Just as the Republican Party conducted its much-discussed “post-mortem” in the wake of its electoral defeats in 2012, the Democrats are doing the same following their drubbing in this month’s midterms. On Tuesday Chuck Schumer, the senior senator from New York, explained how Democrats “blew the opportunity” to gain the public’s trust not once, but twice during President Obama’s presidency.
However, he said he still believes that a generation-long electoral majority is within Democrats’ grasp as early as 2016 – as long as everybody does what he tells them to do.
In remarks delivered at the National Press Club, Schumer pressed his party to adopt a sort of limited populism aimed at convincing voters that a Democrat-controlled government is their best protection against the predations of big business and powerful interest groups.
“In order to win in 2016, Democrats must embrace government; not run away from it,” he said.
Citing the decline of middle class incomes over the past decade, he said, “The public knows in its gut that a strong and active government is the only way to reverse the middle class decline and help revive the American Dream.” While Republicans would argue that is far from an obvious truth, Schumer pressed on.
He was pointedly critical of the way his party has performed during periods when Democrats had strong political advantages. Going back to 2009, when the Obama administration had just been ushered in by hopeful voters and the Democrats held both Houses of Congress, Schumer said the party moved in exactly the wrong direction.
With the economy in recession, he said, the focus should have been relentlessly on improving life for the middle class. “Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them,” he said. “We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem: health care reform.”
While defending the Affordable Care Act as good policy, Schumer presented it as dumb politics. Noting that most of the benefit of the law targeted “about 5 percent of the electorate,” he said, “To aim a huge change in mandate at such a small percentage of the electorate made no political sense.”
The battles over Obamacare fed into a public perception that government was not addressing the problems of the middle class, he said, and led to the Tea Party wave election in 2010.
The Democrats were handed another chance in 2012, he said, but again dropped the ball on the way to 2014. “This time, Democrats offered no underlying explanation of a new government agenda that would change peoples’ lives and make them better.
In addition, he said, the Democrats’ defeat in 2014 could be traced to a number of other failings. In late 2013, the party was ascendant. Republicans were reeling from a government shutdown that turned the public against them until the rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s healthcare exchanges saved them.
“Unfortunately for us, the shutdown was followed shortly thereafter by the disastrous rollout of the online exchanges; the rollout was a glaring example of government’s ineffectiveness and became the perfect anecdote for the Republicans’ anti-government argument.”
Compounding the problem, Schumer said, were problems at the Veterans Administration, the initial response to the Ebola, and the surge of undocumented minors crossing the southern border “fairly or unfairly served to illustrate the inability of government to solve problems.”
Schumer, who chairs the Democratic Policy Committee and has significant influence on the Party’s philosophical and strategic direction said that right now, the first order of business is making the public receptive to the party’s message again.
“Right now, the American public is so cynical about government that a Democratic, pro-government message would not be immediately successful,” he said.
Schumer laid out a two-step plan meant to get his party back into the public’s good graces.
The first step, he said, is to speak up forcefully and often about what voters perceive as injustice in the system. “To borrow President Clinton’s phrasing: We must first prove that the era of big corporate influence over government is over.”
From the failure to prosecute Wall Street bankers after the financial crisis to the increase in wage inequality, he said, Democrats must “rally people to the view that a strong government program must be implemented.”
He added, “Only then…can we embark on the crucial second step which will cement a pro-government majority: proposing and passing legislation that is effective and acutely focused on reversing the middle class decline.”
Left unclear was how he expects legislation reflecting Democratic priorities to get through the Republican-run Congress any time in the next two years.
Schumer described the road ahead as a difficult one for Democrats, but said, “We don’t have to hurry, because Republicans are neither willing nor able to fill this void.”
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