By Senator Evan Bayh
Published by the New York Times on November 3rd, 2010
Democrats can recover from the disappointments of this election and set the stage for success in 2012. But to do so we must learn from Tuesday's results.
Many of our problems were foreseeable. A public unhappy about the economy will take it out on the party in power, even if the problems began under previous management. What's more, when one party controls everything -- the House, the Senate, the White House -- disgruntled voters have only one target for their ire. And the president's party almost always loses seats in midterm elections.
Nonetheless, recurring patterns of history, broad economic forces and the laws of politics don't entirely account for the Democrats' predicament. To a degree we are authors of our own misfortune, and we must chart a better path forward.
It is clear that Democrats over-interpreted our mandate. Talk of a "political realignment" and a "new progressive era" proved wishful thinking. Exit polls in 2008 showed that 22 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals, 32 percent as conservatives and 44 percent as moderates. An electorate that is 76 percent moderate to conservative was not crying out for a move to the left.
We also overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession. It was a noble aspiration, but $1 trillion in new spending and a major entitlement expansion are best attempted when the Treasury is flush and the economy strong, hardly our situation today.
And we were too deferential to our most zealous supporters. During election season, Congress sought to placate those on the extreme left and motivate the base -- but that meant that our final efforts before the election focused on trying to allow gays in the military, change our immigration system and repeal the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. These are legitimate issues but unlikely to resonate with moderate swing voters in a season of economic discontent.
With these lessons in mind, Democrats can begin to rebuild. Where to start?
First, we have more than a communications problem -- the public heard us but disagreed with our approach. Democrats need not reassess our goals for America, but we need to seriously rethink how to reach them.
Second, don't blame the voters. They aren't stupid or addled by fear. They are skeptical about government efficacy, worried about the deficit and angry that Democrats placed other priorities above their main concern: economic growth.
So, in the near term, every policy must be viewed through a single prism: does it help the economy grow?
A good place to start would be tax reform. Get rates down to make American businesses globally competitive. Reward savings and investment. Simplify the code to reduce compliance costs and broaden the base. In 1986, this approach attracted bipartisan support and fostered growth.
The stereotype of Democrats as wild-eyed spenders and taxers has been resurrected. To regain our political footing, we must prove to moderates that Democrats can make tough choices. Democrats should ban earmarks until the budget is balanced. The amount saved would be modest -- but with ordinary Americans sacrificing so much, the symbolic power of politicians cutting their own perks is huge.
Democrats should support a freeze on federal hiring and pay increases. Government isn't a privileged class and cannot be immune to the times.
The most important area for spending restraint is entitlement reform. Democrats should offer changes to the system that would save hundreds of billions of dollars while preserving the safety net for our neediest. For instance, we could introduce "progressive indexation," which would provide lower cost-of-living increases for more affluent Social Security recipients, or devise a more accurate measure of inflation's effects on all recipients' income.
Democrats should also improve legislation already enacted. Health care reform, financial regulation and other initiatives were first attempts at solving complex problems, not holy writ. The administration's grant of sensible exemptions to the health care bill, permitting some employers to offer only basic coverage, is an example of common-sense, results-oriented fine-tuning.
If President Obama and Congressional Democrats were to take these and other moderate steps on tax reform, deficit reduction and energy security, they would confront Republicans with a quandary: cooperate to make America more prosperous and financially stable, running the risk that the president would likely receive the credit, or obstruct what voters perceive as sensible solutions.
Having seen so many moderates go down to defeat in this year's primaries, few Republicans in Congress will be likely to collaborate. And as the Republicans -- including the party's 2012 presidential candidates -- genuflect before the Tea Party and other elements of the newly empowered right wing, President Obama can seize the center.
I'm betting the president and his advisers understand much of this. If so, assuming the economy recovers, President Obama can win re-election; Democrats can set the stage for historic achievements in a second term. The extremes of both parties will be disappointed. But the vast center yearning for progress will applaud, and the country will benefit.
Evan Bayh, a Democratic senator from Indiana, is retiring from the Senate in January.