News & Politics

It’s Time for a Revolution: Bankrupt Policies, Historic Losses Call for New Generation of Leaders

It's always "Groundhog Day" for Democratic leaders who can't adjust, can't organize and can't win. Let's dump them.

As a wise man once said, never underestimate the capacity of an entire social order to commit suicide. The Democratic Party’s old order is doing it now. It may seem strange but make no mistake, the Democrats’ leaders are already unconscious. If they don’t wake up soon, they’ll go the way of the Whigs. If progressives don’t wake up now, they’ll go with them.

I’ve argued that progressive political movements died at the hands of their leaders; that their death is what caused the political collapse we errantly term “partisan gridlock”; that progressives need a timeout from electoral politics; and that both Democrats and progressives are best served by a return to a more arms-length relationship.

Progressives have long cohabited with Democrats. The relationship, while abusive, is hard for them to quit. Starting over is always scary, and building movements is hard even in good times, so the temptation is strong to keep on doing what they’re doing. Besides, how can you tell the Democrats are really dead? You can’t call in a coroner or poke them with a stick. It’s simple, really. All you have to do is look.

Life is change and these Democrats never change. It’s like watching “Groundhog Day” but without laughs, a love interest or a learning curve. Democrats in Congress ran the same race in 2014 they ran in 1994, lost badly, and then reelected all their leaders. Obama handled the budget this year the same way he does every year, with the same result. Hillary Clinton is poised to run the same awful race in 2016 she ran in 2008.

In 2014 Democrats were supposed to hold a populist revival. Aside from a few tinny sounding ads, they didn’t. Tied to the tracks with a giant locomotive barreling down on them, they couldn’t bring themselves to cut their Wall Street ties and dodge otherwise certain death. Now, after six years of blown chances, they say they’re ready to act as our tribunes and ask us once again to commingle our hopes and dreams with theirs. I say not so fast.

Obama has made more populist gestures in the last two months than in his first six years as president. It’s why his popularity’s rising. Some say it’s the economy, but the economy rose for some time without the middle class or Obama’s ratings being much helped by it. Proposals to fund universal access to community colleges and tax Wall Street speculators to finance a middle class tax cut are catnip not just to the left but to the middle class. The question for us all is whether this populist charm offensive signals real change.

I believe that without a stronger, more independent left the Democrats’ rhetoric will remain just that. Proof is everywhere in the party, but since its congressional wing is its most enduring and influential component it makes sense to look there first. As always, the most relevant comparison is that between words and deeds.

After their worst Senate loss in 34 years and worst House loss in 86 years, not one Democratic leader in Congress got ousted. One can’t help but ask: What does it take to fire these guys? In 1998, Newt Gingrich lost four measly seats and got the ax. They say we should run government like a business — but if you’re a Democratic leader in Congress you can bankrupt the company and still keep your job.

Democratic caucuses are literally run by gerontocracies. This isn’t another misuse of the word “literally.” Senate Leader Harry Reid is 75. Whip Dick Durbin is 70. Their youth ambassador is 64-year-old Chuck Schumer, who has served as chair of the policy committee, vice chair of the caucus and less formally as guardian and protector of the Democrats’ late-life marriage to the barons of Wall Street.

No Senate leaders lost their jobs but Reid did decide, a bit late, to freshen up their images. To achieve the desired effect, he elevated two women to leadership posts: Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren. Progressives were happy about Warren but it’s unclear that Reid meant her to serve as anything more than his ambassador to them. She gave a rousing speech before the December budget vote, but it would seem her fellow leaders weren’t listening.

In the House, Pelosi and Assistant Leader James Clyburn are 74. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is 75. Steering and Policy chair Rosa DeLauro is 71. Caucus chair Xavier Becerra is 56 and in his twelfth term. Next to them, House Republicans look like ingénues. John Boehner is 65. Majority Whip Steve Scalise is 49. So’s Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy replaced Eric Cantor, 51, who lost a primary, a handy means of forced retirement Democrats no longer employ.

