[Note: see also Thomas Franks on progressives, Democrats, and Occupy.]

Thomas Frank’s book “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right” explains how President Obama and the Democrats mismanaged the major economic and health care policies of his first term. In particular, they mismanaged the messaging war.

Rather than fighting back against the anti-government, anti-tax ideology of the Tea Party, Obama and the Democrats turned rightward.  They should have educated the Americans about the role of government and taxation. Instead they parroted right wing talking points about markets and jobs and austerity.

Facing right wing criticisms of his health care plan at town hall meetings in the summer of 2009, the Democrats abandoned the public option.

In full retreat before the right-wing onslaught, the Democrats threw themselves in the arms of their corporate allies. They jettisoned the simpler, more popular, but more government-centric idea under consideration and settled on the “individual mandate…. Naturally, it delighted the private insurance companies.

That’s how a populist outburst from the Right caused the inarticulate Democrats to abandon the most populist element of their own plan and choose instead what we might call the elitist option, a crony-capitalist solution in which public choices would be diminished by corporate profits guaranteed.

“Democrats .. did little as their former best friends in organized labor with scythed down by organized money…. They have permitted nothing less than the decimation of the own grassroots social movement; the silencing of their own ideology. ”

Obama’s response to the economic disaster was to surround himself economic advisers who were responsible for the disaster in the first place, and to continue the Bush bailouts of  Wall Street.

The low point, says Frank, came in the debt ceiling debate. “Having nobly divested himself of bargaining chips some months before, Obama now declared that he would answer Republican demands by seeking some high minded ‘grand bargain.” He allowed that cuts to Social Security and Medicare, two of the proudest achievements of the Democratic Party, might well be necessary, and gave his ascent as Republicans

No wonder the Tea Party won big in 2010.  They were the one who professed a populist outrage at the bailouts and government corruption — even though, in fact, their Republican sponsors were the ones most responsible for the bailouts and corruption. The point, though, is that the Dems failed to be populist and progressive.  They seemed afraid to defend government and taxation, lest the Republicans accuse them of being socialist.

“Sometimes when I watch the Washington Democrats in action, my mind goes back to the tragically incompetent British general staff off World War I, ordering assault after gigantic assault, only to see their armies annihilated one after another. But still they keep at it, playing by their gentlemanly rules of combat, never doing anything remotely clever.”