No one needed a surprise result from Massachusetts or unexpected Congressional retirements to figure out that the dynamics of the 2010 election season are volatile. With an unstable economy, an ill-defined "war on terror" and polls showing Americans who thought the country was steered off course by Republicans now think it’s headed in the wrong direction under Democrats, this is shaping up as a wild race through uncharted territory. For progressives–as frustrated by Democratic compromises and missteps as they are frightened by the extremism of a reconstituted right and suddenly swaggering Republicans–it’s an unsettling moment.
With Washington Democrats wrangling among themselves and spinning off-message, and with Republicans shape-shifting with agility, it’s easy to imagine the worst. But the 2010 cycle, while complex and demanding, need not be a nightmare for us: it should be understood as a multi-tiered challenge with opportunities to get things right. Here are seven ways to think about the fight for Congress and the statehouses:
1. It’s Not About Sixty Senators. The obsession in 2009 with building a caucus big enough to thwart Republican filibusters made it seem like a substantial Democratic majority was meaningless. Democrats handcuffed themselves by adhering to rules that gave power to "moderate" Republicans, corporate-toady Democrats like Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and Montana’s Max Baucus, and Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman. It’s unlikely that a GOP tidal wave will shift control of the chamber, but it is equally unlikely, given the retirements and incumbent vulnerability, that Democrats will get to, let alone beyond, sixty. Worrying about either scenario is madness. For progressives, the point should be to make the Democratic caucus more left-leaning and activist. Don’t fret too much about the fate of Southern and border-state compromisers (Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln, Indiana’s Evan Bayh). Worry about re-electing progressives like California’s Barbara Boxer and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold. Think about helping progressive, or at least mainstream, Democrats win seats vacated by GOP incumbents in Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio. The point is not merely to elect Democrats but to forge a caucus that is less tied to the old ways of doing things and more inclined to scrap antidemocratic Senate rules and start governing.
2. Don’t Just "Keep" the House; Make It More Populist. President Obama’s State of the Union address noted that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House has done a far better job of passing legislation than the Senate. But it wasn’t easy. Blue Dogs and New Democrats erected every obstruction they could. This year they’ll try to suggest that the only way to "save" the House is to run to the right, while their consultant allies will peddle the fantasy that the best response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling allowing corporations to spend more freely on elections is to be more business-friendly. That would be disastrous. The Democrats’ greatest vulnerability is not in the South, where Blue Dog seats are in play (and will in many instances be lost), but in the upper Midwest and the Northeast, where Democrats must preserve recently won seats representing hard-hit manufacturing towns and farm regions. Whether or not the White House is prepared to deliver it, the most effective message for Democratic incumbents–and challengers for the thirty-four Republican-held districts that backed Obama in 2008–is a progressive populist one that emphasizes job creation, smart farm policy and radically altering trade rules that have battered the heartland and the Northeast.