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Will the Base Abandon Hope?

Imagine for a moment that you’re a liberal. Oh, I know, that won’t be a stretch for some of you. Over the years, you’ve developed a pretty thick skin, since while you’ve won an election now and then, you haven’t had too many policy victories since … well, since forever.

But in the back of your mind, there’s always been hope. You have a deep sense of conviction — deeper, you think to yourself, than conservatives — that your positions are true and right and that sooner or later (more likely later) the rest of the country will wake up to this. You pride yourself on being patient, pragmatic, sensible. But you can’t be a progressive, can you, without believing in some sort of progress?

So then Barack Obama gets elected, whose very trademark is Hope, and whose very election signifies progress. He promises a lot of things, and you look over the political horizon and see large Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, a logjam of popular, progressive initiatives, and a neutered and discredited opposition party. And you think to yourself: “Well, knock on wood, but this looks pretty fucking good!”.

And for a little while, things are pretty fucking good. Al Franken — Al Franken! — wins in Minnesota! Arlen Specter switches parties! Man, Republicans are so screwed! The stimulus wasn’t perfect (you’re vaguely worried about a couple of things that Krugman said) but you think to yourself: We’re going to be in the majority for a LONG time. There’s no need to blow our wad all at once.

Over the summer, the unemployment rate continues to go up, and the President’s approval rating continues to go down. But all of this seems like a natural enough part of the political process — the same economic cycles that got your candidate elected were going to cause Obama a few problems, weren’t they? The cute wittle tea parties have evolved into the town hall meetings — those are a little scary, actually. But the Democrats bounce back as resolved as ever to pass a health care bill, and the President makes a strong speech. And there’s always Sarah Palin to make fun of.

In the fall, you begin to see some of your friends on the left question the President. You remind yourself that you’re the Adult in the room, and that some people are never going to be happy — don’t they remember Ralph Nader? Truth be told, you have a few questions yourself, especially about the health care bill. But slowly and surely, it’s working its way through Congress.

The Democrats lose a couple of elections in New Jersey and Virginia — and man, what the hell did Maine just do on gay marriage? Copenhagen goes to shit. But then, on Christmas Eve, Ben Nelson votes for the health care bill! It’s not quite the bill you’d like, but it’s an awfully nice holiday gift — the biggest progressive achievement in years.

After the New Year, there are a few more signs of trouble. A bunch of Democrats retire. Polls — not just Rasmussen — show Obama’s approval below 50 percent. Then one shows that things are closer than expected in Massachusetts, where they’re having an election to replace Ted Kennedy. A Republican can’t possibly win the Kennedy seat, can he?

Yes. He. Can.

Oh, shit.

Which brings us to where we are today.

When I used to play a lot of poker, the times when I’d go on the worst tilt were when I’d been having a pretty good session, making some money, and then started to catch a few unlucky breaks (or so I told myself). So long as I was still ahead on the evening, I was usually OK. But if I dipped into the red — well then, look out below.

That’s what a lot of liberals are feeling like today. Their profit had been slowly whittled down, but things were more or less all right. And then just when it looked like they were going to win a huge pot — health care — the Republicans caught their one-outer in Massachusetts. (Hey, doesn’t that dealer look a little bit like Martha Coakley?)

It might have been a bad beat — it’s easy to forget today that the White House and the Congress had successfully shepherded health care reform to the one-yard line. But that doesn’t remove the hurt, and it doesn’t put the money back in your wallet.

When this sort of thing happens, it’s usually a good idea to take a break and do a lap around the casino. Maybe play a few hands of blackjack, if you’re into that sort of thing. But suppose that, when you do this, every friend that you bump into has just taken a bad beat too! They’re every bit as panicked as you are!

All right — enough with the analogies. But it would be hard to overstate just how demoralizing this particular sequence of events has been for base Democrats. And when people get demoralized, they tend to dig in and make their problems worse.

That holds for voters, certainly, but unfortunately it also seems to hold for Democratic members of the Congress. What they need to remember is that while financial reform and the bank tax are the jobs bill are nice — things that certainly ought to appeal to swing voters and which could mitigate some of the electoral damage — they mostly fall into the category of cleaning up the mess. Financial reform isn’t what gets any Democrat out of bed in the morning. Things like health care, a climate bill, expanded rights for gays, women, and lesbians, a fairer tax code — those are the things that signify progress, the promise of which keeps people motivated for the long run. The risk is that, when we get to November, the base looks at the fact that significant progress has not been made on any of those core, defining issues, that the political and procedural hurdles are immense, that Democratic majorities will (at best) shrink, and that the party leadership seems nonchalant in good times and panicky in bad ones. And they’ll conclude that the progressive party is incapable of making progress.

And in the short run, saying “ooh, Republicans are scary!” might not make as much difference as you think — at least not to base voters. That works when Republicans have a chance to implement their agenda, an opportunity which — even if Democrats were to lose 70 seats in the Congress — they would not have because of President Obama’s veto pen.

Now, look, political cycles are moving faster and faster, and the probability of a turnaround in the momentum back toward the Democrats, even in the near term, is probably greater than generally acknowledged — even if we can neither identify nor predict the precise mechanism by which this occurs. But I worry that the upside is limited if the base is burned out — at best toward a Clintonian second term (treading water, competent) and not Reaganesque one (realigning). And these things tend to have a self-fulfilling quality to them — if the base doesn’t believe that you can actually push the country in their direction, they become less likely to donate to you, work for you, and vote for you, and that in turn makes such successes harder to achieve. I don’t know if the Democrats have any good moves right now, but watching the base give up hope isn’t one of them.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.