What Created the Populist Explosion and How Democrats Can Avoid the Shrapnel in November
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To say that the American people are angry is an understatement. The political brain of Americans today reflects a volatile mixture of fear and fury, and when you mix those together, you get an explosion. The only question at this point is how to mitigate the damage when the bomb detonates in November.
The bad news is that it's too late for Democrats to do what would have been both good policy and good politics (and what the House actually did do), namely to pass a major jobs bill when it was clear that the private sector couldn't keep Americans employed. The "Obama Doctrine" should have been that Americans who want to work and have the ability to contribute to our productivity as a nation should have the right to work, and that if the private sector can't meet the demand for jobs, we have plenty of roads and bridges to fix, new energy sources to develop and manufacture, and schools to build and renovate so our kids and workers returning for training can compete in the 21st century global economy. From having spent much of the last four years testing messages on a range of issues, from immigration to taxes and deficits, I can say with some certainty that nothing John Boehner or Eric Cantor could say could come within 30 points of generating the enthusiasm -- particularly among swing voters -- of a message that began, "We don't have a shortage of work ethic in this country, we have a shortage of work." That message resonates across the political spectrum. And it isn't even the strongest message we've tested in the last weeks or months that beats back the toughest deficit-cutting language the other side can muster.
But it's too late for that. The administration opted for an alternative doctrine, which Larry Summers enunciated on This Week several months ago: that unemployment is going to remain high for the foreseeable future and eventually come down -- as if there's nothing we can do about it -- and that they will push here and there for small symbolic measures whose symbolism tends to escape people who are out of work. It's hard to be excited by symbolism when your children are hungry or the bank is repossessing your home -- although you didn't do anything to deserve it -- while the people who did are once again making out like bandits.
Although the situation looks bleak for Democrats in November, it ain't over 'til it's over. Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot all over the country, running Tea Party candidates who are so far to the right you can't see Middle America from their porch. And some endangered Democrats will likely see victory in November from theirs if they understand the public mood and speak to it.
What is that public mood? It can be characterized by a single phrase -- populist anger -- and it cuts across partisan lines. On the right, it is alloyed with racial anxiety and prejudice. On the left, it is alloyed with tremendous disappointment at what could have been if we had the kind of bold leadership for which times like these cry out. And among people in the vast political center, populist anger is alloyed with anxiety and uncertainty -- about their jobs, their homes, and their children's future.
How to Create a Populist Explosion: A Tragedy in Two Acts
So how did we get here? The story can be told as a tragedy in two acts.
Act I: The GOP Sets the Country on a Course of Economic Destruction and the President Calls for Truth and Reconciliation without the Truth Part