In a recent Gallup poll Americans chose President Kennedy as the most popular president of the last five decades. The Kennedy legacy lives. Those who deny this do not understand the soul of the Democratic Party or the state of public opinion in America today.
President Obama was elected in 2008 with the dramatic and high-profile support of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). One of the most widely quoted statements in 2008 was by Caroline Kennedy, who said Obama would be “a president like my father.”
What does it tell us that even after the 2010 election in what was called the year of the Tea Party, Americans chose a populist progressive Democratic president, not a Republican or conservative president, as their favorite over the last 50 years?
History suggests that America is a centrist nation, with shifts to the left or right that move with national circumstances. The elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010 reveal a nation in revolt against whichever party carries the torch of the status quo. In 2006 and 2008 this favored Democrats and liberals. In 2010 this favored Republicans and conservatives. This is not a nation moving to the right. It is a nation demanding change.
One hallmark of 2009 and 2010 was the demobilization of the Democratic base of grassroots workers, small donors and large liberal donors. They had brought a wave of activism through the Obama and Clinton campaigns of 2008. They were never mobilized by President Obama to support a governing program of transforming change, as President Reagan mobilized his conservative base.
This demobilization inevitably led to the demoralization and depression of Democratic voters, workers and liberal donors. Those who were powerfully mobilized in 2008 were largely ignored in 2009 and 2010, and often addressed with condescension and contempt by those who resented their passion for powerful change and dramatic reform.
Democrats ran almost even in 2010 polling among all voters, but lost a landslide in the House of Representatives among actual voters when many voters who favored Democrats stayed home. Any party that demobilizes, demoralizes, depresses and demeans its base is destined for defeat.
There are common threads that run through the Kennedy legacy and the Reagan legacy. The Kennedys and Reagan passionately advocated positions of high principle to support real change, aggressively mobilized their supporters to fight for dramatic changes they advocated as president, and wisely knew how to negotiate with political adversaries and when to cut the final deals.
On healthcare the major initiatives advocated by progressive populist Democrats were also supported by a majority of independent voters who favored the public option, a “Medicare buy-in,” stronger actions against alleged price-fixing by insurers, and lower drug prices through safe Canadian imports.
On the economy a majority of independents joined progressive populist Democrats supporting more action to create jobs and help the jobless, more enforcement against insider trading and other market abuses, fewer bonuses for those bailed-out bankers who helped cause the crash, ending tax cuts for millionaires, acting to prevent foreclosure abuses, and campaign reform to end the dominance of special-interest money.
The Democratic base was never roused to fight for this long list of “changes we can believe in.” Independent voters were never asked for their support for these actions that a majority of them believed in.
President Obama should be informed by the example of the Kennedys and Reagan. While Republicans are attacking the president, Democrats should be mobilizing their base in response, not further depressing the base with “balanced” condemnations of “the left and the right.”
The Democrats’ mantra should be to stand tall, fight hard, organize first, mobilize for battle and negotiate later, from strength.
This is how Reagan and the Kennedys so often prevailed. They never unilaterally disarmed their base. They never surrendered positions of principle before a negotiation began. They knew the difference between smart compromise and perpetual retreat. They knew that elections are lost when a great party’s most faithful voters are moved to stay home, and won when the faithful are moved to fight on matters where they agree with a majority of independents.
President Obama and Democrats can succeed if they learn the lessons of Reagan and the Kennedys. They should hear message of voters who choose John Kennedy as their most popular president in 50 years. Fight hard, then negotiate from strength.
Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics.
Republished with the author’s permission.