Reflections from the Class of 2008

by on January 13, 2010

Ed. Note: The following is an anonymous e-mail sent by a freshman Democratic House member, first published on the blog Open Left by Chris Bowers.

I sat down this week to reflect on my one year anniversary of getting sworn into Congress, and expected to produce a depressing rant about one of the greatest missed opportunities in the history of American progressivism. But as the sentences poured out, I realized they were all about the anniversary of the President’s inauguration, not the launch of the 111th Congress.

Imagine if right now we were looking back on a year in which we passed transformational legislation on energy independence and universal health care coverage. Imagine if we had also passed the largest overhaul of student loans, doing more to make college affordable than any legislation in decades, while also passing the largest expansion of federal support for national and community service since AmeriCorps.

As long as we are on this inspiring trek, let’s also imagine that we took back the unconscionable bonuses from AIG and even blocked the second $350 billion tranche of TARP bailout funds, only to end the year taking money from Wall Street to invest in public works on Main Street.

In between, what if we had passed historic hate crimes legislation – the first federal legislation ever to do something explicitly positive for the LGBT community – after making it easier for women to demand equal pay for equal work.

On the budget side, we passed the largest one-time federal investment in science, technology, health technology, green energy, and public education and may well have prevented a depression in the process.

In this crazy progressive paradise, we would also have made an unprecedented move to advance fund care of veterans and forced the VA to take PTSD and mental health seriously.

And we would have moved to triple our diplomatic corps, understanding that the greatest wars are those you never have to fight.

And did I mention there would be a public option, pre- and post-natal care would be mandatory, and we would be transitioning to a carbon-constrained economy?

The People’s House did all of this in a single year.

Even with weak to non-existent leadership from the White House, we produced legislation that rivals the great progressive eras we celebrate. As you know, I thought the final financial reg bill ended up being a joke, and I was shocked to see fewer than 100 Democrats vote to prevent exemptions on the derivatives that helped get us into this mess.

But still, but for the Senate, the agenda above would be law. All of it.

The past two months have been as dark for me on the movement faith front as I have ever had, but I am trying to figure out what to learn from this. It would be easy to conclude that the Senate is the problem, but it seems safe to say that if the White House had demonstrated the desire and strategy, they could have made it happen.

So what happened there? Or we can look deeper and ask why the Senate suffers from corporate capture, and why the Democrats and mainstream media continue to conflate centrism and corporatism. You can ask why economic populism appeals to be the ultimate third-rail of Democratic politics. Even if we were at our best, could we counter the $100 million in free media enjoyed by the other side? Is a lack of substantive, animating vision inherently linked to being the more diverse party?

I hope that your retreat comes up with all of the answers. I hope that publicly financed elections will feature prominently. I also hope you will look seriously at creating an open source media shop that has the forward planning and flexibility of a campaign war room. It should not represent any caucus or coalition, requiring consensus of process, and must understand the value of earned media, process stories and e-advocacy.

I also wonder whether there is room to celebrate or rebrand the People’s house in the context of 2010, or whether that is simply a daunting and unnecessary uphill battle. I say the House because surprisingly few of us will ever be “heroes” as individuals, because of the geographic realities and constant election cycles we face. But on any given issue there are Reps ready to fight back. An open source approach can shoot higher than we can as surrogates (because we ain’t that great), and simply use us and others when applicable to reinforce a strong narrative and message of offense.

My best line on hope is this. Last year at this time we felt all the hope in the world and ended the year despondent. This year we begin deflated and I believe will end in a much better place than we expect. This will probably be less of a movement year than a grind-it-out year of surviving. But let’s once again find the fights worthy of our time. Those that make all of this crap worthwhile in the very real lives of people without jobs or economic security. The folks you and I know so well, but so few inside the Beltway seem to have ever met.

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