Matthew Lifson, Columnist
Ideology: Democrat | Writing from: Brown University
On the heels of last Tuesday’s shameful losses, politicos expected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to gracefully step aside to allow the more moderate Steny Hoyer to lead what is left of the Democratic caucus in the next congress. Pelosi’s subsequent announcement that she will run for minority leader has Republicans giddy, but her liberal leadership is precisely what Democrats need to reclaim their majority in 2012.
To those who view the most recent election results as a rebuke of overreaching Democrats, tone-deaf to a centrist and fiscally conscious nation, reinstating Pelosi to the Democrats’ top leadership post appears somewhere on the spectrum from idiotic to suicidal. Such an understanding belies the absolutely false assumption that Americans hold firm political opinions that dictate their voting behavior.
On the contrary, politics is about marketing and storytelling, and Democrats’ midterm losses are the the result of a failure to sell a compelling narrative rather than the details of their policy choices. Since the election of President Obama, Democrats have been unable to articulate a core philosophy grounded in moral principles, a unifying viewpoint that explains their political agenda. They have failed to imbue the word “liberal” with the rich meaning that Republicans have attached to “conservative”.
The source of this communications deficit is that, for the last four years, the Democratic tent has grown too large. Overeager to return to the majority, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairmen Rahm Emmanuel and Chris Van Hollen sacrificed ideological integrity for electability, recruiting politicians who called themselves Democrats but talked like Republicans. These conservative candidates undeniably helped the Democrats reclaim the majority at a breakneck pace, and by a large margin, but the dissonance new members introduced within the caucus sabotaged the Democratic brand.
These cafeteria Democrats picked apart the party platform, each individual discarding planks like abortion rights, gun control, or environmental regulations until it became impossible to find any policy or foundational principles that defined what it meant to be a Democrat. With candidates as different as Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Bobby Bright (D-AL) running on the same slate, it was impossible for Democrats to present themselves to voters as a coherent and sincere party.
Fortunately for Democrats, the Republican wave fell predominantly on those Democrats responsible for diluting the party’s message. Half of the Blue Dog Coalition failed to win reelection while progressive were largely untouched, meaning the makeup of the Democratic caucus will be significantly more liberal than it has been in recent years. As the most prominent liberal in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi is the leader Democrats need to deliver them from the political wilderness.
If this sounds quixotic, remember that this is the exact strategy Republicans used to turn the tables on Democrats after 2008. When then-Senator Obama won 365 electoral votes and Democrats fortified their majorities in both chambers of Congress, Republicans were an endangered species and David Plouffe’s biggest fear for 2012 was Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. Huntsman’s high profile concessions to Democrats on gay rights, immigration, and the environment had created the appearance of a Republican updating his views for more liberal times.
But instead of following the Huntsman’s lead, the rest of the Republican party tacked right and embraced the policies of former outliers like Ron Paul (R-TX), Jim DeMint (R-SC), and Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Senator DeMint famously told the press he would “rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything,” and the rhetoric and candidates Republicans put forth matched that philosophy.
With the almost singular exception of Mark Kirk in Illinois, the GOP fielded extremely conservative candidates, even when that required them to mutiny against currently serving Republicans like Bob Bennet (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Republicans disregarded the political leanings of their intended audiences and nominated tea party-sympathizing, global warming-denying, anti-bailout purists, selecting true believers including Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey to run in traditionally purple districts and states.
Although this coordinated tack to the right lost Republicans a few races, most notably in Delaware and Nevada, the unified front they presented translated into remarkable gains. By aiming for 30 seats, Republicans convinced voters they were worthy of many more. Their synchronized story about Democrats bankrupting the nation, smothering free enterprise, and killing jobs lent the GOP a credibility unrivaled by their discordant opposition. Even when it was untrue, the simplicity and emotional appeal of the their’ narrative allowed extreme conservatives to prevail in traditionally battleground territory.
Instead of conceding policy to Republicans and moving toward the center, Democrats must tap into their progressive roots and defend their record. They need to tell voters how they reformed health insurance, reined in Wall Street, and pulled our economy back from the brink of an intergenerational depression and how they would have limited the influence of special interest money on politics and curbed carbon pollution if Republicans had not voted in line with their corporate sponsors. They need to be Democrats and they need to stop apologizing for it, and Nancy Pelosi is the natural choice to lead the charge.