[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
I have been known in some circles for my lousy analogies, so I'm going to bust one out now. I have a message for the president and the Democrats in congress: The house is on fire. So the question is: What are you going to do? Here's a hint: If you stay in the house, you will burn to death.
Let's take a step back. In November of 2008, Barack Obama won an overwhelming victory over John McCain, carrying previously safe red states like North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana, while the Senate and the House saw their majorities increase to overwhelming advantages. Now, 16 months and a special election victory for a Tea Party-supported senate candidate in Massachusetts later, the Republicans are gunning to take control of both houses of Congress this November (ambitious, considering the Democrats hold a 59-41 advantage in the Senate), and you read stories of potentially precarious Senate elections for the Democrats in traditional rock-solid blue states like California, New York and Delaware.
The house is on fire.
The question isn't whether this is a fair state of affairs or not.
Clearly, it was unreasonable to think that after eight years of George W. Bush and his allies in Congress systematically destroying every facet of the United States of America, through a botched unnecessary war, the near collapse of the financial system, the amassing of massive amounts of federal debt, and general incompetence and disdain for government, any new administration could set things right in 16 months. The damage Bush did to this country will take generations to undue (his activist, extreme-right-wing judicial appointments will probably still be on the court when the babies born today graduate from high school), if it can be undone at all.
And the Republicans in Congress have not helped to fix our broken country. They have stood united in opposing any and every solution the president offered (even if he proposed policies they had embraced in the past), all in an effort to win political points and protect big corporations (like health insurers) at the expense of average citizens. And they have lied and fear-mongered to accomplish their aims (from inventing death panels to labeling the president a socialist). In the wake of a near-collapse of the financial industry, which nearly brought down the world's economy, all due to a lack of regulation and oversight, these Republicans haven't wavered in their support of the banks at the expense of the American people, refusing to agree to the kind of regulations that would prevent the financial industry from imploding again (after all, it's not like the big banks have seen the errors of their ways and stopped engaging in economy-threatening risky practices).
But having said all of that, Democrats have to look in the mirror, too, and ask themselves if they have shown the courage and strength necessary to lead. They have to decide how they allowed a committed minority of 40 (and then 41) Republican senators to bully them out of coming together to pass legislation to start fixing some of the problems left to the country by eight years of Bush incompetence. Especially after the mandate they were handed in November 2008.
Voters are angry, and while it is illogical that people seem to be looking to break the gridlock in Washington by voting in Republicans who will, first and only, be concerned with perpetuating the gridlock in Washington, the anger is based on real concerns. Unemployment is high, and the government appears to be more concerned with the health of banks and health insurers than with the well-being of struggling average Americans. The American people voted for change in 2008, and you can understand if they feel like they're not getting it (even if you can't understand why they aren't blaming scheming, lying Republicans at least equally to the seemingly feckless Democrats).
In short, the current state of affairs is what it is. The Democrats can't go back in time, nor can they give a nationwide seminar to educate American citizens about the Jim Bunning-like obstructionism and Orrin Hatch-like lying of the Republican Party (or the racism and ignorance of the Tea Party movement).
No, the Democrats have to decide what to do about it now. Or, to go back to my analogy, to figure out what kind of action to take now that the house is on fire.
It seems to me that the fire has made too many Democrats timid. They are either doing nothing, or they're pointing fingers at the malfeasance of the Republicans. Worse, many think that if they retreat and act more like Republicans, they will be rewarded by their constituents in November, as if campaigning as Republican Lite was ever a winning formula for Democrats. They are looking for an opportunity to vote against health care reform, as if their opponents won't plaster the airwaves with ads touting their original yes vote.
The current plan of too many Democrats is to hang out in the house, cower in the corner, and wait to burn to death. Call me crazy, but I think this is a lousy strategy.
Here is a better one: Do something. Pass legislation like health care reform. Polls show that Americans support the components of health care reform, including the public option, but they oppose the actual bills that got through the House and Senate, thanks largely to Republicans demonizing and lying about them, but also fairly seeing them as the product of behind-closed-door deals that feel shady. The best way to prove the Republican lie machine wrong is to pass legislation (even if through reconciliation) so Americans can see that reform isn't the horrible government power grab the Republicans tell them it is.
(As an aside, one piece of proof that I'm right about this is the president's anti-terrorism policy. The Republicans try and demonize him as soft, but, so far, it's not working. Why? Because real-life events have proven the GOP fear mongers wrong. We've been arresting and killing al-Qaida and Taliban leaders at a rate that makes Bush look like a free-love-spouting hippie, so it's hard to argue that Obama isn't protecting the nation.)
And what if the Republicans filibuster Democratic efforts? I know, it takes 60 votes to get anything through the Senate (or, in some cases, 100 votes ... thanks Sen. Bunning for showing the world what you and your party are really about). But my question is: So what if the Republicans filibuster everything? Let them. Why are the Democrats so afraid of this happening? Make the GOP reveal to the American people who they are protecting. Pass comprehensive financial reform legislation and let the Republicans filibuster it. Then it will be clear: The Democrats support the people and the economy, and the Republicans support the banks. Pass the Senate's health care reform bill in the House, and then fix it in the Senate through reconciliation. If that can't be done, bring an air-tight, paid-for, comprehensive health care reform bill (even with a public option) to the floor and make the Republicans filibuster it. Then the GOP will be revealed as the insurance company-protecting, sick-American-ignoring party it is.
The only way Democrats will escape the burning house is by acting. And the president can lead the way in this regard, since no Democrat has the ability to cut through the crap and make a case for an issue like Obama does.
Democrats, get out of the burning house and grab a fire hose. Start taking action to improve your lot. If you don't, you can join Rick Santorum, Lincoln Chafee, Gordon Smith, John Sununu and the other politicians swept out of office in the GOP purges of 2006 and 2008. But if you fight back by passing legislation (or forcing filibusters) and showing the American people that you understand what they are angry about, you have a chance. At least you'll go down fighting for something important, rather that as cowards, too scared to act.