This is an expanded version of Sanders’s comments in the print edition.
One year ago the nation gave a collective sigh of relief as the worst and least popular administration in modern American history came to an end. Not only was the Bush administration heading out the door, but the Republican Party was reeling from two consecutive elections in which it suffered massive losses at all levels.
With a huge taxpayer bailout attempting to prop up a reckless and greedy financial system on the verge of collapse; with 700,000 workers a month losing their jobs in the worst recession since the 1930s; with the continuation of a war in Iraq that we never should have gotten into; with a rapidly increasing national debt caused largely by that unpaid-for war as well as tax breaks for the rich; and with the continued refusal to address or even acknowledge the crisis in global warming, the American people were ready for change.
In Senator Barack Obama, Americans at every level reached out to an inspiring young leader who, through a brilliant campaign, brought enormous energy into the political process. Young people who had never given much thought about elections were not only registering to vote in record-breaking numbers, but their newly tapped idealism was leading them to actively participate in the campaign. Workers and their unions, who were victims of corporate greed and the ongoing collapse of the middle class, were determined to elect political leadership that represented ordinary Americans, not just the wealthy and large corporations. Women, who had battled for eight years to maintain the reproductive and legal rights they had struggled for over generations, were eagerly awaiting an administration that was on their side. Seniors, who were tired of hearing about Republican efforts to privatize Social Security and Medicare, wanted a president who understood the importance of those vital federal safety-net programs. And minorities and people of color, some of whom had experienced the hurt and humiliation of American apartheid, were ecstatic that the dream of a nondiscriminatory society was taking a giant step forward. The result: with a strong voter turnout, Barack Obama was elected president; the Democrats picked up twenty-one seats in the House and seven in the Senate (eight by the time Al Franken survived a recount and court challenge).
That was then, one very long year ago. Where are we now?
Today, having already experienced decisive losses in governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia, the Democratic prospects for 2010 appear bleak. Polls show President Obama’s approval numbers sagging and some recent “generic ballots” show Republican candidates ahead of Democratic candidates–a huge turnaround over the course of the year. Perhaps most ominously, these new polls show that enthusiasm and interest in voting among Republicans is far higher than with Democrats. Given that off-presidential-year elections (voter participation could fall by 50 million this year compared to 2008) are often dominated by older and more conservative voters, a particularly low voter turnout among Democrats this fall could result in disaster for them. Why has this occurred? What can be done within the next few months to turn this scenario around?
In my view, the Democrats–including the president–have absurdly continued to stumble along the path of “bipartisanship” at exactly the same time the Republicans have waged the most vigorous partisan and obstructionist strategy in recent history.
Instead of making it clear that the first two years of the Obama administration would be about digging the country out of the incredible mess that Bush’s eight years left us in, (deep recession, financial collapse, record-breaking deficits, disintegrating healthcare system, two wars, lack of respect from the international community, neglect of the environment), Obama, incredibly, has enabled tens of millions of Americans to now believe that Bush’s failures are his as well.
Unlike FDR in 1933, who consistently denounced Hoover’s Republican policies as the cause of the country’s perilous condition, Obama appears very reluctant to be partisan and point out to the American people the cause of our current crises. Can one imagine Obama, for example, telling the American people as Roosevelt did in 1936, “I welcome” the “hatred” of the “economic royalists” whose greed has devastated the country?
In response to Obama’s genteel and bipartisan outreach, the Republicans have undertaken an unprecedented campaign of rhetorical savagery. The Right-Wing Echo Chamber of Fox News and talk-radio has implied that Obama is an “illegitimate” president not born in the United States, that he is a friend of terrorists, that he is an antiwhite racist, that he rules unconstitutionally and that his administration reeks of Chicago-style corruption. And those are the respectful attacks!
In the overwhelmingly Democratic Senate the situation has been equally dismal. There, the Senate Finance Committee created a Gang of Six that included three Republicans–two of whom (Grassley and Enzi) are extremely conservative–to determine the shape of healthcare reform. Amid cries of “death panels,” “socialized medicine” and “government takeover of health care,” the meetings dragged on and on. On the floor of the Senate, the situation has been even worse. The Republicans have played the most obstructionist role ever with a record number of filibusters and other delaying tactics. The Republicans recently even voted temporarily to deny funds to our troops in the field of combat as a way to delay healthcare reform. They are also unanimous in opposing the increase in the debt limit, which if not raised would likely cause the collapse of both the American and the international financial systems.
The result of all this is that Democrats of every stripe and many independents are perplexed, dispirited and sometimes disgusted. Constituency after constituency has been ignored or rejected. Some examples:
Progressive activists are angry that a Medicare-for-all single-payer approach was totally ignored during the healthcare debate. They also cannot understand how, despite overwhelming support for a strong public option in healthcare reform, there will not be one in the final bill. Trade unionists, many of whom voted for Obama and against McCain because of the latter’s position on taxing workers’ healthcare benefits, are apoplectic that Obama and Senate Democrats now support the McCain position. Women are outraged that the Democratic House was put in the position of having to support major restrictions with regard to abortion rights. And seniors, who for the first time in forty-five years will not be receiving a Social Security cost of living adjustment, are responding to the hypocritical Republican attacks about “cuts” in Medicare.
