The Democrats can’t win the midterms, but Barack Obama can do it for them

Frank Rich’s column is a must-read today (as it usually is.) He agrees with me, it turns out, that the bleatings of the punditocracy aside, all is not lost for Democrats in November, if their best clutch player, Barack Obama, comes through in the home stretch. More on Rich’s column in a bit.

But first, the central point, which I’ve made before but which can’t be made enough. Right now,  the biggest problem for Democrats headed into November is not Republicans or tea partiers, or even independents — it’s Democrats, who have watched two years of everybody but the little guy getting something, from the banks that George Bush bailed out via TARP, to the auto industry (which got two bailouts, one from Bush and the other from Obama,) to the quislings in their own party who dragged the healthcare bill through insurance industry hell in the Senate; to the Dodd faction that sought to water down their own financial regulatory bill. Democrats see Tim Geithner and Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel and want to throw up. To most rank and file Ds, this is not the change they voted for. These are insiders playing the same insider games and helping “everybody but me.”

Related: The ‘last Democratic optimist’ agrees with me

At the end of the day, that’s what this midterm election is — an “everybody but me” election. Tea partiers think the “everybody” is minorities and immigrants (with their exploding, head chopping babies) and Muslims who want to play basketball in lower Manhattan, who they fear Obama is giving all their shit to. Corporations are funding tea partiers because they fear that Obama will take away their tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas and their government welfare that pays them to do what their companies do anyway, and then they might have on human-sized bonuses, rather than the extravagant, supernatural hauls of the Bush robber baron era. And the corporations, fueled by the “personhood power” of Citizens United, are more than happy to let the low information talk radio crowd, who are already inclined to hate Barack Obama for a number of reasons, be their front line, or failing that, to run for office in the flesh.

THE key numbers in that NBC/WSJ poll are the items respondents said were voting issues, meaning issues that would cause them to oppose a candidate this year:

Voters asked “Would you be Enthusiastic/Comfortable, or Reservations/Uncomfortable, voting for a candidate who”… (third data point is the spread…)

Supports cutting federal spending 61, 28, +33
Voted for extending unemployment benefits 56, 35, +21
Supports repealing the health care reform law 45, 42, +3
Voted for the Wall Street reform legislation 33, 33, 0
Voted for the economic stimulus package 42, 45, -3
Voted for the health care reform law 43, 47, -4
Supports the economic policies of Barack Obama 39, 50, -11
Supported the economic policies of George W. Bush 23, 62, -39
Supports phasing out Social Security and instead supports allowing workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market 21, 68, -47

Note that while the spread for the stimulus and healthcare reform is less than 5 points, the spread for extending unemployment benefits is a whopping 21 points — meaning not supporting that legislation should imperil any Republican running this year. And people are more than three times as sour on someone who supported the economic policies of George Bush (39 point spread) than they are on people who support Obama’s policies (11 points.) And the biggest negative of all? Politicians who support privatizing Social Security. There, the spread is 21 percent positive to 68 percent negative. Jesus, even the brain dead White House political team should be able to figure that one out. People need to know that the president is on their side, and not on the side of powerful interests, and they need to know whose side the Republicans running against them are on. Plain and simple.

Healthcare reform became unpopular, not because people WANT insurance companies to be able to drop them, but because of the illmatic process of passing it, which left a vacuum that Republicans filled with filth, and because people perceived the bill as giving insurance companies guaranteed customers, namely them, at a time most Americans are worried about affording their mortgages, rather than as taking away the ability of insurers to screw them over. The stimulus became unpopular because the White House moved off it so fast they never explained to people what they got out of it — that the road projects and construction they see in their neighborhoods IS the stimulus, or that they’re getting a tax cut this year that’s larger than any in a generation. That’s why Republicans can, without irony, literally send out fundraising appeals touting stimulus projects they voted against. People have know idea these things ARE stimulus projects.

in a recession, the prevailing reflex of most people is to tuck in and protect yourself and your family. This can be truncated as “screw everybody but me.” or “dude, where’s MY bailout?” Democrats have to win back the majority of people, who voted for a change agent in Obama, some of whom are fretting that he and his party got into power, and then took the side of the powerful, who are making out like bandits in this recession while they’re getting screwed. That’s empirically not true, but perception is reality, and that perception is ironically being flogged by the very corporate interests who stand to benefit most from a “Speaker Boehner,” (and their misspelled sign goon squads.)

