What's the Left's Answer to the Democrats' Crushing Defeat?
Matt Barretto had good news and bad news for Democrats. They already knew the bad news: Colorado Sen. Mark Udall had been unseated by Republican Rep. Cory Gardner. The good news, which pollster and Latino Decisions co-founder Barretto shared on Wednesday, was that Udall blew it. He was a lost cause, but Colorado wasn’t.
“We asked voters in Colorado if they knew where Mark Udall stood on comprehensive immigration reform,” said Barretto, clicking through slides from his lectern at the National Press Club. “Well, 46 percent of Latinos in Colorado knew that Udall voted for comprehensive immigration reform. Forty-seven percent weren’t quite sure where he stood. Six percent said he was opposed.”
Barretto clicked to his next slide. “We asked about Cory Gardner. Twenty-one percent believed he supported comprehensive immigration reform. Forty percent didn’t know his position.”
Gardner’s position was characteristically hard to pin down. In 2013, before he entered the Senate race, he flirted with comprehensive reform. After the Senate actually passed a bill, he opposed it. He opposed President Obama’s executive action to defer deportations of many immigrants under the age of 30, DACA. But when the House staged a final pre-election protest vote against DACA, Gardner sided with the Democrats.
This proved to Barretto and a whole lot of Latino strategists that Democrats had fumbled on an issue that could have won elections. “We think there was a mistake here,” he said. “There was an opportunity to message on this issue of immigration, to talk about this issue of immigration, and it would have created some clear contrasts. We know that was the strategy in 2012.”
Conservatives have an easy time explaining why they won in 2014. They locate a map. They point to the red parts. Voilà. For progressives, the task of explaining how they could have won is akin to finding just the right magazine letters to cut out and paste in a ransom note.
They’re trying that anyway. As the lame duck session of Congress approaches, progressives are encouraging the president to act unilaterally, frustrate the Republicans, and let the 2016 class of Democrats run as populists. That means a continued war against the Keystone XL pipeline, an executive order to extend deferred action to all illegal immigrants, and a rat-a-tat of vetoes over the Republican Congress.
That means getting the White House to accentuate the differences. Two bitter memories reinforce this strategy. The first: The White House’s quick 2011 accommodation with the Republicans who demanded an entitlement-cutting bargain in exchange for raising the national debt. The second: George W. Bush’s decision to surge in Iraq after a “shellacking” ended Republican control of the House and Senate. Progressives have seen what happens when a president remains unmovable, and they’ve seen what happens with accommodation. Why would he ever want to accommodate again? Why not make progressives as excited in 2016 as the right was in 2014?
“Democratic senators represent five million more Americans than Republican senators,” argued Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org. “There just isn’t a sign that the public wants conservative government. People who ran as progressive champions, people like Sen. Al Franken in Minnesota and Sen. Gary Peters in Michigan, won by big margins. Wherever Sen. Elizabeth Warren went to campaign for Democrats, there were these giant, totally fired-up crowds.”
On Wednesday, at another post-election rev-up, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka asked reporters to look at those same campaigns. He came armed with his own polling data, an election night survey that found a 2-1 supermajority of voters in favor of raising the minimum wage and reducing the power of giant corporations. The problem: A majority, 55 percent of voters, agreed that “politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties do too much to support Wall Street financial interests and not enough to help average Americans.” Clearly, said Trumka, voters agreed with the progressives.
“If a candidate goes out with a strong economic message, and says, ‘Here’s how I’m gonna solve your economic problems,’ that candidate’s gonna do well,” said Trumka. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re a Democrat or Republican. But the economic message that voters heard, they heard stronger from the Republican side than from the Democrats.”
To take Trumka seriously, a lot of Democrats had to be placed under the proverbial bus, and proverbially backed over repeatedly. This process is well underway on the left. The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner and Harold Meyerson were quick out of the gates with columns explaining that the Democrats were too busy distancing themselves from Obama to make popular, left-wing arguments. “With the exception of Sen. Elizabeth Warren,” wrote Meyerson, “who has been plenty outspoken about diminishing the power of Wall Street, the Democrats have had precious little to say about how to recreate the kind of widely shared prosperity that emerged from the New Deal.”
Left unmentioned: Warren campaigned for Democrats who talked about this, and lost. Warren hit the trail for Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes, West Virginia’s Natalie Tennant, and Iowa’s Bruce Braley. She endorsed South Dakota’s Rick Weiland, a cheerful McGovern-esque populist. The total failure of those candidates has not deterred the messaging. Mike Lux, whose firm Democracy Partners worked for Weiland, added to the post-election column pile by chiding Democrats for not doing exactly what these candidates did.
“We should have crafted a message around what this election was about,” wrote Lux. “It should have had elements of a strong economic agenda for hard-pressed women and young voters; it should have painted a picture of the agenda of the Koch brothers and the other big money special interests trying to buy the election on the other side. And you know what else? It should have included a story about the big things the Democrats are doing to help people, all the things I talked about above but also including immigration reform.”
Democratic strategists would argue that they did. The White House would argue that, too – the president’s much-bemoaned, much-replayed comment that his economic “policies [were] on the ballot” was meant to emphasize, well, policies. The day after the vote, progressives stopped asking why Democrats failed to capitalize on ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, and started arguing that the passage of those initiatives gave the go-ahead. They wanted Obama to fight on every front.
“The president has significant leverage,” argued Trumka. “He has significant veto power.”
Progressives want him to use that power to start a fight. The green movement and labor are, as ever, torn on any vote to approve the Keystone pipeline. On Wednesday, Trumka reiterated that the AFL-CIO wanted the pipeline built, while greener progressives planned one more campaign to stop it. The left only came together on immigration, and on the clear political benefits of an executive order coming down as soon as politically possible.
That meant mid-December, after the lame duck Congress finished its work and after Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu won or lost her runoff election. That meant making a call that polled terribly, and that many Democrats would condemn—but that would win Latino voters when they were at risk of revolting.
“It’s like a powder keg,” said Frank Sharry, the president of America’s Voice. “There’s more concern that maybe they’ll try to chop it down more, just because they’re chickenshit. But if they work their way through the punditry, they should remember the old rule: If your opponents don’t want it, there’s a reason why.”
Just a few hours later, the president held a post-election press conference. Progressives watched for any signs of wobbling or compromise. There was none. Twice, when pressed on the possibility of an executive order on immigration, the president refused to rule it out.
“I think that the best way if folks are serious about getting immigration reform done is going ahead and passing a bill and getting it to my desk,” he said. “And then the executive actions that I take go away.” This was not the creaky and familiar sound of accommodation. Progressives exhaled, then went back to worrying.