Democrats Lost Because They Didn't Fight for Popular Progressive Policies

To win, Obama and the Democrats must be more boldly progressive.

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Stephanie Taylor is cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a 600,000-member grassroots group.

Democrats lost because they didn't fight strongly enough for popular progressive change—like a public health insurance option and a breakup of the big Wall Street banks that sunk our economy.

We commissioned a post-election national poll of those who voted. It showed that the 2010 electorate was much more conservative than the 2008 electorate. Many Democrats didn't show up. Neither did many independents who voted in 2008 for President Obama. Why not?

[See editorial cartoons about the 2010 elections.]

Because many who voted for "change we can believe in" no longer believed that Democrats would fight for that change. Consider what happened during the healthcare debate. A June 2009 New York Times poll showed that 87 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of independents, and half of Republicans favored a public option. While the beltway pundits counseled Democrats to run away from "the left," the policy supported by progressives was clearly the "center" of the country. Those who opposed the public option were on the fringe, out of touch with the mainstream.

Public option opponents included GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Obama won those states by about 20 points in 2008, and voters there supported the public option by more than 2 to 1. Obama could have used his bully pulpit to pressure these senators—by flying to Maine and Connecticut to command local media attention, rally voters, and ask people to contact their senators. He could have fought, but he didn't. Lieberman later boasted that even in private meetings, Obama and administration officials never brought up the issue.

[See editorial cartoons about the Republicans.]

By refusing to fight for the public option, Obama demoralized and disappointed the base—including independents. And it's happening again as he refuses to fight for Social Security and toys with breaking his promise to "repeal the temporary Bush tax cut for the wealthiest taxpayers."

Our poll asked those who voted how to reduce the deficit. Even among this Republican-skewed electorate, 43 percent said we should tax the wealthy, 22 percent said cut military spending, and only 12 percent said cut Social Security. Yet Blue Dogs and corporate-funded think tanks like Third Way urge Democrats to do the opposite of what is popular and right.

During our election work this year—in which we raised millions for progressives and partnered with Democracy for America to call over one million voters—we heard from people like the Virginia woman frustrated that her Democratic congressman voted for the anti-choice Stupak amendment; the unemployed Florida father who wanted Democrats to create more jobs; the New Hampshire small-business owner who didn't think Democrats did enough to hold Wall Street accountable. Folks like these voted Democratic in the past but didn't feel motivated to do so in 2010.

[See photos from the campaign trail.]

We live in a center-left country, which isn't reflected in our government or in the timid, conservative elements of the Democratic Party. In poll after poll, most Americans support programs like Medicare and Social Security. They worry about the economy and banks on foreclosure binges. They want their kids to go to good schools and breathe clean air. They want more democracy and less corporate control.

But when Democrats don't govern courageously, boldly, and progressively, they alienate their base and don't even start to make an argument to self-identified moderates and conservatives for their support. It's the tragedy of the Democratic Party, and it will go on and on, cycle after cycle, unless the party as a whole starts acting and legislating differently. And that must start at the top.

Read why Democrats should worry about the center, not the left, by Democratic representative and the Blue Dog Coalition's cochair for communication Jim Matheson.