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View From Washington


A debate has raged across the country about whether Democrats suffered a "shellacking" on Tuesday because of their policy failures or their incompetent messaging. I would argue both. Democrats went down the path to dismal defeat not only because the right was motivated but also because the left was equally as unmotivated -- meaning outraged conservatives convinced moderates and independents that Democrats had pushed the country in the wrong direction even as progressives didn't see any of the changes they had hoped for.

The turnout and voting patterns were a symptom of the fact that during his first two years in office, President Barack Obama and his White House delivered nothing short of a true progressive's most fiendish nightmare: He governed from the middle but failed to enlist enough GOP help to tag them with partial responsibility. Then he simultaneously left the substance of his centrist policies to be framed by the right, which naturally labeled his initiatives as dangerously liberal and even socialist in nature.

The result of that toxic formula is that progressives didn't get much of they wanted and yet the population as a whole has been left to believe that America has jumped off the liberal deep end.

Take health care, for instance, where the White House cut an early deal with insurers in order to keep them at the table that effectively abandoned the public option just a few months into the process. This was a centrist tactic focused mainly on cutting health care costs even though it also guaranteed that not every American would be insured. As one might guess, the White House was not keen on letting its progressive base in on this little compromise and so kept it under wraps for much of the remainder of the negotiating process. But because the administration bypassed transparency, Republicans were left to cast health reform in purely liberal terms while the White House failed to level with the public about what it was really doing.

As the GOP was running away with the messaging -- selling people on the fabrication that "death panels" would now decide the fate of elderly people and whether their care would be insured -- the White House missed the opportunity to trumpet the positives: the fact that parents would be able to keep unwed kids on their insurance plan until they were 26, that insurers would one day be unable to reject people based on preexisting conditions or suddenly drop their coverage of someone diagnosed with a costly ailment.

In short, Obama didn't govern as a progressive but was painted as one. Therefore, progressives didn't get what they voted for and yet the rest of the country was led to believe the "progressive" agenda had pushed us down a dark path to nowhere.

Here's lesson 1: If you're going to let yourself be characterized as a liberal, you damn well better be one; otherwise the base that elected you won't turn up at the polls to get your back once you've given a bad name to everything they believed in but never actually got.

The health care thesis holds true for repealing "don't ask, don't tell" as well. The White House iced a pre-midterm vote this year for the blessing of Defense secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen. It was essentially like saying, If you'll work with us on this, we'll let you set your own time line for repeal. This was a centrist approach. The White House decided it didn't want to ruffle many feathers over at the Pentagon - at least not on DADT -- so it declined to do something more aggressive, like push for a vote in 2009 or issue a stop-loss order that would have temporarily halted all discharges.

Now, one could argue that getting military leaders on board with repeal was a smart idea, but one would be hard-pressed to find the genius in letting the top brass set their own time line when everybody knew there would only be two years to pound this through with unprecedented Democratic majorities. (Remember, with the White House's blessing, the Pentagon arbitrarily chose the date for release of its study to be December 1, comfortably after the midterms yet close enough to year's end to almost surely doom a vote. How different would this look, for instance, if they had taken six months to study repeal and released their report in August?)

The White House communications failure is not necessarily new to Democrats, who are typically challenged when it comes to reducing political arguments down to the black-and-white, good-versus-evil variety that Republicans have always excelled at. But this White House added another wrinkle to the ruin with its commitment to ignoring the mainstream media, which has proved a fatal flaw.

It seems the administration's Web 3.0 communications shop believed that between its election e-mail list of several million, the president's weekly video addresses, and posting an absurd number of documents online, it wouldn't really need the traditional media to communicate and would have an easier time controlling the messaging.

What the White House found out is that journalists exist for a reason. Regular folks don't have the time to sift through every document under he sun or take in Washington's incessant political posturing in order to figure out what's really happening. They rely on journalists to give them some modicum of understanding because it's a journalist's full-time job to track progress and setbacks.

Lesson 2: You can spend the lion's share of your time trying to keep journalists in the dark, but the other side will happily enlighten them.

By now, we all know how this played out at the polls: The GOP has picked up at least 63 House seats to capture a healthy majority and shaved down Senate Democratic control to only 53 seats (including the two independents who caucus with Dems); 19 state legislative chambers flipped to Republican control (a total pickup so far of 675 seats, far surpassing GOP pickups in 1994), and the GOP snagged six new gubernatorial seats, giving it a 29-20 advantage with 1 Independent.

The state legislature pickups are especially worrisome for Dems because the redistricting process that starts in just a few months will now be very much in the hands of Republicans, who control 55 chambers to the Democrats' 38 chambers (two are tied, while New York, Oregon, and Washington remain undecided and Nebraska is unicameral).

Some coverage has been given to the fact that gays, while representing only 3% of voters, voted for Republicans at a rate of 31% this year, versus 27% in 2008, 24% in 2006, and 23% in 2004.

