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Bingel: Democrats Must Listen to the Voters They Lost

Many writers have offered their views on why Democrats lost so many seats in Congress. As a Southerner who still defines herself as a Democrat despite being pro-life and fiscally conservative, I’m most concerned about why my party lost 23 seats in the South and 19 in the Midwest. It seems my party has forgotten how to talk to people like me.

I was a college Republican at Louisiana State University but transitioned to the Democratic point of view while covering crime and politics as a reporter in rural Oklahoma. I moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a Democrat, then-Rep. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), in 1993 because I shared her vision that our government should help those who couldn’t quite dig themselves out of their woes.

But the electorate she and I believed our government should help vehemently rejected Democrats in this election.

Across the country, white working-class voters soundly thumped Democratic Members of Congress. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, Democrats lost white voters without a college degree — one significant measure of blue-collar voters — by almost 30 points in House races. Half of the Democratic members of the House Agriculture Committee lost after spending collective decades fighting for farm programs. And senior citizens chose Republicans by 21 points, according to CNN’s exit polls.

It seems many voters don’t appreciate the government programs designed to assist them. Just look at the electoral map post-election for a visual reminder of this narrative. The middle of the country is now bright red with isolated urban pockets of blue.

But there is a way back for my party in that part of the country.

After the last Great Shellacking of 1994, I helped then-Reps. Lincoln, John Tanner (Tenn.) and others create the Blue Dog Coalition. Blue Dogs are Democrats largely from competitive bellwether districts committed to fiscal discipline and bipartisan cooperation. These Members found such principles worth fighting for back then, and they helped engineer welfare reform and fostered fiscal plans that eliminated deficit spending and balanced the budget under President Bill Clinton.

We need Blue Dog Democrats now more than ever.

With the nation still fighting two wars abroad and up to its eyeballs in debt, the Blue Dogs’ hour has come. Many terrific and courageous leaders remain, such as Reps. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah). In the Senate, fiscal conservatives such as Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.)and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) stand ready to work with them to address our fiscal woes.

I suspect they will find new allies, among both Congressional freshman Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and newly elected Republicans who have come to Washington on a message of limiting government.

I urge leaders of the Democratic Party to listen to the voters they lost. They don’t believe in more government as a solution to job creation or much else and are wary about the deficit and debt. They are not going to reward our party for unconditional expansion of what we think of as popular government programs like price supports for farmers, assistance for displaced workers and benefits for seniors if the cost is mountains of debt on their children and grandchildren.

Their message was to cut government spending and reduce the size of government. Let’s make our response not about explaining away their concerns but about showing that our party is willing to put all options on the table in the name of fiscal responsibility, even the sacred cows.

A unique opportunity awaits the next Congress as it reviews the report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The commission provides not only bipartisan cover to do the right thing in cutting farm programs and increasing the retirement age for Social Security benefits but also a way to reclaim the balanced budget moral high ground for Democrats politically.

Take a hard look at that map and all the voters who have already deserted the party or who maybe feel the party has deserted them. The Blue Dogs who lost voted predominantly against cap-and-trade legislation and health care reform. They didn’t lose because they followed the party line. They lost because the party line was a noose around their necks.

It’s time to change the party line. You have nothing to lose by shrinking the government programs that you helped create and that voters now rail against. The very people you’ve been trying to help sent a message very different from “thank you” in the 2010 midterm elections.

Kelly Bingel is a partner at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and a former chief of staff to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).

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