Watching the midterm elections last week was like eating dog food. Having to listen to newly elected congressman Rand Paul declare, "There are no rich, there are no middle class, there are no poor," made me want to throw up all over my health-insurance bills. Florida's Marco Rubio stole all of President Barack Obama's youthful swagger and perfectly calibrated charisma but failed to mention how his agenda would benefit the Haitians in Florida as much as his beloved Cuban-American exiles. Rep. John Boehner's (R-Ohio) victory tears took me over the edge. To borrow a line from my kick-ass agent: That man would rather eat his arm than enforce regulation of the industries that have brought this country to its knees.
By now we've done our weeping and read the postmortems. I loved the coverage in ColorLines, including this interview with Jeff Chang, and found the article in the New York Times that I nicknamed "Those Who Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail" enlightening. Both pieces corroborate what I've found to be a general consensus among many in generations X and Y: Democrats, in this administration in particular, need to be more proactive about bringing fresh blood into the fold.
Conservatives arguably have been on top of "winning the future" since Goldwater — founding think tanks that plan 30 and 40 years out, strategically reframing issues like campaign finance reform to sound like relics from a bygone era and making sure their people are in position no matter how old or young, experienced or not. The latest truism of Republican pragmatism is "the purpose of the minority is to become the majority." Which is what conservatives did so well this time around. They seeded and groomed. Passed the torch. Hit the refresh button. Pulled out losers and replaced them with “might winners.” They rewrote the party.
I've tried for years to understand why it is so hard for Dems to follow suit. Do progressive boomers have mortality issues, or are they unable to imagine what a seeded, progressive version of the Tea Party might look like? Whatever the case, while Democratic leadership had conference calls with Obama, the other parties were out picking their choices for homecoming: women of color, good-looking moderates and young, conservative up-and-comers. Sure, some of them weren't qualified. Sure, one of them had dabbled in witchcraft, but you know what? All is fair in love and war. John McCain stepped aside for a woman named Sarah Palin. That wasn't just politics; it was brinksmanship.
The Dems lost big because of the horrid, wretched state of the economy, but they also lost at least in part because the administration hasn't maintained meaningful contact with many of the brilliant, dynamic and deserving supporters who swept Obama into office in the first place. In 2008 I op-ed-ed, blogged, tweeted and did TV and radio for Obama in this country and the U.K., Italy and Japan and took hits from plenty of women — powerful women — for my efforts. I bled blue, and so did dozens of my very qualified friends: the ones who studied management, international law and global economics at Ivy League schools, and the ones so brilliant that they didn't need to go Ivy to transform urban decay into community gardens; write code that would change the way humans communicate forever; or articulate a critical view of race, class and gender bias in America.
When we heard that we should submit résumés for job openings in Obama's administration, we did, by the thousands. When progressive think tanks reached out to us indicating interest in bringing us on, we prepared ourselves for the call. We followed the news, took our iron supplements and got our megadose of hope locked and loaded. We didn't waver; we were ready and waiting. Which is exactly where we found ourselves during this last campaign. But the call didn't come in 2009 and it didn't come in 2010, either.
The first time we heard that Obama runs his ship lean and mean, we thought, well, OK. The second time we heard it, a year later, we thought, well, OK, but it can't be so lean and mean that it doesn't include the people who built the ship in the first place. And then we started to pay closer attention to the passengers the captain did bring on board. And when one of our own, Van Jones, was forced to walk the plank, many of us realized we might never make it to Washington. This was a wake-up call, because we know Obama can't change Washington without changing Washington. He may want to bring Washington to the people, but first he has to bring the people to Washington.
Then he'll have power. Then he'll have a team. But if he can't put his faith in us the way we put it in him; if he can't put himself on the line for us as we put ourselves on the line for him, well, then the president is going to have a problem. Not because I say so, but because the brain trust out here is too big to ignore. Obama needs to tap into it — not because it's the right thing to do, but because he's weaker without it. This election made it abundantly clear that, like the rest of America, he has spent a lot of his capital, and the only way to regain it is to ask for an infusion from his troops. But he's got to give them some rank. They'll walk over burning coals for him, but no one wants to be a grunt forever.
Rebecca Walker is the author of Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence. Follow her on Twitter.