The Democratic Party has lost its way



In Washington, our Party seems paralyzed by its historic loss at the ballot box.   After spending a shameless year running from progressive victories on healthcare and financial reform, the Party is acquiescing in the face of a Republican offensive on unemployment insurance and millionaire tax cuts. 

Granted, for those who lost in November, a sense of resignation is somewhat understandable.  After all, they need to pack up their offices and pick up their lives.  But for them as well as those who will remain – from the President down through the lowest ranking member of Congress – there really is no good excuse to surrender on core Democratic principles.

 In Trenton, our Party has spent the past year stuck in neutral.  Motionless.  Directionless.  And on many of the big issues, seemingly hopeless.   Notwithstanding a recent jobs proposal, it too often seems that no one is in the driver’s seat.

Once the Party of working people, state Democrats have allowed the Governor to drive up property taxes on middle and working class families, while effectively giving a tax break to millionaires.  Once the Party of union households, state Democrats have allowed the Governor to scapegoat teachers, police officers and firefighters while giving a pass to the short-sighted politicians and ethically-challenged bankers who created the economic crisis in the first place.  Once the Party of civil rights, state Democrats – without any help from the Governor – have allowed marriage equality to remain a denied right for thousands of New Jerseyans.

And in my home county of Bergen, the Democratic Party has effectively hit rock bottom.  The corruption.   The excess.  The pay-to-play.  The debts.   It is no wonder that we have suffered two years of devastating election losses, and it will be no surprise if more good people are voted out of office next November as the price for belonging to a broken organization.

Clearly, for Bergen Democrats, it is time for a wholesale makeover – one that goes far beyond a change in name and a change of address.   No more denials.  No more excuses.  No more clinging to an outdated status quo.   We need a new organization – with a new purpose, a new approach, and a new management team.  As the saying goes, “When in a hole, stop digging.” 

In fact, across the board – from Washington to Trenton to Hackensack — many of the problems plaguing the Democratic Party owe themselves to poor leadership.  In each case, the picture is similar:   a solid rank-and-file, who are genuinely committed to progressive ideals, led by a group of top Party officials, who either have lost perspective or have just lost steam.   In each case, the Party’s leaders are doing a great disservice to their people, their causes, and their constituents.

That said, it is never too late to turn things around, and with the start of the new year, the Democratic Party has an exciting opportunity to get back on track – to find its way back into the lives of the people it serves.  The Party has the chance to re-establish it relevance and to reclaim its traditional role as a reliable voice of progressivism and an uncompromising voice of compassion. 

To this end, the Democratic Party must seize this moment in a compelling way.

First, we must take ownership of the Party’s current condition and stop blaming others for our problems.  Washington Democrats must stop blaming Fox News.  Trenton Democrats must stop blaming Governor Christie.  Bergen Democrats must stop blaming the Record newspaper.   We must accept responsibility for our lost elections and lost legislative battles.   After all, at the end of the day, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Second, we must stand for something larger than our Party and give people a positive reason to support us.   We should speak to our values.  We should speak to our accomplishments.  We should speak to our ideas.  And we should stop defining ourselves by other’s shortcomings.  To build support, we should not have to vilify Republicans or focus exclusively on their policy proposals.  We are a great Party with a great story.  Let’s take pride in telling it.

Third, we must have the courage of our convictions.  It is often not good enough to merely vote for a proposal.  It is often not good enough to merely make a statement in support of an idea.  We must be willing to fight.   We must be willing to put it all on the line – willing to risk elections in the name of principle, in the name of good policy, and in the name of the people we serve.  And while we should not make the “perfect” the enemy of the “good,” too often our Party’s compromises have resulted in policy that is neither perfect nor even good.

On inauguration night 1993, I attended a small reception for those who worked in the Clinton campaign’s “war room”.    Campaign Manager James Carville apparently arranged the event to express his gratitude to those who had worked long and hard in the campaign’s trenches and to impart a few pearls of wisdom to the young staffers who were hours away from beginning their new jobs in the White House.

When Carville arrived, however, he did not have words of thanks for us.  Rather, he used the opportunity to lecture us on our behavior and to express his disappointment.   He complained that we young staffers had lost perspective … that we were too concerned with our new job titles, new West Wing offices, and new White House parking spaces … and that we had forgotten the reason for our campaign and the progressive agenda at the center of it.  Immediately following his terse remarks, Carville was gone, and we were left with stunned looks on our faces.

But Carville was right.  Many of us had lost perspective, and as a result, we were quickly losing our way.  Jobs.  Educational reform.  Fiscal responsibility.  Reproductive health.  These were the issues that motivated us on a hard-fought campaign – the issues that compelled us to get up early in the morning, work 18-hour days, accept minimal pay, and sometimes sleep on office floors.  Yet, during the months following the election, it was clear that many of us had forgotten all of that.

And now, when I read headlines about Democrats making deals over millionaire tax cuts or killing marriage equality proposals or refusing to support pay-to-play legislation, I think back to that evening.   I think back to Carville’s words and my reaction to them.  And I think back to the room full of well-meaning people, who had lost sight of the big picture. 

Needless to say, we Democrats could use a good lecture right about now.

Paul Aronsohn is a Councilman in Ridgewood and a member of the Bergen County Democratic Committee

  The Democratic Party has lost its way