Democrats have had plenty of look-in-the-mirror moments these last 30 years or so. And they never seem to take a real good look. Last week's recall election in Wisconsin was another. And from the sounds of it, there's a lot of excuse making but not much reflection going on.
The Democrats' state party chair chalked up their latest defeat in the governor's race to money. A great many others agreed, laying the blame on the infamous Citizens United decision by the nation's highest court, although in the next breath more than a few Democratic activists scolded the party's braintrust for not trusting the citizen movement behind the recall and for screwing up the election.
In what former party chair Joe Wineke described as a "circular firing squad," Democratic stalwarts aimed shots at the DNC, President Obama and current state chair Mike Tate, among others. For his part and presumably his party's, Tate said there were no regrets, gamely insisting "some things are worth fighting for; some things are worth losing over."
But here's the thing with today's Democrats. Some things are worth fighting for. A few things. But most are not. If you want to know which is which, all you have to do is follow the money.
When it was the ox of one of the Democrats' biggest cash constituencies being gored, Democratic lawmakers were itching to fight, with senators going so far as to flee the state to obstruct a vote on Governor Walker's plan to kneecap public employee unions. The most massive street protests Wisconsin has ever seen were organized and sustained for weeks.
What Democrats did when public employee unions were under siege in Wisconsin is not what they did when the housing bubble burst and foreclosures exploded and large numbers of people were losing their homes. What they did for public sector unions is not what they did for little people caught in a financial vise when banks and Wall Street investment firms started behaving more like casinos and brought the economy to its knees. No walkouts. No mass demonstrations. No banksters sent to jail.
Democrats largely looked the other way at credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations and hedge funds and derivatives and subprime mortgages and other such snake oil. Might that have something to do with the fact that you see Goldman Sachs second and JP Morgan Chase sixth and Citigroup seventh on the list of biggest donors to the 2008 campaign of the Democratic Party's national standard bearer?
When public employee unions yelled jump, Democrats asked how high. But when hundreds of thousands of Americans without strong union representation were losing their private-sector jobs to outsourcing and offshoring, Democrats organized no meaningful opposition. They didn't flee the House and Senate chambers to deny Republicans a quorum and throw up an obstacle to congressional approval of "free trade" hoaxes like NAFTA and CAFTA. Hell, they helped pass those measures. Those job-killing schemes would not and could not have been greenlighted without Democratic support.
If you listen carefully you hear a few platitudes and a little bellyaching from Democrats when Republicans double down on policies that haven't helped the economy but have hurt the poor and middle class for over 30 years and pass a new batch of tax cuts for the rich or a new round of deregulation allowing the air to be more easily polluted or the water more easily poisoned. But you don't see 100,000 people circling the Capitol. You don't see every parliamentary trick in the book being employed to throw a monkey wrench in the works.
Might that be because, even close to home, Democrats are up to their eyeballs in campaign money from big business interests?
There are things worth fighting for and even losing for. But for them to ever be things that can win the hearts and minds of most Wisconsinites and Americans, they have to be in keeping with the political law of universality. That is, they have to be things that make the whole state and whole country better off, not just things that are near and dear to one group of big campaign supporters or another.
If there is a clue to how Democrats could crack the electoral code that leads to a governing majority, it is likely to be found in a paradox that haunts their party: Democrats see the Citizens United ruling and the rule of money as central to their downfall, yet the party establishment only seems to see something as worth fighting for if it will help raise money for the next election.