On Tuesday, our party lost about 60 seats in the U.S. House, and 6 seats in the Senate. We also lost 9 or so governors’ mansions and some state legislatures. (Some races are still being counted.) It was a thumping, no question.

The question is what we learn from it. Not They, but We. (More)

Lessons Learned, Part I – Assessing the Challenge

This week Morning Feature will consider initial lessons of the 2010 midterms. Today we assess the challenge. Tomorrow we’ll look at what went well. Saturday we’ll look at what we can do better.

Countless pixels will be spilled over the coming days and weeks on the mistakes of our candidates and elected leaders: what They could or should have done. Some of that will be fair criticism; there were mistakes. But for this week I’d like to focus on ourselves as grassroots progressive Democrats: what We could or should have done. We must honestly assess the challenge we face, but first….

Why We and not They?

It would be more comfortable to critique our candidates and elected leaders. It’s easy to pick things we approve of in our winners’ campaigns, and things we disapprove of in our losers’ campaigns. It’s also easy to use the 2010 results as a springboard to criticize our elected leaders and their personal or policy flaws. There are some valid criticisms, and such a critique could be productive if they or their staff read this.

I don’t know if They read here. I know We read here, and We are grassroots Democrats. Some among us are state or local party leaders. Many of us made calls and knocked on doors for our local parties or specific candidates. In assessing a challenge, I think it’s best to focus first on what we can best influence. For me that means We, not They.

The challenge in 2010:

To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Rumors of the Republican Party’s demise were greatly exaggerated.” Two years ago, some of us said they were a “rump party” whose waning influence lay mostly in the Bible Belt. Their “party of God” motif had worn thin with voters, as we saw in Simon Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah. Some predicted a decades-long Democratic majority, especially if health care reform was enacted.

Health care was enacted, but only after a long and bitter struggle where tea party activists took center stage, not merely a media stunt but a potent political movement. Last August they flooded town hall meetings to voice their outrage. They sponsored primary candidates. Some of those candidates lost in the primaries. Some lost in the general election. But some won, and not just a comparative handful who won U.S. House or Senate seats. In Florida, establishment Republican Bill McCollum lost the nomination to tea party favorite Rick Scott. Scott – who was CEO while Columbia/HCA committed the biggest Medicare fraud in history – defeated Democrat Alex Sink and will be Florida’s next governor. Tea party-backed candidates chalked up similar victories in the Florida Legislature, and in many other states.

Their success was partly a matter of time and timing. Time in that surveys show most tea party activists are 55 or older, retired, without young children at home. They have time to focus on politics and attend political events. Timing in that our nation is still mired in the Great Recession, leaving many voters upset at the party in power, and in that this was a midterm election where turnout is usually lower and a highly-motivated core can tip the balance.

Their success was party a matter of money, with the Citizens United decision freeing corporations to pour anonymous billions into direct advertising. Add to that having a virtual in-house “news” network touting conservative-commissioned Rasmussen polls as if they were gospel and a mainstream media who think “balance” means giving even bizarre conspiracy theories equal time and respect, and the right dominated the political dialogue.

The challenge for 2012:

Of those factors, the only one certain to change is that 2012 will be a presidential election year. Turnout will be higher, so a highly-motivated core will have less sway. But the Republican base will still be mostly 55-or-older retirees with plenty of time to focus on politics. Unemployment should ease somewhat, and the 111th Congress may pass the DISCLOSE Act – ending anonymous corporate political donations – in the lame duck session. But Faux Noise will still be a virtual in-house “news” network touting Rasmussen polls as if they were gospel, and we can’t count on the mainstream media to suddenly recover long-atrophied journalism practices.

We also shouldn’t count on the Republicans making mistakes. They won’t be politically flawless, but it would be foolish to expect we can cruise to victory in 2012 simply by highlighting their errors for the next two years. They know 2012 is a presidential year and turnout will be higher. Look for them to shrewdly judge the political winds and to only make high-stakes gambles – shutting down the federal government or proposing to repeal the 2010 health care bill – if they think they can win the media coverage. And they could. This year they successfully blamed Democrats for the bank bailouts under President Bush, while raking in donations from the bailed-out banks.

Their corporate backers also have the economic clout to delay or perhaps even stop economic recovery. Much of the lingering unemployment is due to to a coordinated but largely unreported Capital Strike. Major banks are lending only to big corporations, and those corporations are sitting on the money rather than expanding production and hiring new workers. The mainstream narrative – on the few occasions when the story is mentioned at all – has been nervous investors and executives fearing “excessive” taxes or regulations from President Obama and a Democratic Congress. In Realworldia, that works out to “We won’t play unless we make the rules.”

The difference in 2012:

The challenge in 2010 may have been insurmountable. We progressive activists could and should have done some things better, as we’ll see Saturday. But even if we had, it might not have been enough. With Democrats taking office while our economy was still in free fall, this election was always a steep mountain to climb. The challenge in 2012 may not be much easier. But there will be one certain difference.

In 2010, the Republicans activated their base through the tea party movement, and in a midterm year the more active base usually wins. But 2012 is a presidential election year, where moderate independents like Fred determine the outcome. And polls show Fred was not drawn into the tea party. Most Freds didn’t vote for Democrats this year, but they didn’t vote for Republicans either. Most Freds didn’t vote at all.

Fred will vote in 2012, and for Democrats to win in 2012 … we have to win Fred.

As grassroots progressive Democrats, that’s our challenge. And our responsibility.

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Happy Thursday!