By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 8:46 PM
The question now confronting congressional Democrats, especially the more liberal ones, is: What went wrong?
Two years after Democrats swept to a historic election triumph, polls and experts agree that Republicans will probably take back the House, or at least come close, and might win the Senate, too.
The national trend isn't having much impact in the Washington region, which is mostly safe for Democrats. But less than two weeks before they face the voters, I thought it would be interesting to ask a couple of local, liberal House members - Reps. Jim Moran (Va.) and Donna Edwards (Md.) - why national prospects for their side are so bleak.
Apart from their shared progressive ideology and the likelihood of being reelected in predominantly Democratic districts, the two could hardly be more different.
Moran - who represents Alexandria, Falls Church and parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties - calls to mind the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill. He is a thickly built, white-haired Irish American and a 20-year House veteran.
Edwards, who represents parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, is a younger version of District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Edwards is a slim, stylish African American woman just finishing her first term in office.
Some of their answers, in separate interviews Thursday, struck me as right on target. They said Democrats did a lousy job of explaining to voters why bailouts, stimulus spending and other big government programs were necessary to fight the recession. They failed to convey the important, complementary message that they realized it would be necessary to cut spending later to reduce the deficit once the economy recovered. They didn't focus enough attention on the battle against long-term unemployment or highlight that most people's federal taxes have actually been lowered under President Obama.
"We have not been the best messengers," Edwards said. "That's a little bit of hindsight." She added that the nation needs to be "really thinking creatively about how to do job creation . . . how are we creating jobs over the next 20 years."
But some other explanations of the Democrats' woes, especially from Moran, seemed complacent and even counterproductive. Moran believes that Democrats are temporary victims of knee-jerk opposition to the "profound, watershed event" of electing an African American president. The GOP's current energy is fueled largely by fear and racism, he said, and by manipulation of grass-roots sentiment by a handful of ultra-rich families funding the tea party.
"Many people who will be elected in the House and Senate don't represent the majority," Moran said. The expected GOP surge will be short-lived, he predicted, because Obama's reelection campaign in 2012 will spur increased turnout among minorities, liberals and the young.
The Republicans' current intensity shows only that "the brightest stars are most often shooting stars which are on their way down," Moran said.
That kind of thinking is not going to help the Democrats or the nation. For one thing, passionate opposition to Obama is not automatically a sign of racism, and I've got an excellent example to prove it: Bill Clinton.
There was a strong backlash against the Democrats in 1994, two years after Clinton pushed a national health-care program, just as there is now. It wasn't racism then, obviously, and it's misleading and unfair to assume that it is now.
As for the rich footing many of the tea party's bills, yes, it's happening and is the latest sign of the problem of the exploding influence of money in politics. But the people who are about to vote for the GOP, according to polls, are energized mainly by dissatisfaction with the status quo and dislike of the Democrats' policies.
If the liberals want to storm back in 2012, they're going to have to convince people that they offer more-effective government. It's not enough to rely on complaints about racism and fat cat interference.
As one would expect from self-described progressives, Edwards and Moran agreed that the problem with the stimulus package - derided by the GOP as ineffective - was that it was too small. Given that the economic recovery seems so tepid, I think that might be right.
It also was to be expected that they thought the Democrats weren't sufficiently aggressive in pushing their agenda. Moran said the party needed to be less defensive and instead "present a positive vision for America." Edwards said Democrats too often "started to compromise before we really took it to a fight."
More surprisingly, though, the two also agreed that when the economy gets going again, it will be necessary to make broad spending cuts to rein in the deficit. They were both willing to support cuts in entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, which liberals usually defend.
Their only condition for considering such reductions was that other programs be vulnerable, too - such as defense spending and farm subsidies. "Every single thing needs to be on the table equally," Edwards said.
That sounds like a key plank for a Democratic platform for the next two years. If they'd made clearer how they felt about it earlier, maybe they'd have a better chance of hanging on to the House on Nov. 2.