Guest commentary: When the scapegoating subsides

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Some Democrats will blame President Obama for their party’s defeat in Wisconsin, gnashing their teeth over his refusal to come in and campaign with Tom Barrett. Some will blame the DNC for not jumping in the race with all its might. Some will blame the unions for wasting millions of dollars trying to anoint Scott Walker’s opponent in a primary fight. Some will blame Russ Feingold for not accepting a role as savior. Some will blame young people for not going to the polls in droves the way they did in 2008.

When the scapegoating subsides, certain realities are left. The Democratic Party proved unable to beat Wisconsin’s most polarizing political figure in living memory, one bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires, some of whom could vote in the election and most of whom could not. The nation’s worst job-creation record and a mushrooming cloud of scandal and criminal investigations were not enough to prompt the majority of voters to find the Democrats’ standard bearer preferable.

WHEN THE scapegoating subsides, the real question remains: Will the Democratic Party finally be forced to come to terms with how damaged its brand really is?

To most eyes, the Democratic Party is the party of government and government employees and their unions. Most people hate the government. How do you build a governing majority with a brand people hate?

You don’t.

When the Democrats won the hearts of a majority of people in the past, it was because the party had a big hand in creating things that tangibly benefited everyone or at least directly touched every American family in a major way. Social Security and Medicare. Rural electrification. The GI Bill. The interstate highway system.

Today’s Democrats have broken the sacred political law of universality. They may say we’re all in this together and need to look out for each other, but people in places like rural Clark County where I grew up don’t see them practicing what they preach. Most people in such parts of Wisconsin see today’s Democrats standing for health and retirement security and better pay for a few, but not for most. This has created an opening for Republicans to build a rich-poor alliance ... and a governing majority in Wisconsin.

LIBERALS DWELL on how Republicans have used social issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun rights as wedges to splinter off low-income rural voters who used to vote for Democrats and now reliably support Republicans. The left overlooks the economic wedge the right has skillfully exploited.

Republicans ask people in places like Clark County if they have pensions, and the answer is invariably no. “Well, you are paying for theirs,” they tell them. Do you have health insurance? No. Well, you are paying for theirs. Are you getting pay raises? No. Well, you are paying for theirs.

For years now Democrats have not plausibly made the case that they will deliver better health or retirement security or higher pay to all but the state’s few government workers. What is the modern equivalent of the GI Bill that offers every family a path to vocational training or an affordable college education? Where is the digital age’s equivalent of rural electrification or the interstate highway system?

WE HAVE one party that is scary and another that is scared. If one is paralyzed and afraid to lead, people will opt for the one willing to act even if the actions are overly extreme for most people’s tastes. It doesn’t mean they hold that party in high esteem or fail to see its faults. The truth is most people hate both parties. The ranks of the politically homeless are growing fast. More Americans refuse to align with either major party than at any time in the last 75 years.

In defeat there is still opportunity for the Democrats. But not if they continue to ignore the law of universality and fail to muster the nerve to really lead. And not if they remain resistant to the obvious remedy for their brand problem. The Democratic Party is the party of government, and most people hate the government. Why? Because increasingly they see it as corrupt, run by people they view as crooked. They don’t believe government is working for them, and if it’s not going to work for them, then they’d prefer to keep it as small as possible.

One party is seen as standing for big government, the other for no government. But neither is seen as truly working for the people. Both are seen as captive parties that owe allegiance to their big donors and ceaselessly cater to those wealthy interests.

FOR THE Democrats, there is a clear way out of the trap they are in. Maybe their defeat in the recall election will be the wake-up call they need. When the scapegoating finally subsides, maybe they will finally come to terms with the cancer that is growing in the body of democracy and see the impact that disease is having on their party’s brand.

I’m not holding my breath. After all, in the nearly 15 years I have been doing this work, a Democratic governor reached out to the Democracy Campaign and asked to meet with us only once. That was to read us the riot act for shining light on his campaign money. In all those years, a Democratic state party chair sought to meet with us one time. That was to ask if we would support legislation to significantly increase the limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties.

Mike McCabe is the executive director of the Madison-based Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

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