The real issue isn’t age but how long they hang around. Steny Hoyer has been the Democrats’ second-ranking leader for 12 years, in which time five Republicans held their party’s second spot. Republicans limit committee chairs and ranking members to three terms. Democrats don’t do term limits. Their preferred method of advancement remains seniority, though junior members may bring challenges.

This archaic practice was recently on display in a contest for ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The candidates were Corrine Brown, 68, an 11-term member from Florida, and Tim Walz, a 50-year-old fourth-term Minnesotan. Walz, the highest ranking enlisted man ever to serve in the House, got strong backing from vets, due less to his résumé than to his dogged committee work. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called his advocacy for veterans “among the most dynamic of any Member of Congress.”

Brown is notably less engaged. An African-American, she was backed by the Congressional Black Caucus, which sent out a Dear Colleague letter claiming the seniority system helps blacks. Evidence on this is mixed but we do know the system helped white Southerners bottle up civil rights bills for a century or so. The VA scandals left Democrats needing to do lots of outreach to veterans. Walz was the perfect choice, but with help from Pelosi and Hoyer, Brown won anyway.

Of course it isn’t really age: 57-year-old Rob Andrews was DeLauro’s co-chair at Steering and Policy until he vanished in a cloud of scandal dust. A Pelosi chum, he signed Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge, helped banks gut laws shielding debtors in bankruptcy, tried to amend the Constitution to ban flag burning and co-sponsored the Iraq war resolution. In the committee, DeLauro handled steering. Andrews was in charge of policy.

In last year’s Iowa senate race, celebrity pig castrator Joni Ernst upset Democrat Bruce Braley. You may recall Braley as the congressman who in the shutdown groused that the House gym had run out of towels. A lawyer, he was caught on tape telling other lawyers if they didn’t give him more money they’d get “some farmer” running the Judiciary Committee. In Iowa he said this. Back in D.C., Democrats sponsored a “populist caucus.” Its chairman? Bruce Braley, naturally.

*

Many Democratic House leaders have roots in a clique of members, consultants and staff that began forming in the late ’80s. Prominent among them were George Stephanopoulos, then floor manager for majority leader Dick Gephardt; Rahm Emanuel, director of the DCCC; Pelosi, elected in 1987; DeLauro, who arrived in 1990, and DeLauro’s husband, the pollster Stanley Greenberg.

Emanuel and DeLauro had been professional fundraisers. Pelosi, wife of a real estate mogul, fundraised only as an avocation but excelled at it. Greenberg gained fame in 1985 via focus groups he conducted of blue-collar workers from which he deduced that Democrats needed a more populist message to win the middle class. It was a talented, highly driven crowd that lacked only a true policy maven. The smart, thoughtful Stephanopoulos came close, but he’s no longer in politics.

Greenberg is a very good pollster. His middle-class populism is a Democratic staple. In practice, it’s something of an ideological shape shifter. He, Emanuel and Stephanopoulos all worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, where it took the form most notably of vows to cut middle-class taxes and “end welfare as we know it.”

It’s easier to milk middle-class resentment than meet middle-class needs, but the reason Democrats so rarely address the distribution of wealth, power or opportunity is that most of their leaders and all of their consultants are so tightly bound to corporate interests. When Emanuel was on Clinton’s campaign, he was being paid by Goldman Sachs. On leaving Clinton’s White House, he snatched up $16 million in a 30-month layover at another investment bank.

I question no one’s integrity. What Rahm did, everyone does, but isn’t that the problem? All top Democratic consultants make most of their money from big business. However principled or smart they may be, they reflect their clients’ views and apply lessons learned in their service. The inevitable result is a campaign like the one we just saw.

