taxes. It's not too late to pass a bill that would limit credit card interest rates to a reasonable percent above the rate at which credit is made available to credit card companies. It's not too late to pass the first badly need "fix" to the health care reform act to demonstrate to Americans that Democrats mean it when they say this was just the first step, namely a law that stops insurance companies from increasing their premiums by 40 percent while cutting the size of their networks by 50-75 percent, which violates the principles of affordability and choice that were so essential to efforts to sell health care reform to the public. It's not too late to vow to change the rules of the Senate to prevent the use of the filibuster to give every special interest veto power over every important piece of legislation. It's not too late to introduce legislation that's been on hold in both the House and Senate to guarantee fair elections, so that the voice of everyday Americans is heard over the voice of the special interests that finance political campaigns.

 
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