2012 will be more about actual problems than phantom movements
It's funny that professional left now describes those who have been too critical of Democrats. To the extent that such a thing - a well funded, fully staffed and perennially active infrastructure presuming to be a liberal standard bearer - exists, it is the province of the think tanks (Center for American Progress), media (New Republic) and personalities (Jonathan Chait) constantly flacking in defense of Washington.
While it may offer occasional quibbles, the real professional left is ultimately supportive of current leadership, and more interested in rationalizing its actions than examining whether that leadership has been less than exemplary. And since there is a rotating cast of political followers who need faux-progressive commentary designed to lionize and prop up the established order, there is always plenty to do.
Because of the relatively high turnover among those followers (it changes as leaders change), folks like Chait can offer up new wankery on a regular basis without having to answer for previous instances. Really, Chait's time as an analyst should have ended with: "No matter how badly we might bungle a post-Saddam rebuilding of Iraq--and Bush's record in Afghanistan, alas, suggests little reason for optimism--it is difficult to imagine that deposing Saddam will not greatly improve the living conditions and human rights of the Iraqi people." But failure is not discrediting for the professional left.
This is not to say it consists entirely of snake oil salesmen. Some like Steve Benen are very sincere and thoughtful, and in fact Benen is a regular read for me. But while I enjoy his analysis, sometimes he seems a little too determined to explain everything as the result of GOP perfidy.
Take the payroll tax cut. Forget that if you're talking about tax cuts then you're on Republican ground. The bigger problem is that it is being played up way out of proportion to its usefulness. Does anyone think it has been substantially stimulative? Is there any evidence it has made a real impact - say 1% or more - on the unemployment rate? The whole squabble is essentially inside baseball, which means non-political junkies will just regard it as more background noise from Washington. The kind of fine distinctions Benen makes are destined to be lost on the broader electorate.
To really energize the base, I suspect Democrats will need to identify an agenda and also a legislative path for its enactment. Using the payroll tax holiday as one item in a substantial list of initiatives (including, say, mortgage cramdown, taxing the rich, reinstating Glass-Steagall and the previous bankruptcy program, and a massive infusion of grant money for colleges) could be a real selling point. Whining about how the big bad GOP stymied all the awesome things you were on the verge of doing? Not so much.
Which is why a concrete platform has to also be accompanied by a road map. When Democrats had the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2008 they proved more concerned with the tender feelings of their friends across the aisle than with the actual fates of millions of their fellow citizens. It will be incumbent on leadership - Harry Reid and others in the Senate particularly - to show how they will move items through the process.
Maybe they can tell voters they need at least 75 Democrats to overcome defections from "centrist" members of their own caucus along with reflexive filibusters. I suspect they'd get a better reception by simply pledging to do away with the filibuster and going with majority rule, but I'll leave political calculation to the professionals.
There is also what Eric Scheiderman called the "sense that we don't have one set of rules for everyone anymore, that people are not held accountable for misconduct." For instance, the Justice Department just settled an eight year lawsuit with no disclosure and no admission of wrongdoing. Also, a former Treasury Secretary was just alleged to have tipped of his Wall Street buddies with insider information. These are merely two recent examples.
There seems to be complete impunity above a certain level; call it Too Big To Jail. Democrats have at least allowed it to flourish, and that encourages the perception that there ain't a dime's worth of difference between the parties. Want to change that? A perp walk for Hank Paulson would be a splendid place to start.
But at a minimum, outline a program that might make a real difference in voters' lives. Tax cuts won't do it, and "we'll try not to once again be confounded by Republican parliamentary maneuvering" is not the path. The question voters' need answered is, what will be different this time? If they don't have that answer, election day might disappointing for Democrats.