How to Stop the Bleeding

Surveying the midterm wreckage, Democrats now have to find a way to dig themselves out. Howard Kurtz talks to party strategists about what went wrong, who's at fault, and the way forward.

11.04.10 10:42 PM ET

The Democrats seem dazed and confused, unsure what to do after the electoral mugging that left them battered and bruised.

Some of the party's top strategists and activists are offering advice to President Obama, some of it incremental, some of it sweeping, much of it contradictory.

"His economic team needs to resign en masse," James Carville declares. "They may have saved the country from a depression, the history books may treat them kindly, but the electorate didn't treat them very kindly… None of our economic team could explain anything to anybody." Tim Geithner, take note: The Cajun is on your case.

Obama's signature failure, in Carville's view, was failing to crack down on "greedy" Wall Street bankers: "That's why the Democratic Party exists, to deal with that, and we just bailed them out and threw a Band-Aid over it."

Al Sharpton offers a more measured view, saying the left must recognize that Obama needs to do business with the likes of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

“The problem is Obama,” says Joe Trippi, who masterminded Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “I don’t think he’s going to change. I don’t think he’s as adaptable as Clinton was.”

"We have to give the president room to seek some compromise on things where there's common ground," Sharpton says. "It'd be bad to create a climate where we attack him for trying to work with McConnell and Boehner. There's been unrealistic sniping."

Others point fingers directly at the occupant of the Oval Office.

"The problem is Obama," says Joe Trippi, who this fall helped Jerry Brown win his old job back in California and was a mastermind of Howard Dean's 2004 campaign. "I don't think he's going to change. I don't think he's as adaptable as Clinton was." Dean, he says, "could end up being one of the guys who continue to challenge Obama from the left as Boehner and the Tea Party are pulling him to the center."

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The Democrats, in the grand tradition of their party, are famous for forming circular firing squads. To be sure, they may use rubber bullets this time since they still hold the White House and, thanks in part to Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, and Ken Buck, the Senate. But you don't lose 60-plus House seats without serious recriminations.

In a new paper for the middle-of-the-road journal The Democratic Strategist, Ed Kilgore, James Vega, and J.P. Green warn that "the mainstream media will build this into a 'Dems in disarray' narrative that will have major negative consequences for Democratic morale, mobilization, and public image." Guess what, guys: You don't need any help from the press on that score. The disarray is hangin' out there in plain view.

Any rational discussion of what Obama and his party need to do must begin with this existential question: What the hell happened? Reporters in the East Room tried repeatedly on Wednesday to get the president to acknowledge that the problem might have been his policies, not just the way they were marketed, but Obama stood his ground.

"To me this is mostly 'we're in charge, things aren't going well, and people punish you when that's the case,'" says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "I don't think the evidence is there to suggest a repudiation of policy."

Mellman's advice: The Democrats must "show that they are focused on jobs and the economy and hopefully produce some results in fairly short order"—easier said then done with unemployment at 9.6 percent. (Of course, Mellman defines fairly short order as "before the next election.")

A more fundamental indictment is that Obama utterly failed to connect the dots between the stimulus, health care, financial regulation and his other initiatives, which came to be defined by the opposition as big government run amok.

With Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, says Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton White House, "people got what they were about. People knew what Reagan stood for, people knew what Clinton stood for. The big challenge for this particular president is, what is our party's theory of the case?"

Obama, Lehane says, "ran an aspirational campaign that was about him and the idea of him. But there wasn't a specific theory of where he was going to take the country. If you were a centrist, if you were a progressive, you projected that he was the kind of president you wanted."

And what, after two years of Democratic rule, should that theory be? "Our country is in a fight for the jobs of the 21st century and we have to win that fight," Lehane says. "Every single day, you talk about it. Every single day, you do events that drive that. If Republicans aren't willing to go along, let's frame them as people who are on the opposite side of jobs."

Ah yes, the Republicans. Any discussion of saving the Democrats' bacon eventually comes around to the GOP, which will control the post-Pelosi House and be a few votes short of parity in the Senate, which the minority can tie in knots.

McConnell, who has made unemployment—that is, Obama's unemployment—his top priority, wasn't talking compromise in a speech Thursday to the Heritage Foundation: "If our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things," the minority leader said.

McConnell and Boehner, two veteran Beltway insiders, will be dealing with a Tea Party wing that views compromise as a dirty word. "These guys are a lot nuttier than the crowd that came in in '94," says Carville, arguing that his former boss had an easier time dealing with the Gingrich Republicans.

Some stab at dealmaking is inevitable, if only because both sides will want to demonstrate that they understand the voters' desire for results. But Mellman, who helped save two endangered Democrats, Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer, is among those who sees the bipartisan dance as a trap. As the health-care battle turned ugly, he says, "so much time was spent trying to negotiate with Republicans who had no interest in negotiating."

And it is here that the interests of the president and his legislative troops may diverge. Clinton famously triangulated his way to reelection, but Republicans remained in charge of both houses. As Obama increasingly focuses on 2012, House Democrats—those who remain, at least—are acutely aware that his first two years produced a disastrous shellacking.

"They won't say this out loud, but these guys all think they were cannon fodder for Pelosi and Obama," Trippi says. "If he's still on this mission of 'we're gonna do the right thing and curse the polls,' they're not going to be willing to walk the plank anymore—not after they just saw 60 or 65 of their best buds go out the window. It's really a mess."

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources, Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.