President Obama seems to have finally found his groove, particularly on the issue of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and there’s evidence Republicans think so too, which is why Boehner appears to be caving on the issue — he fears being made out to be Little Lord Fauntleroy before he can become Little Lord Speaker. Republicans cannot allow this election to become a contest between the middle class and the rich. As a very smart guy named Chris Matthews once said at a speech here in Miami, back in 2004, politics is about where you put the wedge in. If the wedge is between the rich and the middle class, Democrats win. If it’s between the rich and the poor, Republicans win.

Forget all the talk about “class warfare.” It’s a distraction. Capitalism is by nature a kind of class warfare, as corporate interests constantly pull toward less regulation and less power for labor to stand in the way of profits, and labor constantly pushes for more power, more leverage and a larger share of the profits for the working people versus the bosses. That is the central tension of capitalism, and throughout our history, one side or the other has tended to win more victories. The string of victories by the labor end of the spectrum literally created the middle class after World War II. The tension the other way has resulted in the enormous wealth gap that has opened up since the 1980s. (More on that here.)

Democrats should respond to Boehner’s show of weakness by not letting up. The White House should step up its demands to get the middle class tax cuts extended, and dare the GOP to try and stop them. Wobbly kneed Democrats should be brought into line, or left to take care of their own re-elections. In short, make this election about “us,” the little guy — the regular, ordinary, non-CEO American, versus them: the CEOs, the whiny rich, who made money during the Bush recession and still want more. Obama should make the distinction clear, and fight those groups the way their fighting him. He’s got nothing to lose. They already hate they guy.  Let the GOP and the Ben Nelsons of the world take care of Thurston and Lovey on their own.

"Egads, Lovey, what will become of our tax cuts???"

Now keep in mind, this is likely not where President Obama wanted to be. I don’t get the sense that he ran for president to take on the “malefactors of great wealth” (his detractors’ hysterical smears notwithstanding.) But this is where the Bush recession has left him (and us), and he has to pull away from his Harvard and Chicago School of Economics friends and accept the lonely reality that Americans are counting on him to defend them against the powerful interests who always seem to win when they lose. It’s his burden to bear, and he has to take up the cause vigorously, or risk not just losing the Congress, but also his re-election. At heart, Obama is that guy — that community organizer who cares more about the regular Joe and Jane than about Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. But as president, I think he felt it was his responsibility to find balance between the two. Well the corporate interests now allied with Mr. Boehner have taken balance off the table. They are firmly against him. And it’s time to fight back, not just for the sake of his party, but for the sake of the country, which is facing the prospect of a hostile corporate takeover in November.

Rich explains it better than I just did, and his last three paragraphs offer Mr. Obama a solid example of how to get the job done:

As many have noted, the obvious political model for Obama this year is Franklin Roosevelt, who at his legendary 1936 Madison Square Garden rally declared that he welcomed the “hatred” of his enemies in the realms of “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.” As the historian David Kennedy writes in his definitive book on the period, “Freedom from Fear,” Roosevelt “had little to lose by alienating the right,” including those in the corporate elite, with such invective; they already detested him as vehemently as the Business Roundtable crowd does Obama.

Though F.D.R. was predictably accused of “class warfare,” his antibusiness “radicalism,” was, in Kennedy’s words, “a carefully staged political performance, an attack not on the capitalist system itself but on a few high-profile capitalists.” Roosevelt was trying to co-opt the populist rage of his economically despondent era, some of it uncannily Tea Party-esque in its hysteria, before it threatened that system, let alone his presidency. Only the crazy right confused F.D.R. with communists for taking on capitalism’s greediest players, and since our crazy right has portrayed Obama as a communist, socialist and Nazi for months, he’s already paid that political price without gaining any of the benefits of bringing on this fight in earnest.

F.D.R. presided over a landslide in 1936. The best the Democrats can hope for in 2010 is smaller-than-expected losses. To achieve even that, Obama will have to give an F.D.R.-size performance — which he can do credibly and forcibly only if he really means it. So far, his administration’s seeming coziness with some of the same powerful interests now vilifying him has left middle-class voters, including Democrats suffering that enthusiasm gap, confused as to which side he is on. If ever there was a time for him to clear up the ambiguity, this is it.

Read Frank Rich’s entire column here.

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