The "enthusiasm gap," the political term of art developed to describe the differing excitement levels of recharged Republicans and disappointed Democrats, is not an entirely false construct. But it is also a strategy. Right-wing pundits and their amen corner in the media have for months been peddling the fantasy that this fall’s election results are a foregone conclusion: after steering off course with Barack Obama and the Democrats, they say, America is certain to veer right. But the big wins by Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries have created openings that Democrats can exploit. And the notion that economic uncertainty and high unemployment will necessarily steer swing voters to the Republicans contrasts with a lot of political history—not to mention logic. After all, people who fear the loss of their jobs do not casually vote for politicians who oppose extending unemployment benefits and talk of doing away with Social Security as we know it. Republican strategists know their best way to win is by convincing potentially Democratic voters that there is no point to casting a ballot. That’s why conservatives are trying so hard to talk us into a 1994 moment, in which Republican turnout surged while union members and progressives, frustrated by a Democratic administration’s compromises, stayed home. The challenge for progressive independents and Democrats (and Republicans of conscience) is to break the spin cycle. To do this, they must recognize the contours of an election season that has twisted and turned radically since it began. To wit:
1. The Scariest Republicans Are Not Necessarily Tea-Stained. Democrats have benefited from the Tea Party pressure on GOP primaries, which has tipped nomination fights toward extreme Senate candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joe Miller in Alaska. But too much attention is being paid to obvious wing nuts. Too little is being paid to crisp and professional, supposedly "mainstream" candidates like Ohio Senate nominee Rob Portman—among Senate candidates, the number-one GOP recipient of Wall Street money this year. An architect of trade policies—as a key Congressional backer of NAFTA and normalizing trade with China and then as George W. Bush’s US trade representative—that have devastated the Midwest, Portman should not be able to show his face amid the shuttered factories of Toledo and Youngstown. Instead, he and other economic extremists, like Washington’s Dino Rossi and Illinois’s Mark Kirk, are generally depicted as relatively benign. That’s wrong. An election in which Angle loses but Portman wins would be just as devastating for working Americans. The Tea Party is unsettling, but economic royalists who present themselves as reasoned statesmen pose the more serious long-term threat to working families. And Democrats need to talk about this threat as much as they do about Sarah Palin and her minions.
2. This Does Not Have to Be the Nationalized Election That Republicans Propose. GOP strategists want a referendum on Obama; but that comes in 2012. The more the president uses his bully pulpit to talk job creation—as he did with a solid Labor Day speech on infrastructure investment and a blunt rejection of tax breaks for the wealthy—the more he helps Democrats. But the instinct of grassroots Dems to defend Obama’s accomplishments is a bad one when Americans think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. In Great Lakes and Midwestern states, where the party faces its most serious potential losses, Democratic Congressional candidates should ditch national party playbooks and talk about changing trade policies to renew manufacturing and protect family farmers.
They should say, as do smart Representatives like Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur and Illinois’s Phil Hare, that they will oppose a Democratic president who is wrong on factory and farm issues. The key is not to go to Obama’s right, where the space is filled, but to embrace a robust economic populism, which is the best counter to the Tea Party’s corporate-sponsored fantasy that government is the problem. This requires different messages in different regions. But wherever they are, Democrats have to understand that when voters are scared and hurting economically, it is absurd to defend the status quo.
3. Social Security Is the Sleeper Issue of 2010. GOP leaders tend to avoid supporting GOP Representative Paul Ryan’s "Roadmap for America’s Future," with its schemes to privatize Social Security and Medicare, but some Republican candidates have embraced it. High-profile contenders, including Alaska’s Miller and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, want to shred safety nets. And the generalized GOP attack on spending steers toward the cut-entitlements cliff. This is not the time for progressives to talk of "reforming" these programs but rather for a no-holds-barred defense of them—and for smart talk about expanding them.
4. State Races Matter. Most governors will be chosen this fall, as will the legislators who redraw Congressional districts. If Republicans retake the House and dominate the statehouses, GOP governors and senators will be able to use the redistricting process to lock in their party’s gains for a decade—especially in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, California and Texas, where substantial redistricting will be required. In these states, winning gubernatorial and state legislative races means just as much as winning national contests. The Tea Partisans know this, so their campaigning blurs the lines between federal and state races, with a sweeping antigovernment message. It’s hard for unions, environmental groups and their allies to counter that message, since they’re defending different programs in different states. But nuanced and effective defenses have to be mounted, not just to preserve essential education and social services that rely on state budgets but to avoid one-party dominance of redistricting.
5. It’s Not Just Candidates. Conservative strategists have poured resources into petition drives to qualify ballot measures that press the hot buttons of the faithful. Thus, initiatives in Colorado, Arizona and Oklahoma are challenging federal health reforms with proposals to prohibit insurance-coverage mandates. Other states will address antiunion proposals and hunting rights, and of course there is Oklahoma’s measure "forbidding courts from considering international law." But the big fights are over taxes. Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington will vote on tax-slashing schemes, while Indiana, Missouri and Virginia will consider constraining taxing authority. Democrats have done a poor job of making the case for government; but public employee and teacher unions—which last year turned back anti-tax proposals in Maine and Washington—can generate turnout that defends services while aiding progressive candidates. This helps their members while at the same time makes an essential contribution to the debate.
6. Don’t Use an Old Map. Some Democratic incumbents, like Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, may be doomed. Some Democratic challengers, like North Carolina Senate candidate Elaine Marshall, are very much in the running. In Alaska, a Senate race that was more or less conceded to the Republicans before a Palin-backed candidate beat the incumbent in a GOP primary, could now be competitive. Progressives must evolve as the year does. They must also recognize that there are races where the best prospects are not Democrats. In Rhode Island some Democrats are already backing independent Lincoln Chafee for governor. And while Democrat Kendrick Meek may be the most progressive contender in Florida’s Senate race, Governor Charlie Crist, a former Republican running as a moderate independent, polls stronger against Tea Party Republican Marco Rubio. The 2010 election cycle has already posed plenty of challenges. This is not the year to go on autopilot. By remaining rigorously conscious of the changing landscape and the opportunities it will present, progressive voters might yet assure that they, rather than conservative pundits, write the 2010 narrative.