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01.27.10

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Go Populist Now

By Katrina Vanden heuvel


ELECTION results rarely have a single explanation. Yet it's pretty clear that Scott Brown's special election win in a state that last sent a Republican to the United States Senate in 1978 is an indicator of the turbulent national political mood a year after Obama took office.

There is a generalized anti-establishment anger at loose in this country, reinforced by a White House team that has delivered for Wall Street but not enough for hurting communities. It is an anger also fueled by often savage right-wing anti-government attacks.

This special election is a wake-up call and should lead to a course correction. The Democratic party can no longer run as a managerial and technocratic party. Going populist is now smart politics and good policy.

The Obama White House needs to show, quickly and forcefully, with concrete, bold and visible action, that it stands with the working people of America. Here is a symbolic but smart start: jettison those on the White House economic team whose slow, timid response to the crisis of unemployment and to Wall Street's obscene excesses helped create the conditions for the Tea Party's inchoate right-wing populism.

Leadership on pro-democracy reforms are also desperately needed to end the corruption of our politics and to staunch the corporate money flooding and deforming our democracy. Connect the dots for people: explain how needed reforms are gutted when both parties succumb to the pervasive corruption of our money politics. If the GOP's obstructionism has a silver lining, it is in exposing how an anti-democratic, supermajority filibuster has essentially made our system dysfunctional. There is fertile ground on which to rally people in a transpartisan political reform movement.

Massachusetts offers another lesson: Obama's decision to demobilize his base in 2009 in favor of an insider approach to governing was a big mistake. I'm not a political strategist, but I don't know how you win elections by failing to rouse people who've worked hardest at the grassroots to get you elected. It is time to remobilize the base.

And here's a no-brainer: Isn't it time to give up on that faith in genteel post-partisanship when the GOP knifes you at every turn? Nice isn't going to create more jobs or get health-care reform.

Before pivoting to a laserlike focus on jobs and the economy, passing the strongest possible health-care bill as quickly as is feasible is a top priority. There are various procedural options being considered. (Passing the Senate bill followed by changes via budget reconciliation may be a smart and even realistic idea.) Passing a bill won't be the Democrats' political salvation—but if Obama and his party fail it would be the most catastrophic legislative failure since 1994 and possibly snuff out any chance for reform in other arenas moving forward.

President Obama warned us that change wouldn't come easy. Many believe he hasn't held up his end in fighting hard enough for key progressive priorities.

What comes next will test the president's willingness to learn the lessons of this last year. Get tough, get bold, kiss "post-partisanship" goodbye and fight hard for jobs and a just economy of shared prosperity. And put yourself squarely back on the side of working people.

President Obama: Don't pay attention to those who counsel going slow. The only thing you have to fear is caution itself.


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL is the editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, where this article first appeared.


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