The midterm election provides Democrats with plenty of lessons they can learn. Gullible pundits and conservative politicians will be throwing out advice like chickenfeed in hopes that media hens and party leader fowls will come peck in the dust at their feet.
When corporate marketers want to test a new product, they often choose Indianapolis as the test market. The demographics of the city mirrors the national population in the amount of minority groups, income levels, and media saturation. If it sells in the Hoosier state, it'll likely walk off the shelves nationwide.
Indiana's election results can also be expanded to teach Democrats nationally a lesson about the political landscape and the future of the party itself. Let's look at three quick examples from Tuesday's voting to illustrate how Democrats can save the party by moving further to the left and realizing that "moderate" doesn't mean "conservative."
It's time to stop flapping around with chickens and start soaring with eagles.
Party leaders need to be careful and guard against falling into a trap like Indiana's retiring Senator Evan Bayh's counsel to move the party further right. Bayh's pretty face and folksy charm masks a losing strategy of short-term political gain at long-term expense for the future of our country.
By pandering to rightwing conservatives, the Senator argues, Democrats will be able to claim the mantle of "centrists" and "moderates" and win over independent voters. This is the entirely wrong lesson that party leaders should take away from Tuesday's devastating losses at the polls. Instead, the party should rally it's base with progressive stances on issues that improve the lives of ordinary voters - a strategy Bayh hardly embraced in his years in the Senate.
Evan Bayh's Role In the Defeat of the Democratic Party
Bayh is Indiana's Sarah Palin. Not only does he want to move his colleagues further to the right but he's abdicating the responsibility he complains about because, well, politics is haaaaard. The political posturing and arguing, he said, had inspired him to quit instead of trying to find an actual solution.
Bayh waited until it was too late for anyone to run in the Democratic primary to replace him and, instead, the State Central Committee picked the nominee to replace Bayh on the ballot. The Committee chose southern Indiana's Blue Dog Congressman Brad Ellsworth as the nominee despite the many concerns over his ability to bring out the base or the Indiana Stonewall Democrats abstention from voting that cited Ellsworth's antigay voting record and statements.
Instead of letting the system work, Bayh chose to circumvent Indiana's Democratic voters and hand pick his favored candidate to replace him in the Senate seat. On his way out the door, he published his pre-written "Why Democrats Suck" op-ed in the New York Times. For the past two years of Obama's presidency, the Senator tried to scuttle and undermine progress on comprehensive health care reform while his wife, who's not a doctor, sat on the board of pharmaceutical companies.
To add insult to injury, after serving as a blatant example of a greedy politician opposing any actual progress that might take cash out of the pockets of his corporate donors (and hence his own pockets via campaign contributions from the companies), Bayh slammed the pocketbook shut and sat on ten million dollars that he could have spent to help stem the Republican tide nationwide. Instead of helping the party he professes to love, like Gollum guarding his ring, Bayh hoarded his cash in case he decides to run for another office or so he can dole it out over the next few years as a way to garner influence.
While Bayh is cashing out, his seat is going back to Dan Coats, a former Hoosier senator who doesn't live in Indiana and worked as a lobbyist for a big firm packed full of insiders of both political parties. The allure of greed and power so many politicians succumb to has come full circle in a little over two decades while the people of Indiana have faced the loss of their homes and jobs, rampant discrimination, poor health care and a collapsing educational system.
That is not the tactics of a friend of the people. Evan Bayh is not someone that modern Democrats should emulate. Sadly, his modus operandi has been adopted by several Hoosier politicians and political hacks throughout the state.
Trickle Down Politics
Instead of taking bold steps to improve the lives of the average Hoosier, three of Indiana's five Democratic Congressmen followed in Bayh's footsteps and dithered over social issues and health care reform. The two Democrats who wholeheartedly supported the mandate the party was put into power to enact - a command to change the direction America was going in and start to enact true progressive change - sailed to victory in the midterms.
The three Blue Dog democrats, Brad Ellsworth, Baron Hill, and Joe Donnelly, struggled with their respective races. Ellsworth lost his bid for the Senate, Hill lost to a young upstart, and Donnelly limped to victory over a religious right teabagger who thinks a woman should be forced to carry her father's baby if he rapes and impregnates her.
All three men oppose the Employment Non-Discrimination Act because it included transgender individuals. Ellsworth and Donnelly both voted against enacting a hate crimes law because it included sexual orientation and gender identity. The Blue Dog caucus delayed a victory on health care reform and ended up watering it down so badly that no one was happy with it. None of the three are known for their dedication to progressive momentum as much as their willingness to screw over their friends and allies if it helps them cling to power.
This "Out-Conservative the Republican" tactic crept into the Indiana state house too and had devastating results there as well. This week's elections swept a large number of Republicans state legislators into office giving control of the House to the right and solidifying their hold on the state senate into a super majority.
