Which side will Democrats be on? In the 1990s leading senators supported big money against the interests of injured investors, including pension funds. Deviating Democrats included Chris Dodd, Joe Lieberman, Charles Schumer and Joe Biden, to name a few. If they are on the wrong side this time, voters should hear about it.
This tension between liberal economic values and the center-right economics of Clinton is the party's great divide. Clintonistas-in-waiting--awaiting Hillary's White House--still dominate party affairs in Washington. But the facts have changed. Voters expressed their contempt for Republicans in 2006. They did not suggest they want the same behavior from Democrats.
Is the new Congress reflected in economic populists like Senator-elect Jim Webb of Virginia and free-trade critics like Senator-elect Sherrod Brown? Or pro-gun, antiabortion conservatives from the South and Midwest who might pull the party rightward? Both before and after the election, major media, led by the New York Times and Washington Post, repeatedly emphasized that no leftward ideological shift would occur, because Democrats are moving rightward. This was bogus, way too simplistic. It overlooked the fact that 100 or more candidates ran aggressively on liberal or populist economic issues--against unregulated free trade and the offshoring of American jobs, against special interests, corporate excesses and social abuses. The Blue Dog and New Democrat caucuses will expand, but the Progressive Caucus will, too, and will remain the largest--at seventy-one members.
The spin originated with DLC types, and a principal source was Representative Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who recruited many of the candidates. "Emanuel and other top Democrats told their members they cannot allow the party's liberal wing to dominate the agenda next year," the Post reported. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to be in charge, she might not want Representative Emanuel standing at her back.
The party's ideological debate is under way privately at a more serious level. Robert Rubin, the influential former Treasury Secretary and executive chair at Citigroup, launched the Hamilton Project this past spring to head off the rising rebellion within party ranks against corporate-led globalization. He is proposing various measures, but holds fast to "free market" principle: Don't interfere with the global markets and multinationals.
Organized labor has taken up Rubin's invitation to talk and is countering with its ideas for fundamental reforms. Labor leaders do not expect to change Rubin's mind. Their objective is to show Democratic incumbents that they are caught in a serious bind--between their injured voters and multinational investment bankers. Democrats will have nothing meaningful to say to them as long as the party adheres to the economic orthodoxy. They need debate and an aggressive agenda that stanches the bleeding for Americans and saves the global system by reforming it.
Nancy Pelosi has the power to break through the risk-averse habits. She and liberal allies like Representative George Miller are playing shrewd, not reckless politics. But the Democrats don't have forever to establish bona fides with the electorate. A year from now, if the party looks like the same old timid crowd, Democrats will be in trouble of their own making.
This is where activists can develop influence inside Congress. They have to work on persuading Pelosi, Reid and key House and Senate chairs to take the larger risks. The breadth of the Democratic victory gives them license to push a more ambitious agenda. The weak public regard for Democrats gives them an incentive. The House-Senate majorities enable the party to pass a lot of urgent progressive reforms--regulating global warming, for example--that may not become law but would create forward momentum and draw "nay" votes from reactionary Republicans.
Progressives must develop an inside-outside strategy that engages this new Democratic Congress intimately while it rallies citizens at large to add their voices, too. This is going to be a hard, long struggle. Turning around a political party and politics isn't accomplished in one or two election cycles.
But some newly elected Democrats found a smart formula in 2006. Talk to people about their lives and really listen to what people, not polls, say. Then offer solutions, not just rhetoric, that might work. If they learn to do this conscientiously, pretty soon Democrats might begin sounding like a political party.