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A sweeping loss, and two years of angst and frustration after people felt so hopeful, generates a lot of interesting conversation (as well as quite a bit that isn’t interesting at all- but I’m not here to talk about that). There is discussion of how to come back; discussion about shaking up leadership at the White House or Capitol Hill; there is all the positioning palaver I have written about (although that is mostly in that uninteresting category); there is talk of the need for a new economic strategy. And on the edgiest side of things, there is talk about a primary challenge for Obama, and even a 3rd party effort. A lot of this is just blowing smoke, of course, getting people’s frustrations off their collective chests. But some currents are interesting and worth exploring.
On the 3rd party issue, the fascinating thing is that I am hearing very little of this discussion coming from my lefty friends, who the conventional wisdom would leap to assume would likely be talking about it. I think Nader actually getting enough votes in Florida to elect Bush was an experience that has definitively shut the door on 3rd party challenges for at least another generation, as it became real damn clear after that election that, yes, there would have been some differences between Bush and Gore on a few key issues. The 3rd party stuff is coming instead from a certain kind of centrist. Michael Bloomberg is the most likely candidate (and arguably the reason for a lot of the conversation). This kind of 3rd party centrist is far removed from the Ross Perot style of centrist, although like Perot, Bloomberg would be a big self-funder and would probably talk a lot about deficits. Perot was more of a populist, though, with his opposition to NAFTA and his appeal to working class white men. The chatter about 3rd party challenges now comes from what Matt Miller, one of its leading proponents, describes as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” types. I’m not sure what exactly is meant by fiscally conservative. I consider myself one because I don’t like wasting government money on stuff like no-bid contracts, subsidies to agribusiness, and loopholes for bankers, but I’m guessing my kind of fiscal conservatism is not what Matt has in mind.
This kind of 3rd party challenge is of the high-minded “politics-is-broken” school. I’m thinking of people like Bloomberg himself of course- a corporate CEO type who is a liberal on issues like gun control and abortion rights, but doesn’t mind the anti-middle class stuff the deficit commission co-chairs are proposing. Come to think of it, Deficit Commission co-chairs Bowles and Simpson would be the kind of folks at home in this party. I’m also thinking of people from the past and present such as Paul Tsongas, Lowell Weicker, Bill Bradley, Bob Rubin, Lincoln Chafee (and his father John before him), Charlie Crist, Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe, Gray Davis and his successor Ahnold, Peter Orzag, Tim Geithner. I think such folks could all be very happy in a political party together.
A centrist party like that would be the ultimate test of Mark Penn’s old theory that the most important demographic group in American politics, the premier swing voters who all politicians should try to appeal to, is the “office park dad”- upper middle income suburbanites who aren’t very angry at corporations because they work in management positions at them, or are lawyers and sub-contractors for them, and whose biggest issue is caring deeply about balancing the budget. This has for at least a generation been the DC centrist version of the middle, precisely because the power brokers in DC fit with this demographic so well. Many of my friends argue that such a third party would hurt Democrats, but I’m a lot less sure about that simply because having such a party would clear the way for pretty much forcing the Democratic Party to become one that would once again unapologetically be for the middle class, which is where I think by far the biggest swing vote segment in American politics actually resides.
In my mind, being for the middle class is not exclusive of being for poor people – I am for helping everyone in the other 98%, as my friends at MoveOn would put it. But I am for having a party that is unapologetic about focusing on helping expand and build and promote the American middle class. I am for expanding poverty programs and raising the minimum wage and a strong public education system in poor neighborhoods and a path to citizenship for immigrants because I want them able to join the middle class. The greatest years in American history in terms of the living standards for most Americans were the three decades after the New Deal and World War II. In those years, the labor movement, the GI Bill, the financial stability caused by FDR’s financial regulation, the minimum wage, Social Security and the rest of expanded safety net, the building of the interstate highway: all of these things promoted steadily rising prosperity and the biggest, most stable and secure middle class in the history of the world.
My party, the political party I happily associated myself with and worked to promote before I could even vote, the Democrats, were the party that promoted the idea of a strong and secure middle class, and a hand up to the poor so more of them could join in that American dream. But right now, there is no party whose clear and abiding mission is to promote and support and fight for that American middle class. The Republicans do their faux populist anti-intellectual schtick to get working and middle class votes, but all of their policies are unapologetically on behalf of the wealthy and powerful. The Democrats are split down the middle between the Rubin economics acolytes who believe that the best way to build a good economy is to make sure the big banks are healthy, and those of us progressive populists who fight on behalf of the middle class and the poor- that other 98%.
The nice thing about Bloomberg running, and spending 200 million or whatever to do it, is that it would force Democrats to make a choice, and with Bloomberg taking up the pro-corporate space, open things up for a full throated campaign on the side of middle class workers and families. But whether Bloomberg runs or not, the Democrats don’t have much hope unless they choose the side of the middle class. The exit polls could not have been clearer that the voters we lost in 2010 were primarily those working and middle class voters who have been hammered by this recession, and they are going to keep voting against the party in power until they find someone who will start fighting heart and soul for a better life for them. This mushy sometimes-with-the-bankers, sometimes-with-the-middle-class thing isn’t working, and the real swing voters, as opposed to whatever it is the DC centrists are talking about, are the populist working class folks.
The high school I went to in Lincoln, NE, was 3 blocks from the biggest factory in town, and we were known as the gearhead school- the kids who loved cars and knew how to repair them, kids who went hunting with their dads on the weekend, kids who were going to work at a factory or construction job, or maybe join the armed forces, when they got out of school. They are now in their early 50s, most of them having worked hard their whole lives, with little saved up for retirement and a house that has droped in value. Their most fervent hope is to be able to keep working until they are 65 so they won’t be a burden on their kids, because their kids are struggling to fine economic security as well. I want a political party that unapologetically fights for those kinds of folks, that puts their economic needs at the core of their party’s agenda, and that will prioritize what they need over what the big money lobbyists in DC want. And here’s the deal: that kind of party, the party the Democrats were in their heyday in the years after the New Deal when their mission was building the middle class, would actually win a lot of elections. Is becoming that party again, unequivocally and passionately, too much to ask the Democrats for?