There are two clear examples of the differing approaches on how to engage and represent the voters that pinpoints the competing tactics at work. While the leadership and higher elected officials were pressuring state legislative candidates to avoid anything controversial and run milquetoast campaigns based on the "I'm just as conservative as the Republican but I call myself a Democrat!" premise, not all the candidates followed the path to destruction.
Democratic incumbent state legislators Mary Ann Sullivan and John Barnes ran remarkably different campaigns this year. Both are progressive friends of the LGBT community and they were both deserving of re-election. Sullivan, however, didn't listen to the Republican-lite marching orders and ran as a proud progressive. She won her race; Barnes, who listened to party leadership, lost.
Leadership Sets the Tone
Every summer a handful of politicians walk in the Indy Pride parade but this year Barnes didn't walk the parade route after party leaders advised candidates not to do it. They argued that the legislators' opponents could put out pictures of them at the parade as if there's something wrong with standing in the street and socializing with a gay or transgender person. Barnes weighed the risks and found that standing in solidarity with an oppressed group of people was simply too much to ask when compared with the possibility of re-election if he hid his friends from his constituents.
This doesn't make Barnes a bad person, he just listened to the siren song of political homophobia.
Political homophobes aren't gay-hating in the traditional sense. In fact, publicly, most are strong supporters of LGBT equality. But, behind closed doors, many Democratic leaders, consultants, Hill staffers and the rest will vociferously argue that there is no political benefit to actually supporting LGBT rights. Political homophobia is rampant among some Democrats. In some ways, it's worse than blatant homophobia, since we think most Democrats are on our side. And outwardly, they are.
When the potential for political embarrassment is as minuscule as walking in a pride parade when it comes time to spend actual political capital to advocate for employment, housing or public accommodations protections for LGBT people, stand firm against a same-sex marriage amendment, or protect our bullied youth, do you really think that the person who bailed on the pride parade will have your back? If they're willing to skip out that early in the game, they won't be around when you need them the most.
Mary Ann Sullivan was in the gay pride parade. She did it without a second thought because it was the right thing to do for a local politician who supports LGBT rights. The LGBT community came out for her too with volunteers, donations, and hundreds of supportive comments on social media sites to get her name out to voters. The community supported her as heartily as she supported them.
The head of the Indiana state party is a former Bayh staffer put in place by the Senator. He paid for anti-gay campaign fliers for conservative Democrats and defended Bayh's recent AIDS joke. He was instrumental in the finagling to get Ellsworth approved as the Senate candidate over the objections of the LGBT community.
From all sides, the leadership of the Hoosier state's Democratic party has advocated screwing over the marginalized and the powerless in favor of clawing desperately for power and relevancy. The state party was the biggest winner of Bayh's campaign chest largess and they used it to support more conservative Democrats who were stomped in this week's election.
Bayh's political philosophy was proven disastrously wrong when half of his Blue Dog caucus of conservative Democratic Congressional members lost their seats. Only 1% of members of the progressive caucus were voted out of office. National politicians would have been better served by following Sullivan's lead instead of listening to Bayh's whispered promises of an easy victory in the milquetoast middle.
Putting It All Together
The center requires a left and a right. By positioning Democrats to be a centrist party, Bayh's thought process automatically puts the party to the right. If the middle is the Democrats' starting point, they will automatically move right to compromise with the Republicans.
By holding firm to their left flank and rallying their base, Democrats could have fought off this tidal wave of agitated right wing voters. While the Republicans were able to bring in Tea Party activists and independents because they articulated a clear difference between them and their opposition, Democrats were left floundering with a message that sounded mostly like, "We're just like them except nicer."
The Hoosier Democrats who were able to clearly show a difference between their values and Republicans' presented voters with an actual choice that was easily distinguishable. Those who ran as Republican-lites were mostly rejected in favor of actual died-in-the-wool Republicans.
Citizens were able to judge if they wanted to side with the blatant homophobia, racism and xenophobia of Tea Party candidate Marvin Scott's campaign or they could support Democratic Representative Andre Carson's campaign that featured his record on job creation, health care reform and tolerance. LGBT people could see Mary Ann Sullivan's support. While most didn't notice John Barnes' skipped out on the pride parade, some in the community knew that he had slunk away at the first opportunity and that negative connotation damaged him more than no one thinking about him at all.
Winning Hoosier Democrats were able to paint a stark picture of the differences between them and their opponent. They didn't run from the progressive agenda and these candidates boldly told voters how they wanted to improve their constituents' lives and touted what they'd already accomplished.
Some Hoosier democrats ran to the middle-right in an attempt to hide in their opposition's shadow. For most of those shortsighted candidates, the chickens came home to roost.
(First graphic courtesy of the Nature Conservancy's article about the return of bald eagles to Indiana.)