This week, as political pundits analyze President Barack Obama’s first year in office ad infinitum, I’m trying to remember the optimism that surrounded his inauguration just one year ago. I recall fantasizing about an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress passing bill upon bill, legislating progress and reversing eight years of conservative damage.

Well, my dreams haven’t exactly come true … yet. And I won’t take the time to once more enumerate all of the terrific things that the Democrats have not yet done. But I’m a little nervous that in the upcoming midterm election, congressional Democrats won’t be given a chance to continue fighting for all the reforms important to liberal America. In the last election, Democrats were afforded a unique opportunity. The Left, galvanized by its hatred of George W. Bush, came out like never before in support of Obama and congressional Democrats. Moderates also voted largely Democratic because they, too, found regime change appealing.

But this year, during the midterm election, Democrats won’t have the advantage of being on the better side of public anger. And insofar as it may seem that Democrats have the upper hand at the moment, liberals won’t vote with the intensity of a resolute underdog. Republicans, however, probably will. They are outraged by Obama, pissed at Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and for a variety of reasons, they just generally vote more passionately than liberals.

By nature of their usual deference to status quo, conservatives generally feel a much greater sense of urgency than liberals do when it comes to social change. On abortion, for instance, liberals speak abstractly about a woman’s right to choose, where conservatives view the matter as one between life and death. Ergo, those on the Right are naturally more inclined to spring to action, when liberals tend to be much more passive. This phenomenon accounts for why abortion is still a hot-button issue, even though a 2006 Gallup poll found that roughly 80 percent of the country believes it should be legal at least under certain conditions.

Yet liberals have reasons to be fervent, too. Perhaps even more than in 2008, the Left has a lot at stake. First, Democrats need to maintain their congressional majority to ensure that meaningful health reform is achieved. Even if the current Congress works out some legislation, reform will likely require more intricate consideration in the years following the passage of an initial bill. Additionally, in order to guarantee that economic recovery is carefully managed, Congress can’t revert to the economic deregulation that led to the enormous financial irresponsibility that ruined the economy in the first place. And all of that is set against a social backdrop in which much progress — matters of income inequality, immigration, labor reform, gay rights, etc. — has yet to be set into motion.

With so much left to be accomplished, the Democrats must work overtime to avoid a repeat of the 1994 midterm election, when public frustration with the Democrats in power led to a major Republican takeover of Congress. And their work is cut out for them. This year, as tried-and-true Democratic Senators Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Chris Dodd of Connecticut both retire, the Democrats will have considerable difficulty replacing them — even though Dodd was expected to lose if he did run for a sixth term. Ten Democrats in the House aren’t seeking re-election and the party is losing certain key governors to term limits this year.

It is, perhaps, a slight silver lining that Republicans are losing even more incumbents: fourteen in the House and six in the Senate. But given the increased public frustration with the current Democratic Congress, paired with the fact that most of these seats are in solidly conservative districts, the replacement of these legislators should be rather easy for the GOP.

The bottom line is that Democrats could easily lose more than they gain this year if liberal leadership can’t maintain an energized base. Hopefully the economic measures they have just put in place will lead to a stronger economy in the summertime before the election, increasing their public support. But they cannot rely solely on that.

Democrats cannot rest on the laurels of their victories in the past two elections. They must find a way to get leftward-leaning Americans behind their message strongly enough that they will actually come out and vote. And if Democrats don’t succeed in bringing the debate back to core issues that matter to liberals, they’ll regret it when their significant congressional majority slips away from them.

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.

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