After six years under President Bush and twelve years as the congressional minority, the Democrats took over Congress in 2006 and then expanded their majorities and elected a president in 2008. If they lose that majority only four years in it will be a painful reckoning for all the work, doggedness and creativity that went into building that rumbling machine that brought the Democrats back to power only a few years into what was formerly known as their permanent minority.
But as I’ve mulled these possibilities over the last few weeks I keep coming back to two realizations. The first we know but tend to forget, that majorities are built to defend and better the country, not the other way around.If the bill passes, and should the worse befall the Dems and they wake up on November 3rd having lost both houses of Congress, they can look back on all the work in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 cycles and say, it wasn’t wasted and it wasn’t for nothing. This bill will be by far the most significant piece of social legislation in almost 50 years and will achieve, albeit imperfectly, something progressives have been trying to achieve for going on a century. If the Dems lose their majorities in November, they’ll be able to say: we worked this hard, we built these majorities, and this is what we did with it.
Even more though, I come back to the central lesson of the Social Security battle in 2005, which was the realization that the key condition of political success is almost always a genuine willingness to lose well.
Back in 2005 the question was, was it all going to be spinning and shuffling and whining and sputtering on about how bad the whole thing is? Or would they make it into a clear choice — where Democrats supported Social Security for a clear set of reasons rooted in values and policy, and Republicans opposed it? If the lies about the program’s unviability could volubly refuted, the party division made clear, and the reasons why Social Security is good for America ably argued, then let the chips fall where they may. On the other hand, if it all fell out to tactics, the outmoded bag of tricks and risk-aversion, playing at the margins, wringing of hands and hoping for a shameful compromise … well, that would have been truly unforgivable.
The Democrats won that battle because they said to themselves and the country: on this ground we’re willing to lose. And in addition to all the hard work and everything else in their favor, that commitment stiffened their spines and made them credible to the public at large. It made the political victory possible.
A genuine willingness to lose means just that: you might lose. You might lose big. And the dynamics of a mid-term election, amidst crippling unemployment and an energized right, have certain unavoidable implications. But I suspect the effect for the Democrats of actual passing this legislation will be considerably more positive than people realize.