*

2014 wasn’t about money. Democrats outspent Republicans in key races and still lost. Though they ran some feeble candidates, it wasn’t about personnel either. Some blame Obama, but his low standing alone can’t account for such a drubbing. Voters were thinking about Obama’s program, not his personality. It wasn’t about him; it was about them, and all the ways they felt politicians had betrayed them.

Early in 2014 a few Democrats saw disaster looming and tried to avert it. In the spring a rump caucus of 20 or so House members met to consider their plight. They recalled running in 2006 on a plan that set out broad goals — raising the minimum wage, getting out of Iraq, defending student loans — but also concrete steps and firm deadlines. It wasn’t the main reason they won, but they thought it helped. Might something like it help now?

Washington, you’ve no doubt heard, is a small town, and word of the meeting spread fast. When Pelosi got wind of it she congratulated the group for showing some initiative. Not really. The idea of members meddling in policy when they should be home memorizing their stump speeches seemed to upset her. At the next caucus she made it clear that while she appreciated their input, this was a job for the consultants.

In July she unveiled a brand-spanking-new 2014 message, like the GOP’s famed “Contract with America,” but dubbed, less snappily, “A Middle Class Jump Start.” You think you never heard of it but you can’t be sure; it’s so forgettable you can’t recall it now and you just read it. Before Pelosi took her first question it was dead, leaving Democrats to wander in a political desert without water or a compass.

Bereft of a platform, they did what they do best; raised boatloads of money; honed wedge issues for constituencies they treat like so many niche markets; filled the air with locust-like swarms of TV ads and geared up their highly mechanized turnout machine to deliver the base to the polls. We know how that went.

They ran the same race everywhere. Colorado’s Mark Udall was scorned for running endless ads on “women’s issues,” but he could be his party’s poster child. He, his opponent and their various fronts ran 60,000 TV ads. One state; one race: 60,000 ads. Udall’s differed little from those all Democrats aimed at blacks, Latinos, students, veterans; any group their pollsters could configure. Voters had other concerns but Udall didn’t hear them, or notice Republicans running as fast as they could from the fight he was bringing. In this too he was like most Democrats.

On Election Day, four red states voted to raise the minimum wage. Some said it proved that if voters paid attention they’d all be Democrats, but it could just as easily suggest that voters see Democrats as insincere and ineffectual. Had Dems raised the minimum wage when they had the votes to do it, more workers would have gotten bigger raises sooner, states would have been spared the expense of holding referenda and Democrats would have gotten all the credit.

It’s a lesson Democrats never learn: Elections turn more on how you govern than on how you campaign. In 2012, pundits wanted Obama to run, Harry Truman-like, against a do-nothing Congress. He couldn’t because Harry Reid ran a do-nothing Senate, blocking any vote he feared might embarrass his caucus. Democrats who never governed as populists ran as populists in 2014 and lost because running on policies you don’t support makes you look like a hypocrite, not a populist.

*

Within hours of the Democrats’ own Dunkirk, Republicans were readying their 2016 cross-channel invasion. Republicans know governing is the key to winning. In Congress they opened with the Keystone pipeline, inflating by tenfold the number of jobs it could create. Next up: a budget that cuts taxes but not defense or middle-class entitlements, the viability of which they exaggerate by a factor of infinity. No one knows for sure what Obama will ultimately do on either front. We do know he has yet to offer a solid rebuttal to GOP propaganda, or a credible plan to grow jobs and lift wages.

How are Democrats in Congress preparing for 2016? It’s a trick question, of course. They aren’t. Apart from re-upping the contracts of their veteran leadership team, their every action mocks the populist image they sought to project in the campaign. It’s almost as if they don’t know we’re watching them.

When Rep. Anna Eshoo, another Pelosi chum, bucked the longer-serving Frank Pallone for ranking member on Energy and Commerce, Pelosi decided seniority didn’t mean so much after all. When Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a very pregnant, double amputee, Iraq war vet backing Pallone, asked to vote by proxy, Pelosi and DeLauro, putative champions of women’s health and workers’ rights, turned her down. The seeming hypocrisy ignited a media firestorm and Pallone won anyway.

