Tea bags are meant to be tossed out. They are useful, at most, once or twice in their lifetimes. Beyond that, they lose flavor and strength, eventually becoming weak as water itself. If kept around beyond their usefulness, they become unpleasant and even unhealthy, as they start to smell and begin to mold. Or they dry up and eventually crumble. Either way, they become useless.

What’s true of tea bags is also true of teabaggers. However, tea bags are tossed out when they outlive their usefulness. The same can be true of teabaggers, but only if Democrats have the political will to make it so.

“Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive. And don’t ever apologize for anything.”

-Harry Truman, Advice to Hubert Humphrey, NY Times, Sep 20, 1964

Scott Brown is not the new president-elect of the United States. He is not a one-man Senate majority. And while he may be unworthy to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, his election victory — as upsetting as it is for Democrats and progressives — is an opportunity for Democrats to refocus their agenda, shore up their base, and ensure the expansion of their majority in the long term.

This is an opportunity for the democrats to reaffirm the values Obama campaigned on and that Americans want them to embrace (and elected them to promote) and to confront conservatives and teabaggers by exposing them as obstructionists lacking any ideas or desire to solve the problems they, their politics, and their policies helped cause.

To do this Democrats will have to:

  • Remember that they still have a majority — more of a majority than Bush the Younger had when he pushed through much of his agenda — and then act like it.
  • In other words: present a decisive, progressive agenda and own it.
  • Present solutions that are firmly grounded in progressive values, and that directly address the needs and concerns of the other 99% of Americans — not just the wealthiest 1 %.
  • Remind people exactly how conservatives and their policies got us here, and hold them accountable.
  • If conservatives only want to be “The Party of No,” let them. And make them own it.
    • Invite them to offer any ideas they have that (a) haven’t already been tried with disastrous results, or (b) are not so obviously flawed that they will only make things worse. (Like a deficit focus that would mean cutting services at the precise moment Americans are in the most economic pain and need them the most.)
    • When they fail at that, move forward on your without them.

The Economy

There’s little doubt that Obama and Democrats in Congress inherited an economy as neglected and in danger of collapse as any number of vacant, foreclosed homes dotting too many neighborhoods across the country, and just as abandoned as an number of closed, padlocked American factories. Tossing out the teabaggers will require reestablishing a “lived-in” economy that works for all Americans, and that spreads prosperity instead of concentrating it.

“The Republicans believe that the power of government should be used first of all to help the rich and the privileged in the country. With them, property, wealth, comes first. The Democrats believe that the power of government should be used to give the common man more protection and a chance to make a living. With us the people come first.”

– Harry Truman

This means embracing real populism where the economy is concerned, and exposing conservatives as merely exploiting populism as a means to regain some power, without regard for the consequences borne by American families, including their own constituents.

Democrats will ultimately have to answer the same question they should publicly force: Whose side are they on? It’s clear by now that voters aren’t sure that the White House and Democrats are on their side. (And, no, where Wall Street and corporations are concerned, we’re not all on the same side.) For both parties, that means having to choose between campaign donors and constituents. Cynical as it may be to suggest, Obama and the Democrats were major beneficiaries of Wall Street campaign donations in 2008, and have spent 2009 presiding over the same kind of “inverted socialism” that the Bush administration was famous for.

From each according to his need, to each according to his greed. It pains me to say it, because I voted for him, manned phone banks for him, and gave to his campaign, but Obama (in truly flabbergasting cahoots with Goldman Sachs, the Citibank alumni club, and the jet-setting Ivy-League long-range-thinking all stars who love to convene at Aspen, Davos, Sun Valley and other ritzy spas and ski resorts to discuss, over cocktails, the global common good) has managed to perfect, in just one year, an ingenious socioeconomic system that might be called “inverted socialism” and which makes the free-market conservatism it succeeded seem, by comparison, principled and simple.

As though he believes that the best way to redress a ruinous, massive private-sector theft is to rehabilitate the thieves by putting them to work as Cabinet members and high-ranking public policy officials, Obama has licensed the bungling robber barons who managed to gamble away the loot amassed in their attempt to fleece the world to recoup their squandered booty by “borrowing” from the taxpayers and homeowners (lots of them former homeowners by now) the money that they failed to grab the first time — and then lending, with interest, the borrowings back to them!

