What's Next for the Democrats?

The party is still trying to cope with this month's brutal electoral losses.

I was talking to Ted Strickland, the former governor of Ohio, when Nick Hanauer approached. "What did you call it again?" Strickland asked Hanauer, a Seattle-based tech zillionaire who has become a celebrity on the left for his advocacy of wealth redistribution.

"Feckless corporate stooges," Hanauer said, enunciating each word with a broad grin. In his speech earlier in the day at a summit hosted by the Center for American Progress, the Washington-based liberal outfit where Strickland now works, that was how Hanauer had described the way voters perceive Democratic candidates. According to Hanauer, it was this perception that lost the Democrats this month's elections.

"Ah, that's right," Strickland said. "I'm going to have that put on a T-shirt."

There's a predictable debate after every election, as the losing partisans cycle through rationalizations for why they lost. This time, it's the Democrats, who were slaughtered at an unexpected scale on November 4 and now must reckon with what went wrong and how to move forward.

When Republicans went through this two years ago, they were heckled constantly—by both the media and many of their own—about the need to moderate their positions if they ever wanted to win another election. But Democrats today are convinced there's nothing wrong with what they stand for—if anything, they just need to stand for it louder and more aggressively.

"The Democratic Party's message is not being heard from us. It's being heard from others," Kamala Harris, the attorney general of California who's widely viewed as a rising star in the party, told me. She and many other Democrats point to the success of minimum-wage ballot initiatives in several states as proof that the same voters who chose Republican representatives actually wanted Democratic policies.

This is a selective reading of the midterm results, to say the least. But to Harris, there was no question of changing the party's positions. "We need to stick to our values," she said. "Some would argue that when we don't do that, we lose."

This refrain could be heard over and over from the progressives who spoke at the summit—from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to climate-focused billionaire Tom Steyer. "Our agenda is America's agenda," Warren told the crowd. De Blasio said the Democrats who lost had failed to acknowledge and address "the inequality crisis." The Democratic brand, he said, had lost all meaning: "We're literally unidentifiable to the public." he said.

Though these figures are usually characterized as the party's leftist wing, CAP is squarely in the Democratic Party's mainstream, with deep ties to the Obama administration and the prospective Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Another of the day's panelists was John Podesta, currently a counselor to Obama, formerly a president of CAP, and likely a future chairman of the prospective Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

In the afternoon, Steyer—who poured tens of millions into the midterm elections only to see almost all the candidates he supported lose—spoke on a panel about climate. Carol Browner, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, applauded his work: "You made climate a part of this election debate, and we thank you for that."

Later that same day, the Senate would fail to pass a bill authorizing building the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Steyer ardently opposes. Nonetheless, 14 Democratic senators supported it. Steyer was asked if that bothered him. He paused for a long moment.

"No," he finally said. "When we look around the country at the states where we've been active, being wrong on these issues has not paid off for anybody." Steyer added, "Not standing up for the things you really believe to protect yourself is not a winning strategy."

To Republicans, of course, this election looked very different: a definitive repudiation of President Obama and his policies, which he explicitly said, in an October speech echoed in a thousand campaign commercials, were "on the ballot." But Democrats insist this was not really the case—that voters, discouraged by gridlock or confused by Republican obfuscation, had trouble discerning what the parties stood for, and cast their votes—or stayed home—for other, murkier reasons. "A lot of people felt that this was an issue-less election," Neera Tanden, the president of CAP, told me, noting many pundits described it that way.

Tanden's takeaway from the election was that too many candidates didn't address voters' central concerns. "When progressives don't offer ideas for how to solve the challenges people are facing, people are going to stay home," she said. "They don't feel like politics is working for them." Despite Democrats' attempts to increase participation, 2014 actually saw lower turnout than a typical midterm year. To Tanden, that was because too many candidates didn't give people a reason to vote.

Like the Republicans after 2012, Democrats have announced they are planning a self-critical examination of this year's electoral failure, though it appears to be focused on tactics, not policy. Announcing the review, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said, "We know we're right on the issues .... But the electoral success we have when our presidential nominee is able to make a case to the country as a whole, doesn't translate in other elections."

Even before the next midterms, however, how Democrats view this year's rebuke will have consequences for the party's 2016 nominee and, in the nearer term, how the party decides to deal with the new Republican congressional majority. Even as they counseled holding fast to principles, the progressives at CAP didn't advocate a strategy of obstruction by Obama and congressional Democrats. As the pro-government party, Tanden said, Democrats have more to lose when government doesn't function.

Strickland told me Democrats have spent too much time developing small-bore messages for niche audiences without painting a larger picture of their vision. (In his own home state, which Obama won twice, the Democratic gubernatorial challenger, burdened by personal baggage, lost by 30 points to Republican Governor John Kasich.) "I don't think people were inspired by what they heard from us," Strickland said.

Hanauer, the self-hating capitalist, put it more succinctly. "Democrats are too cautious in every election," he told me. "On so many issues, the moderately intelligent voter will conclude there's no real difference between Democrats and Republicans." The answer, to him, was simple: "Don't be a corporate stooge!"