In 2010, Will Democrats Offer More Than Anti-Tea Party?

LAS VEGAS -- November looks grim for the Democratic party, and no group knows that better than progressive activists.

They grumble that President Obama and Democrats in Congress have capitulated to conservatives and special interests. They say lofty visions for health care and Wall Street reform were watered down to laws that will be toothless or ineffective at best. Other priorities like immigration reform and the repeal of the military's "don't ask don't tell" law have yet to materialize.

The liberal base's dissatisfaction is evident in the poll numbers: Just 28 percent of Democrats said they were very enthusiastic about 2010 in a recent Gallup poll, compared with 51 percent of Republicans.

But that's less evident this weekend here at the Netroots Nation conference, the year's largest gathering of liberal activists. A smaller, more progressive, Democratic majority would be an acceptable outcome to this year's midterm elections, liberals say - but they aren't prepared to cede the majority to the Republican Party, which they stands for nothing besides destroying the Obama presidency.

At his Netroots keynote address, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, a conference organizer, said disdainfully that Democrats have done nothing to motivate him for this November.

"What's motivating me is the tea baggers," he said. Moulitsas relished over the prospect of watching Tea Party-backed candidates, like Nevada's Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, under perform in November, potentially prompting the GOP establishment to shun the movement.

But is keeping the Tea Party at bay enough motivation to bring out Democratic voters? How can the party bring back the young and minority supporters who voted for the first time to support Mr. Obama?

Karen Benzer, the head coordinator of the Southern Nevada Coalition for MoveOn.org, said there's too much at stake in her state to let Angle defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

In a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate, where empty commercial buildings and boarded up small businesses stand in stark contrast to the glitz of the Las Vegas strip, Benzer said it's unacceptable for Nevada Sen. John Ensign to join his fellow Republicans in blocking the extension of unemployment benefits.

"A lot of horrific things are happening in our state," she said. "How can you with a straight face go home to your state and not extend unemployment benefits?"

As an activist who calls potential Democratic voters in Nevada, Benzer said, "When we call, people are a little grumpy, but they know the alternative."

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Perhaps no Democrats may be more motivated by the anti-Tea Party agenda than liberals in Minnesota's sixth district, which is represented in the House by Tea Party icon Michele Bachmann (seen at left).

Bachmann's Democratic opponent, Tarryn Clark, is running an "unprecedented" campaign in the district, said Clark's spokesperson, Carrie Lucking. While Bachmann has stepped up her leadership in the Tea Party, recently starting the official congressional Tea Party caucus, Clark has raised more money more quickly than any other Bachmann challenger to date, according to Lucking.

However, Clark has campaigned on more than just the anti-Bachmann message, Lucking said, offering a positive alternative of "getting the work of the people done."

"I think folks are frustrated with what's happening in Washington, and what's not happening," Lucking said.

Liberal commentators often pin the blame on Mr. Obama for what doesn't get done in Washington. And there's more he could do to enthuse liberals ahead of the November, they say.

For one thing, Democratic Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a speaker at the conference, said the president could get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan or do a better job explaining why they need to be there.

"I haven't heard any politican or any general tell us straight why are we there," Schweitzer said in an interview with Hotsheet. "If we're going to continue to have support from people in this country for this war, they at least have to tell us why we're there. I don't even know."

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Schweitzer (at left) said the president could also do more to make corporate America "put their money where their mouth is."

"These corporate CEOs know the recession is over," he said. "What we need them to do is start employing Americans again."

But while liberals may expect more of the president, Schweitzer said, "Let's not destroy the good in search of the perfect."

"Can we say the left got everything they wanted? No," he said. "But this administration is not even in its two-year mark, and they've already done more than the Bush administration did."

Most recently, Democrats in Washington disappointed some on the left by abandoning a plan to include a cap-and-trade scheme in an energy bill. Schweitzer, who has aggressively pursued alternative energy and carbon emissions reductions in his own state, said it shouldn't matter.

"It's not an approach I would take anyway," Schweitzer said. "I think there's better systems that invest in domestic energy... that would encourage us to decrease our carbon emissions."

MoveOn's Benzer said she is also willing to forgive Democrats for letting Republicans stall the extension of unemployment benefits for so long.

"It took two months to get it through," shes said, "but it got done through the pure determination of Sen. Reid."

If Democrats want to do more to reassure voters, Benzer said, they can pursue a solution to illegal immigration "that's agreeable to everyone."

"The states are badgering the federal government to do something," she said.

Tammy Johnson of the Applied Research Center, a group that focuses on racial justice, agreed that along with the economy, immigration is an issue that could motivate the base.

"There were a lot of people who came out and voted for [Obama] for the first time who won't be there" this November, she said. "In order to recapture those people... he needs to make sure his economic reforms are deep and broad. If he really wants to capture the young people, he needs to make sure he speaks to things like the DREAM Act."

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students who came to the United States as minors and meet other certain criteria.

More Hotsheet Coverage from Netroots Nation:

Brian Schweitzer: Sometimes Lucky is Better than Good
Are Liberals Too Concerned with Being "Colorblind?"

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