The cognitive dissonance is too much for voters to bear, as they watch it all play out against the backdrop of rising joblessness, and even increasing poverty in their own communities. Pollster Celinda Lake made this point, placing some of the blame for their loss in Massachusetts on Democrats’ failure to rein in Wall Street and give some relief to Main Street.

Pollster Celinda Lake said Coakley was hampered by the failure of the White House and Congress to confront Wall Street. That failure, she said, means that Democrats are being blamed by angry independent voters worried about the state of the economy.

“If Scott Brown wins tonight he’ll win because he became the change-oriented candidate. Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it. And right now they think they’ve got economic policies for Washington that are delivering more for banks than Main Street.”

The feeling among voters, said Lake, is that Washington prioritizes Wall Street over Main Street and that, despite Coakley’s credentials as a state attorney general who has taken on and beaten Wall Street banks, sending her to Washington would not make a difference. “On the eve of the election, Martha Coakley had a 21-point advantage over Scott Brown on who would fight Wall Street and deliver for Main Street. But it didn’t predict to the vote, because voters thought, even if they sent her down here that it wouldn’t happen. ‘Fine, she had done it in Massachusetts, but no one was doing it in Washington,'” Lake said. “Voters are voting for change and we have to go back to that change message. And we have to deliver on change, especially an economic policy that serves working people.”

Even before Coakley’s defeat — still less than a year into the president’s first year in office — a December 2009 poll showed Americans ranked job creation as the most important task for Congress.

The challenge for Obama’s party, the pollsters say, is presenting policies during the first few months of 2010 that clearly offer the promise of new jobs in an economy in which unemployment has reached 10%.

“It’s still the economy,” Lake said. “If you ask people how they are feeling about the economy, people are very anxious. . . .

“The one most important thing is that Democrats still are winning the vote among people who are most concerned about the economy,” said Lake, longtime Democratic pollster at Lake Research Partners. “The No. 1 thing the Democrats have to do is prove they really have a jobs program and an economic program that is going to sell on Main Street.”

The economy and jobs rank as the most important issue that Congress should work on among 40% of those surveyed. The cost of healthcare ranks as the top issue among just 15%.

Yet another poll, in October 2009, showed that only 13% of Americans believe the “average Joe and Jill,” have been helped by the administration’s economic policies, while a whopping 65% think regular folks like themselves have gotten little or no help.

A paltry 13 percent of those interviewed for the September 2009 survey said that the average Joe and Jill have been “helped a lot or a fair amount” — compared to 65 percent who think regular folks have gotten little or no assistance from the government. Fully 54 percent of respondents said Wall Street investment companies have been helped – and nearly two-thirds said the large banks have been taken care of.

The voters seem to have gotten it about right.

“In relative terms, the perceptions are dead-on: the big winners so far are the bailed-out bankers. Meanwhile on the jobs and housing front, things get worse,” says University of Texas economist James Galbraith. “You can make an argument that everyone has been helped by the fact that the economy hasn’t collapsed even more completely,” Galbraith added, but that does not “cut any ice with the population at the moment. What they see is that a top-down bailout works on the top and doesn’t go very far down. And they are right.”

The handwriting has been on the wall for some time without Congress or the administration taking notice. So, in a sense, November was voters’ way of taking them by the collar and shoving their faces in to it, that they might read it plainly — as plainly as Leo Gerard put it: “It’s the economy, stupid. The Main Street economy.”

We’ve said it a couple of times before: If you want to steal the fire right out from under the teabaggers, deliver real, tangible results right in their own back yards.

Progressives have to begin by understanding that the anger on the right has at least one cause that we’re equipped to address, by organizing to elect progressive leaders and enacting progressive policies aimed at addressing the economic pain, jobs, health disparities, and other problems gripping the whole country – but squeezing some regions more tightly than others.

Understanding, though, is different from pity – something Dr. King clearly understood when he said, “Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.”

…Conservative politicians and right-wing media have done an impressive job of making sure that the failure of the last 28 years is, if not less evident, at least blamed on culprits who are easy to blame, but far from responsible for electing the politicians and supporting the policies that resulted in todays crises and disparities. Progressives, depending on our response, can seal the deal on the right-wing’s campaign to deceive their constituents and deflect their anger.

