We Democrats lost the U.S. Senate on Tuesday night for many reasons. But I believe the most important reason is that we ran away from who we are and what we stand for.
Too many of our candidates and our party leaders thought we could win by telling voters how bad and nasty the Republicans were, without saying what we Democrats were for.
Ever since Bill Clinton’s campaign and election in 1992, we Democrats were willing to redefine our approach to problems. We recognized that the time for big government was over, that government was not the answer to all problems, and indeed, the private sector was the key engine for economic growth and jobs. But while Bill Clinton ran and governed as a “New Democrat,” that did not mean he believed this country needed two Republican parties. To the contrary.
Of course going forward the Democratic Party must look to the future — all elections are about the future. But we need to remind all Americans, and maybe even more so ourselves, where we came from: the core principles and programs of our last seven Democratic presidents, from FDR to Obama.
We need to remind the American people that we are the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the party of the New Deal, of Social Security, of government as a solution not the enemy.
We are the party of Harry Truman — the Fair Deal, protecting working families and the right to organize, fair employment practices and the first proposal by a Democratic president to assure that all Americans would have access to affordable health insurance.
We are the party of John Kennedy, who gave us the Peace Corps, a strong national defense, the nuclear test ban treaty; who told us to ask not what America can do for us but what we could do for America; who made us believe in a new generation of leadership and made politics and public service a good thing, a noble thing.
We are the party of Lyndon Johnson, who gave us Medicare, the Great Society and the War on Poverty, Head Start and guaranteed civil rights, voting rights and equal opportunity for all Americans.
We are the party of Jimmy Carter, who taught the world that America stood for human rights at home and abroad and who was the first president to warn about the danger to U.S. national security unless America became energy independent and not reliant on Middle Eastern oil.
We are the party of Bill Clinton, who proved there is nothing liberal about running up debt for our children and grandchildren to pay, who gave the Democratic Party the historic legacy that a progressive government can turn hundreds of billions of dollars of deficits into a surplus of nearly $1 trillion, which strengthened Social Security for this and future generations while also creating 23 million jobs that uplifted and empowered the poor and the middle class.
And we are the party of Barack Obama, who finally — finally — fulfilled the promise of Harry Truman more than 60 years ago by enacting universal health insurance and access to healthcare, not by socializing medicine but by creating private enterprise, competitive health insurance marketplaces on the Internet, guaranteeing that no one in America would ever again have to fear losing health insurance because of a pre-existing medical condition.
There is no better statement of the soul of our party than the moving words of the great liberal Democratic senator from Minnesota and former vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey. These words should be the anthem about our core values for all Democrats today and going forward:
“It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
This is who we are.
Now, grounded in these principles and values, we can and must reach out to Republicans and conservatives and find the purple ground where we can support fact-based solutions and compromises. This, above all, is what the American people told both parties they want in this week’s elections. And this is what principled Democrats must do going forward between now and the 2016 presidential election … if we are to keep the White House and reclaim the Congress.
Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.