One problem is the Gollum-like self-absorption that comes with wearing the ring of power too long. Asked by a reporter about stepping down, Pelosi snapped that no one asked McConnell to quit when he lost, then whined that when she became speaker Time magazine failed to put her face on its cover. Weeks later, Reid rose in the Senate to whimper self-pityingly that he hadn’t been home much lately.

Needless to say, if McConnell had lost the Senate in November, he’d be toast. Pelosi lost and was reinstated by voice vote. Boehner won big and 24 of his members staged a coup. If Reid couldn’t get home it must have been due to personal travel, since his Senate was never in session. Pelosi and Reid caught fire from Jon Stewart but Stewart wasn’t the only one listening in stunned disbelief.

In the lame-duck session, Democrats who ran as populists voted like insider hacks. Every Democratic senator but one voted for Obama’s nominees as ambassadors to Argentina and Hungary. His Argentina choice, Noah Mamet, had never visited the country even as a tourist and doesn’t speak Spanish. His Hungary pick, Colleen Bell, used her confirmation hearing to confirm she knows nothing about Hungary or diplomacy. Mamet is a political consultant. Bell makes soap operas. The sole qualification of each? Bundling millions of dollars for the Obama reelect.

Call it politics as usual, but isn’t that what has voters so angry? And politics as usual ain’t what it used to be. Ambassadorships have always gone to the well to do, but sending Jean Kennedy Smith to Dublin or Pamela Harriman to Paris isn’t the same as dispatching two utter naïfs, one to South America’s third-largest nation; the other to a failing state flirting with Putin and fascism. The cosseting of the rich is more brazen now and more subversive of the public interest, and people hate it.

Worst of all was the Democrats’ complicity in passing a corrupt, shameful budget. Aside from its senseless priorities — wars are winding down so let’s give the military some more dough — it curtailed efforts to slow global warming, restored Wall Street grifters’ ability to shift their losses onto honest wage earners and weakened what’s left of campaign finance laws. Without scores of Democratic votes it could never have passed.

The budget crystalizes a debate Democrats have with themselves every day. On one side are those who decry the compromises they believe led the party to its present impasse. On the other are those who decry the decriers, who say life is compromise and that criticizing Democrats only helps Republicans. It’s a false choice. The issue isn’t whether to compromise but how and with whom.

Democrats thought opposing the budget risked a shutdown. But could Republicans afford to get caught sticking taxpayers with the bill for Wall Street’s next scandal? Within weeks of an inglorious defeat the Dems had a chance to hit the reset button. Instead they gave Republicans priceless cover while making it harder for their own members to go on posing as populists. They bartered their honor and got nothing in return. Someone should tell these “realists” that their compromises are killing them.

In late November Chuck Schumer stopped by the National Press Club to expound on the election. After urging his party to “embrace government,” he said its big mistake was passing Obamacare: “Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them… We put all our focus on the wrong problem — health care…” He said Democrats should “focus on the middle class” and craft “stronger themes” for the next campaign.

With so many reporters on hand it’s odd no one thought to ask Schumer if he understood that health care done right would be the best gift Democrats ever gave the middle class, or had ever considered the possibility that he himself might be part of the problem. Language for the Wall Street bailout came from Citicorp, a Democratic ally in good times. Schumer was all for it. He thinks he can make up lost ground with stronger themes. Some people never learn.

Schumer gets a lot wrong, but credit him at least for speaking up. After their last defeat Republicans tripped over themselves to confess old sins and proclaim new visions. Congress opened with hardly a whisper of any new Democratic strategy or agenda. Instead Democrats prepare for 2016 in their usual way: raising money to pay for polls, to craft ads, to woo voters. Someone must break their tragic cycle of dependency and begin to build a new model of politics and governance. Who will it be? We know for sure it won’t be them. How could it be? They’re practically dead.

 

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

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