WASHINGTON—From Ohio, Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy describes "the worry, the anguish and sometimes despair" among her constituents and urges President Obama to spend more time with people who don't make "six-figure incomes."
From Pennsylvania, Rep. Joe Sestak says Americans are angry at a government that failed to guard them against economic catastrophe.
And from Virginia, Rep. Tom Perriello suggests that voters are less interested in "bipartisanship" than "postpartisanship." He explains: "What they're looking for is someone who solves the problem, not for a solution that happens to be half way between the two parties."
Last week, I sat down with these Democrats who were defeated in November to get their sense of what the election means for the future and how the president should respond. Their observations were more revealing than the abstractions that conventional punditry typically invokes to explain what "the people" supposedly said.
They spoke just off the floor of the House shortly after it approved an extension of the Bush tax cuts only for families earning under $250,000 a year. This vote of principle was unfairly dismissed as "symbolic," but Perriello said something that pointed to the opportunity Obama and the Democrats had kicked away.
"Why not up the game," he asked, "instead of playing the same old game?" Perriello was in no mood to criticize his already beleaguered party. But his comment pointed to how it might have avoided a debilitating tax cut endgame.
Rather than allow the debate to focus on an old tax measure from the beginning of the decade, Obama and the Democrats should early on have sought to replace the Bush tax cut. Their proposal could have shifted the tax burden away from middle-income taxpayers toward the wealthy while providing strong incentives for job creation and innovation along lines suggested by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
Being the party of "new and improved" surely beats getting trapped in a fight whose terms were set entirely by Republicans.
Improvement is what Kilroy's constituents, bludgeoned by long-term economic difficulties, are desperately seeking. The party's heavy losses this year among white working-class voters, she said, should not have come as a shock.
"I watched them in the last four years go from being anxious about the future to being worried, but also hopeful during the 2008 campaign, to being very angry." To explain, she invoked the world as seen by a person "who worked at Siemens for 25 years."
"You have a son who is a high school basketball player and wants to go to college—and then your factory goes off to Mexico," she says, "And you're a man of a certain age and another factory or another employer won't give you a second look. Think of the despair felt by that person."
Such voters see Washington as "a place where their interests get sold out." What they want, she says, is "to feel they're being treated as well as the bankers who get bailed out."
Sestak, who narrowly lost a race for U.S. Senate, argues that the electorate was moved less by a generalized hatred of government than by fury over its failure to prevent the financial crisis. "Government hadn't protected them from this calamity—and they hadn't done anything wrong," he says.
The election outcome, he said, "was a vote to neutralize government because no one has been making a case for what government can do or should do." A starting point might be fleshing out Sestak's vision of American society—"a nation of individual opportunity allied with the common enterprise"—that is a rather inspired alternative to both collectivism and social indifference.
For his part, Perriello sees an opening for politicians who set their minds to offering answers to the dejected Americans Kilroy describes. "There's a great opportunity here," he says. "Somebody has to come up with an agenda to make and build and grow things in this country. We have to say to that person that we haven't broken faith with you."
Democrats, he says, need to see the quest for social justice "as an entrepreneurial challenge as opposed to a compassion challenge," the idea being that government and business need to be inventive enough to create a new economy that fulfills the promises of the old.
Yes, and there's a certain president who got elected by sketching such a vision, wrapped in the words "hope" and "change." Kilroy, Sestak, and Perriello are all telling him that's what the voters are still looking for.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group