But I am much more intrigued by one segment of the voting population that proved decisive in 2008: the under-30 crowd, which made up 18% of voters in '08 but only 9% of voters in 2010 -- a steep 50% drop-off. Sure, it's a midterm versus a general election, so it's not a perfect comparison. But young people were a big part of the voting bloc that pushed Obama over the hump in '08. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that 66% of the nation's youngest voters supported Obama in '08, compared to 50% of all other voters.

Some key motivators for millennials are health care, the environment, job availability, college affordability, and LGBT equality. Turns out, this is a generation that actually places a premium on their gay sisters and brothers being treated as equals. One post-election '08 poll found that fully 77% of Obama's 18- to 29-year-old supporters said gay marriage should be allowed, compared to 45% of his older supporters.

It's little wonder this group wasn't so enthusiastic about this year's midterms; the only priority Dems accomplished for them was health reform -- but not as they would have liked it. That same poll showed 60% of millennials supported universal health care (i.e. the public option the White House sacked early on). Not delivering on "don't ask, don't tell" was a missed opportunity for Obama to actually embody the transformational figure he projected himself to be to these young voters during his campaign.

All said and done, there weren't many bright spots in this election for LGBT progressives.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, believes there may be openings to advance marriage equality in Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island, given that all three elected pro-marriage governors.

California offered a "big bright blue spot," as Rick Jacobs of the Courage Campaign put it, with what looks to be pro-marriage candidates making a clean sweep of every major office in the Golden State: Barbara Boxer reelected as senator, Jerry Brown as governor, Gavin Newsom as lieutenant governor, and it's still looking like Kamala Harris will hang on by a hairbreadth for attorney general.

It was also the first election in recent memory (over a decade, I believe) where some homophobic ballot measure wasn't either considered or passed.

Also, Vice-Mayor Jim Gray, who is gay, became Lexington, Ky.'s mayor-elect; Marcus Brandon was elevated to the North Carolina state house, becoming the only openly gay African-American legislator in the state; and if Victoria Kolakowski hangs on, her election as a superior court judge in California's Alameda County will make her the first openly transgender judge in America. And Providence, RI, mayor David Cicilline will become the fourth openly gay member of the House come January.

But by and large, the election was a repudiation of the White House's failure to focus on the one issue that unites every American regardless of age, race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation: jobs.

The fact that the 111th Congress will most likely retire with hate-crimes legislation as its sole LGBT accomplishment is also a repudiation of the progressive approach to advancing equality. The movement either focused on the wrong priorities or didn't press the right buttons, and LGBT leaders were clearly unwilling to hold accountable the very Democrats who have promised equality advances year in and year out if only they controlled Congress and the White House. What is patently obvious is that Democratic leadership always has something better to do than pass equality legislation. Washington politicians have proved that they are never willing to take a tough vote, and they are getting ready to do that again with "don't ask, don't tell" during the lame-duck session.

If you have been listening closely, President Barack Obama is already laying the groundwork for dropping blame at the feet of Republicans if the National Defense Authorization Act fails (let's keep in mind that charming and arm-twisting politicians from across the aisle is part of the legislative process and, so far, the White House and Senate Democratic leadership have expended almost no political capital to advance the NDAA bill with DADT attached).

Also, when outlining his priorities this week for the lame-duck session, the president made no mention of the defense funding bill, nor did press secretary Robert Gibbs. Any chance this sounds familiar? Gibbs was having the same issue last month. When left to his own devices to list lame-duck priorities, guess what never came up: the NDAA.

As much it's my number 1 charge as a journalist to be accurate, this is one instance where I would love to be proven wrong. But failing that, it's clearly time for the community to focus its energies elsewhere. Now that House control has switched hands, it's perhaps a positive that our national progressive organizations can go back to demonizing the GOP -- it's really the only thing they know how to do. But while they are busy doing that, let's remember that Democrats had full run of Washington for two years and their only LGBT accomplishment looks to be the hate-crimes law.

Unfortunately, the crushing Democratic losses at the state level mean that getting many LGBT issues addressed in those chambers will be equally difficult. The only prescription in my book is to go back to the basics - back to grassroots organizing and education.

As Freedom to Marry's Wolfson told me, "Even if we can't get the political advances, we have a tremendous opportunity to do the public engagement work that absolutely needs to be done in order to lay the foundation for the defensive fights we might have to endure and for when the political climate changes."

Perhaps, one day, we may even elect politicians with the backbone and moral compass of Iowa's Mike Gronstal, Democratic majority leader of the state senate, who stands as perhaps a solitary human roadblock to a perverse effort to strip same-sex couples of their right to marry in the state.

Hawkeye Republicans -- empowered with control of the state house and a newly elected GOP governor and emboldened by a $1-million effort that retired three Iowa supreme court justices targeted for the unanimous decision legalizing gay marriage -- are eyeing an opportunity to let their fellow Iowans vote on the rights of a minority. So much for the Founding Fathers' hope that establishing a Republic would keep certain inalienable rights from being abrogated by the majority.

But Gronstal is unapologetically standing on principle.

"The easy political thing for me to do years ago would have been to say, 'Oh, let's let this thing go. It's just too political and too messy,'" Gronstal told The Des Moines Register. "What's ugly is giving up what you believe in - that everybody has the same rights. Giving up on that? That's ugly."

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