Now, I may not be the greatest political strategist in the world, but I don’t know how you win elections by ignoring the ideas of the progressives who have worked hardest at the grassroots level for your victories, or the trade unions that have provided significant financial support and door-to-door volunteers for Democratic campaigns. I don’t know how you succeed politically when you insult women, who far more than men consistently provide you with great margins of support. How do you preserve a big majority in Congress when you fail to be aggressive in protecting the interests of seniors, a huge voting bloc in off-presidential-year elections? In other words, it should not surprise anyone that the Democrats are in serious trouble.
The time is short but I believe that the Democrats still have the potential to reverse their fortunes and bring out large numbers of their voters in the coming election. Here are some important steps forward that I believe should be undertaken in the coming months.
§ Perhaps most important, let Obama be Obama. Bring back one of the great inspirational leaders of our time, who is more than capable of taking on the powerful special interests and rallying the American people toward a progressive agenda and a more just society. We have too quickly cast aside the audacity of hope as being too audacious. We need to aspire to more, not less: healthcare for all, education for all, a secure retirement for all, a world at peace and a nation bound together by looking out for what the Constitution called “the general welfare” rather than a series of special interests looking out for their own financial wellbeing.
§ Pass the strongest healthcare reform legislation as soon as feasible – making it clear that it will be significantly improved in the near future. While it was a tragic mistake to believe that a strong bill could pass under the provision that required sixty votes–there was a procedural route that would have required only a simple majority–this legislation does contain a number of provisions that will profoundly help tens of millions of Americans in every state in the country. It is a bill that can be successfully defended in a campaign because, whatever its many weaknesses, it is an indication that we are finally, after countless decades of futility, moving forward. A president and a party that can provide insurance for 31 million more Americans is far preferable to most voters than a party that only says “No.”
§ Pass a major bill that creates millions of new jobs rebuilding our infrastructure and moving our energy system in a different and sustainable direction. At a time when we have the most inequitable distribution of wealth and income of any industrialized nation, this bill must be progressively funded. This means taxing the super-rich–the very people whom George W. Bush served so assiduously–in order to make life better for the average American family.
§ Pass legislation allowing workers to have the right to join unions without unfair and illegal opposition from their employers. If we are going to reverse the race to the bottom, workers must have the right to engage in collective bargaining.
§ Boldly address the economic and financial crisis, which has left 17 percent of our workforce unemployed or underemployed. This means that the Democrats must be prepared to take quick and decisive action against Wall Street and other Big Money interests, whose uncontrolled greed have lowered our standard of living and wreaked havoc on the middle class. Among other actions, we should: pass a strong anti-usury law that limits the interest rates that banks charge on credit cards. We must break up the huge financial institutions that are “too big to fail”–if they are too big to fail, they are too big to exist. We must significantly increase transparency at the Federal Reserve, and replace chairman Ben Bernanke, a major economic adviser in the Bush administration, with a progressive economist who understands that one of the Fed’s core missions is full employment. We must either limit, or levy high taxes on, the bonuses paid by financial institutions.
§ In the midst of these terrible economic times, we must continue the effort, which Democrats have already pushed, to strengthen the safety net. If the Republicans oppose these efforts, we must make this a major campaign issue. Millions of Americans face unemployment, hunger, homelessness and a desperate existence. This includes senior citizens living on inadequate Social Security benefits, people with disabilities and disabled veterans. In these difficult times we cannot turn our backs on them.
§ Enact Senate reform. It is extremely undemocratic that forty-one percent of the US Senate can thwart the will of the American people, the president, the House of Representatives and a strong majority of the Senate. While individual senators will always have great clout, no one senator should be able to bring the U government to a halt at one of the most perilous periods in American history.
In January 2009 we inaugurated a new president and swore in a new Congress with large Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House. Our nation seemed poised on the brink of a decade of progressive government, a new ascendency of hope and change after eight disastrous years of Republican dominance. One year later the new electoral majority is disintegrating under the weight of continuous Republican attacks and, more important, an unwillingness of both Congress and the president to rally the American people behind the kind of fundamental changes they were anticipating as a result of the election.
We can learn from the past. The last time our nation faced economic challenges as great as our own, Franklin Roosevelt embraced progressive social policies and major financial and economic reform. The nation did not ignore or forget his commitment to help American families, provide aid to the disadvantaged and take on the moneyed powers of Wall Street. Roosevelt’s greatest political legacy was to build a coalition of Americans from across the country who understood that, if they stood together under a progressive banner, life could be better for the average person. Now is the time to remember that lesson.