Progressives: Big Ideas Will Win Us 2016

The 2014 election was a wipeout, progressives say, because Democrats lacked a bold economic message to inspire voters. Now they have a new plan to win—with or without Hillary Clinton.

12.10.14 10:45 AM ET

For progressives, the waning days of 2014 should be as dark a moment as their movement has faced since 2004.

Then, despite hundreds of millions of dollars from liberal champions like George Soros being poured into an unprecedented grassroots organizing campaign, despite the Howard Dean campaign bringing scores of young people with their laptops to the cornfields of Iowa, despite the flourishing of the new Netroots, the launch of the liberal radio network Air America, Michael Moore selling out movie theaters, and the Iraq War’s popularity cratering, John Kerry still lost to a president many Democrats viewed as an idiot. Then, The Nation magazine’s post-election cover simply featured a picture of storm clouds. Lead columnist Katha Pollitt’s piece inside ran under the headline “Mourn.”

Now progressives are sifting through the wreckage of a midterm election in which the country appeared to take a decidedly conservative turn, not just in the South but in the formerly purple redoubts of the Northeast and Mountain states. Movement progressives, many of whose groups sprang up over the past 15 years in opposition to the kind of triangulation Bill Clinton’s leadership of the party heralded, are blanching the prospect of an all-but-certain Hillary Clinton nomination as Democratic Party standard-bearer. Even The New Republic has been gutted!

“Democrats lost in 2014 because they failed to have a big, bold economic message that tangibly impacts people’s lives,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “People didn’t wake up on Election Day with a reason to vote.”

To remedy that, Green and the PCCC are launching a new initiative designed to grab the agenda and drag the party leftward in the run-up to the 2016 election. On Wednesday morning, the group is announcing a plan to solicit what it is calling its “Big Ideas Project” with a new website, ThinkBig.Us, that will invite elected officials, policy experts, and the general public to submit and vote on the ideas they want to see the Democratic Party take control of next.

Thirty members of Congress, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, have agreed to review the proposals once they are complete.

“There is a hunger for big ideas,” said Green. “The last election, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent saying, ‘Vote against Republicans because they will do something bad,’ as opposed to offering any governing vision on what we do.”

Among the ideas that Green proposed is free college education for all, something he said would motivate young people and their parents to vote in 2016.

Other groups in the progressive orbit are trying out other tactics. This week, and Democracy for America announced they were teaming up with Ready for Warren, raising money to convince liberal hero Elizabeth Warren to run for president, despite her insistence that she is not interested.

“From our point of view, the defining issue of the moment is the explosion of inequality, where the rules are rigged by the one percent and Wall Street to the detriment of ordinary Americans,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn. “We want candidates and voters in the mix in the 2016 primary who will speak to the need to change the system so that it works for everyone.”

A challenge to Clinton from the left, Wikler said, whether it comes from Warren or someone else, would ensure that these ideas of economic populism become part of the next Democratic administration, much the same way the Affordable Care Act grew out of the Obama/Clinton/John Edwards debates of 2008.

Many progressives said that despite heartening actions from the Obama administration on climate change and immigration, they were looking beyond the next two years to rebuild the movement.

“Progressives are thinking beyond Obama at this point,” said Green. “We need to use 2015 and 2016 to set the stage for 2017.”

And some are thinking even beyond that. In an email, Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Netroots hub Daily Kos, said the progressive movement’s main focus should be on figuring out its turnout problems for the next midterm election in 2018 by exciting those who do not often vote in off years.

“Did you know that more people voted for Barack Obama in 2012 in ALABAMA than voted for the Republican candidate for governor in the state this year?” he wrote in an email. “If our people turn out, we win, and that’s the big challenge heading into future cycles…Republicans cannot win when turnout is 60 percent. The challenge is, can we win in 2018, because as long as we continue to see that kind of massive base Democratic vote dropoff in non-presidential years, Republicans will stick around despite representing an increasingly small minority of the American public.”

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Others agree, pointing out that the 2014 is not as dark a year as it may seem.

“The losses of 2014 were Democratic losses, they weren’t progressive losses,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America. He noted that ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, legalize marijuana, and grant greater civil rights to gays, all won, as did progressive candidates like Al Franken of Minnesota and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

DFA is joining MoveOn in its Draft Warren efforts, but Chamberlain said other campaigns will be even more important in 2016:

“We want to recruit Elizabeth Warrens up and down the ballot in every state who understand that these issues of economic populism are the key to rebuilding the middle class.”

Meanwhile, the hard work of movement building continues. Progressives are bracing for a series of initiatives at the state level that will weaken their infrastructure, much as Scott Walker attempted with his public sector union reforms in Wisconsin. They see some hope in the nationwide protests over the rulings in Ferguson and New York City as potentially organizing more voters around issues of police and criminal justice reform. Efforts to organize low-wage workers like fast food and car wash workers could, in time, replace some of the union power that will be lost by Republican efforts at the state level.

“There has to be this conscious focus on what are the issues that we are drawing the lines on, and teeing it up to prove to people which side we are on,” said Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future. “That is very hard for the Democratic Party to do, because they are trying to raise a couple of billion dollars to win the next election.”