Democrats split on reasons for midterm losses

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It's about time for the Democrats' post-defeat ritual: the circular firing squad. There is plenty of debate and finger-pointing about why the Democrats lost so many seats all over the country last week, but there's not always agreement on what went wrong or what Democrats and the president should do to fix it.

One thing that is not in dispute: The Democrats lost big because they lost independents. President Obama won independent voters by 8 points in 2008. Democrats lost them by 15 points last week, a stunning swing of 23 points.

But when you ask Democrats on either end of the ideological spectrum why that happened, it's as if they are each talking about a different election.

"Democrats lost because they did not fight hard enough for popular progressive reform like the public option, like breaking up the big banks," says liberal Democrat Adam Green, founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "And as a result, polling showed that many Obama voters, including many independents who voted for President Obama in 2008, simply stayed home on Election Day."

Centrist Democrat Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, has a very different take.

"The independent voters felt that what the Obama administration had done to try to get the economy out of the ditch wasn't working," he said. "And they felt that the administration overreached, made government too big and expensive, and piled up deficit spending."

And so the perennial Democratic debate has been rejoined, says Adam Kessler, founder of Third Way, another centrist think tank.

"The question is whether, for the future of the Democratic Party, to win back Congress, to make sure that the president gets elected, do you appeal to the left of the party and say, "Hell, no! We're not going to touch Social Security,'" or 'We're not going to try and cut spending at all?' " he said. "Or do you try to reach for the center and win an election that way?"

Green answers that question by saying Democrats shouldn't be afraid to step on toes.

"Republicans are doing that right now," he said. "Unfortunately, Democrats could take a lesson from what Republicans are doing right now, which is being dogged in what they believe.

"They're not talking about compromise. They're saying, 'We're going to fight for what we just campaigned on' Democrats failed to do that, and that's why they lost."

In the next Congress, Democrats in the House will be on the whole more liberal after the defeat of so many Blue Dog Democrats, and they might end up doing just what Green suggests. But for Obama, the calculus may be different.

Liberated from the need to defer to his party's congressional wing in order to pass an ambitious legislative agenda, he now has an opportunity, says Marshall, to reclaim the postpartisan identity that got lost in his first two years of governing.

"Governing as a postpartisan doesn't just mean going to the other party with a hand outstretched," Marshall said. "It also means you've got to be willing to challenge your own strident partisans. And that was probably an opportunity missed in the last couple of years."

The left has been unhappy about the few signals Obama has sent so far: They point to his willingness to compromise with the Republicans on a temporary extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts, including the cuts for the wealthy. And they are unhappy he hasn't criticized proposals to cut Social Security benefits announced this week by his bipartisan deficit commission.

Moderates, on the other hand, are still waiting to see what direction the president will take.

Kessler says Obama, even after two years in office, is still a work in progress.

"He's still a Rorschach test for a lot of the American people," Kessler said. "On the Democratic side, myself, I do see him as a postpartisan, moderate Democrat. I'm sure there are others of my progressive brethren who would say, 'He's a very liberal Democrat.'

"And, you know, each of us would be able to make a very plausible case about which he is."

But retiring Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says he thinks Democrats in Washington are having the wrong conversation.

"First of all, I think everyone who's in this mutual firing squad should take a deep breath, and this business about 'Should we be liberal? Should we appeal to our base? Should we be more moderate?' I think those things are missing the boat.

"I think what the president has to do is govern, and govern effectively. If the public sees him governing effectively and leading, he'll get re-elected going away."

The president is clearly thinking a lot about how to govern effectively with a new balance of power. He says he wants to make a midcourse correction.

On CBS' 60 Minutes, he hinted at some things he wants to change.

"Republicans were able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big government liberal," he said. "And that's not something that the American people want. I mean, you know, particularly independents in this country."

Voters, Obama said, ended up with the wrong impression about him.

"The Republicans were successful in creating a picture of the Obama administration as one that was contrary to those commonsense, Main Street values about the size of government," he said. "And so, it I think it is fair to say that, you know, the American people don't want to see some massive expansion of government."

He went on to say that over next two years people will get a more accurate picture of where he wants to take the country. He won't have to wait long for some opportunities to flesh that out as he makes decisions soon on the deficit, trade and taxes.