July 15, 2010 -- The imminent passage of a tough new Wall Street Reform bill will cap off a wildly productive two years for Democrats in Washington – they will have passed two pieces of sweeping legislation and an enormous $800 billion stimulus bill to deal with the ailing economy.
But the hard political paradox Democrats face is that for all their accomplishments, voters from the left, right, and center, are not impressed, and all signs point toward stiff losses if not the loss of control over one or both Houses of Congress by Democrats in November.
They hope the Wall Street reform bill will help them with voters where passing the health care reform law did not.
The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed 62 percent of voters ready to shop around for new represenatation in Congress.
Presidents regularly see their party lose seats, but the 2010 elections could be particularly severe with many political professionals predicting a wave against Democrats and the possibility of losing 30 or more seats in the House. What's more, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, is perilously close to losing his bid for reelection. Reid's loss would be a huge blow to Democrats after he helped them navigate their agenda through Congress.
Rutgers Political Scientist Ross Baker called the 111th Congress' productivity "probably the most impressive since the mid-1960s."
How notable are Democrats' accomplishments? They succeeded where 100 years of American presidents and Congresses have failed by enacting sweeping health care reform which will ultimately extend health insurance coverage to nearly every American. They reacted to the 2008 financial crisis with an $800 billion emergency spending bill to kick-start the economy. Addressing the root causes of that crisis, they oversaw the most comprehensive re-write of banking laws since the Great Depression. They also changed the way student loans will be administered, passed new rules for credit card companies and more
And they did all of it with help from no more than a handful of Republicans.
President Obama's Accomplishments Frustrate Activists
But rather than energize the electoral base that helped put Democrats in control of Congress in 2006 -- and President Obama in the White House in 2008 -- the accomplishments have often frustrated activists, who see compromised ideals and watered-down bills instead of legislative victories.
"A lot of progressives appreciate there has been an ambitious agenda. But unfortunately we have seen the legislation associated with that agenda watered down and watered down significantly," said Arshad Hasan, the executive director of Democracy for America, a PAC begun by Howard Dean with chapters in all 50 states.
Hasan's group fought mightily to include a public option in the health care reform law. And he is extremely disappointed in the Wall Street reform bill for not breaking up the biggest banks.
Progressive groups have helped more liberal candidates challenge Democrats in swing states like Pennsylvania, and more conservative states like Arkansas, with mixed success.
"(Democrats in Washington) have delivered on some of those campaign promises, but it's been a messy road to get there," said Nathan Gonzalez, the political director of the Rothenberg Political Report, which rates political races. It has predicted that Democrats will lose between 25 and 30 seats in the House, quickly approaching the 39 seats Republicans need to take control.
"Health care took over a year (to pass) and in the process made some democrats upset because it didn't have a public option… The process took some enthusiasm out of the end result," said Gonzales.
Some Democrats, like Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, have likewise opposed the Wall Street Reform bill, which is expected to clear a key procedural hurdle in the Senate Thursday. The bill imposes new rules for banks, prohibits them from trading against their investors, and brings oversight to the shady derivatives market which contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. But critics say it does not go far enough.
Beyond depressing their base with legislative compromises, Democrats' legislative accomplishments have come at no small cost to taxpayers. The U.S. deficit inched over $1 trillion for the fiscal year this week and the national debt is more than $13 trillion.
While Republicans have, since President Bush left office, instituted an almost myopic, party-wide focus on spending and debt, Democrats have struggled to rally behind their versions of health reform and Wall Street reform. They could barely find enough votes to pass the bills. And despite millions of jobs Democrats say were created by the $862 billon stimulus bill, the unemployment rate remains high, and is not expected to come down any time soon.
"I think the public doesn't quite perceive (the accomplishments) because they don't see much change in their everyday lives. They're still having trouble finding work," said Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center.He said expectations for Democrats at the beginning of the Obama era were simply too high.
Plus, for all their accomplishments Democrats were unable to deliver on other issues. American troops are still fighting in Iraq, although they are transitioning out, and the military presence has grown markedly in Afghanistan. A promised bill to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and penalize industries that emit the most carbon is stalled despite public support. Senators are expected to consider a proposal later in July, but its prospects for passage this year are dismal. And a comprehensive immigration reform bill has yet to materialize.
Conservative voters, meanwhile, have been completely energized by the Democrats' accomplishments. Where Democratic lawmakers see a health care reform law that will eventually help nearly every American get insurance, Republicans see a law that signals government overreach. Where Democrats see a Wall Street reform bill to rein in Wall Street excess, Republicans see too much regulation. That backlash has fueled the Tea Party movement and energized grassroots conservatives nationwide.
"Democrats have been successful at expanding the size and scope of the federal government. But clearly they've failed completely at creating jobs and putting people back to work," said Brian Walsh, the spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is charged with getting Republicans elected to the Senate in 2010.
With the unemployment rate persistently close to 10 percent, voters might not even notice the effects of landmark health care reform legislation for years to come. They do notice that Democrats have been unable, because of partisan and internecine squabbling, to extend unemployment insurance benefits to 2 million Americans this summer.
"Democrats need to offer a choice to be successful: Democrats want to rein in the Wall St. banks, while Republicans want to bail them out," said Michael Bocian of the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which works with Democratic candidates.
Bocian said part of the Democrats' message problem goes back to the long health care debate, which was all-consuming on Capitol Hill, but did not yield immediate, tangible economic results.
"The starting point was a long time spent on health care reform when voters were more focused on the economy… Legislative successes take time before they turn into actual improvements in people's lives," said Bocian, who predicted that the Wall Street reform bill would help Democrats once it passes.
For all their frustration with the bills that finally passed, liberal and progressive activists are not likely to stay home on election day.
"The base is not going to sit this one out," said Ilyse Hogue, the political advocacy director of Moveon.org "Our members have long-term memory. They know what it was like under Republican rule. "
But she said they will not be as active for moderate Democrats that don't share their ideals – even though t is those very candidates from purple and red states that give Democrats their majorities.
For the moment, she said, progressive activists will have to figure out how to come to terms with the disconnect between what they want legislation to look like and what Congress will pass.