Create jobs, put people back to work or keep them working, keep them in their homes, and deny teabaggers fuel for their fire by relieving the economic hardship they that exploit in order to increase their influence.

Not only have voters clearly sent you that message, but conservatives have made it easy for you by coming down on the side of Wall Street, loudly denouncing the very same populism they exploited during the election, and comparing their own constituents to stray animals.

Health Care Reform

“I don’t like bi-partisans. Whenever a fellow tells me he’s bipartisan, I know that he’s going to vote against me.”

– Harry Truman

To do the above means means working to passing the best health care reform legislation possible — now — not waiting for Scott Brown to be seated. He, like the rest of his party, is not interested in reform (Otherwise they would have reformed health care during the previous decade, when they held the White House and the majority in Congress. They didn’t.) or in the president or the Democratic party succeeding in any attempt to improve the lives of Americans.

Forget 60 votes. Forget any fantasies of returning to this debate later, expecting it to be less grueling, or the opposition to be less ruthless, dishonest, and downright ugly. Work to get the best possible reform bill out of what you have to work with now. Go to reconciliation if necessary, to improve what you’ve got, pass it, watch the president sign it, declare victory, and then start fighting to expand it — maybe even before the ink dries on the president’s signature.

Failing to accomplish health care reform at this point will be seen as a failure by a broad spectrum of Americans.

There’s evidence that the base is already disappointed and demoralized.

Rather than moving boldly forward with his party’s big majority in Congress, Obama set out from the beginning, on almost every issue, to bring Republicans aboard, seemingly at all costs. It was a fool’s errand since the Republican Party has long defined itself as the party of “no way.” From civil liberties and economic policy, to the war in Afghanistan and healthcare, Obama pandered to conservatives in his first year but has nothing to show for it except headaches for himself and his party.

Simply by virtue of being a Democrat, he has energized the right, which has allowed a fringe movement punctuated by paranoid, racist extremists to speak for it and often for the entire Republican Party. And yet, rather than use this to fire up his own base, Obama only alienated some of his core constituencies, pushing them away as he pursued people who in turn pushed him way.

Not to mention angry over being “dissed” by a president and party they worked hard to elect little more than a year ago

For the first time since 1967-1968, we are more pissed off at our party than at the Republicans. Who expects anything from the Republicans which, in the spirit of its leader, Rush Limbaugh, hopes for the worst for the country?

We certainly are not pissed off at Scott Brown who ran a textbook perfect campaign. He did his job, which was to win and he did it without the usual GOP venom. (And Glen Beck hates him which, I have to say, gives me a little hope).

Underneath the anger Democrats feel is deep disappointment. But it does not come close to the anger that so many feel over the way this first year has turned out.

That means that the President’s first task has to be getting the base back on board. A demoralized base — up against an energized jubilant Republican party — is the ticket to a Republican Congress in 2010.

(Already, there are reports that the young voters — a key constituency of Obama’s base — stayed home in Massachusetts last Tuesday, which does not bode well for Democrats homes in 2012.)

Failing to pass health care reform now will stand as further evidence of a failure to lead that’s already a topic of discussion. And it will mean failing the test of history, and allowing conservatives to claim victory on an issue that belongs and ought to belong to Democrats — when they had eight years to reform health care if they’d wanted to do so — and cast themselves as the party of reform.

Own It

“Men make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

– Harry Truman

Obama and the Democrats must present clear progressive solutions, designed to help middle class and working class Americans, the unemployed, the underemployed, the uninsured and the underinsured, and show how will work to improve the lives and ease the economic pain of many American families. Then they must put conservatives in the position of denying Americans solutions to their increasing economic pain or admitting that they don’t have better ideas.

Democrats should take a lesson from the Clinton administration, and specifically how Gingrich and congressional conservatives shut down the government and only to have it backfire on them. Get out far enough ahead of the rhetoric and messaging to make it all about conservatives saying “No” to real solutions when they don’t have any themselves. Start now, and prevent another 1996.

[Hat-tip to BooMan for the Harry Truman quotes.]

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