“Why don’t they fight back?”

That’s the question I’ve been hearing from the Democratic Party’s stunned and dispirited base. For the past month, I’ve been on a book tour that has taken me to Asheville, N.C., Terre Haute, Ind., Austin, Texas, and elsewhere. Everywhere I go, supporters of President Obama and his agenda ask me why so many Democrats in Washington don’t stand up for what they say they believe.

I confess that I don’t have a good answer. What I can say with confidence, however, is that the White House and Democrats in Congress ignore these grumblings at their peril. Call it polarization, call it conviction, call it whatever you like: These are not wishy-washy times. If you don’t stand for something, you get run over.

We saw this principle in action last week. Anomie among the Democratic base was not the main reason the party suffered what Obama called a “shellacking” in the midterms, but clearly it was a factor. Elements of the party’s traditional coalition — minorities, women, young people — voted in much smaller numbers than they did in 2008. The “enthusiasm gap” turned out to be real, and it had real consequences.

I’ve been hearing frustration at the willingness of Democrats to accommodate a Republican Party that refuses to give an inch. To progressives who may not understand the subtleties of inside-the-Beltway thinking, this looks like surrender.

Wednesday night, I gave a talk at Indiana State University. “You watch,” said a man in the audience, “the Democrats are going to cave on the tax cuts for the rich, just like they caved on everything else.”

Sure enough, on Thursday I awoke to read the Huffington Post’s interview with White House senior adviser David Axelrod, in which he appeared to signal that Obama — with great reluctance — might have to accept an extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans after all. Otherwise, Republicans would continue to block the Democrats’ preferred course of action, which is to extend the full tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 a year.

Axelrod later denied that the White House is giving in. I hope that’s the case, but his words didn’t exactly convey flinty resolve.

Let’s examine this issue a little more closely. Making the tax cuts permanent for the wealthy would increase the deficit by $700 billion over the next decade. Which party claims to be urgently, desperately concerned about the deficit? The Republicans, of course. So which party is prepared to bust the budget, if that’s what it takes, in order to serve the interests of the rich? The GOP. And which party, to get its way, refuses to approve desperately needed tax relief for the bruised-and-battered middle class? Once again, the Republicans.

Now, which party holds the presidency and, until January, ample majorities in both houses of Congress? That would be the Democrats. Which party can point to public opinion polls indicating that Americans support its position that the Bush tax cuts should be extended only for the middle class? That, too, would be the Democrats. And finally, which party somehow appears to be looking for a way to lose this argument and capitulate? Incredibly, the Democrats.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that those who say the lesson from last week’s drubbing is that progressives should get a spine simply “don’t get it.” The explanation given by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and some others — that aside from stubbornly high unemployment, one contributing factor was the Democrats’ failure to explain their program and counter Republican misinformation — is seen by the conventionally wise as delusional.

But I’ve been meeting an awful lot of progressives around the country who share that delusion, if that’s what it is. They despair that their neighbors don’t know that it was George W. Bush who proposed the TARP bailout, not Obama — or that it worked, or that taxpayers are getting their money back. They wonder how health care reform came to be defined not as a moral issue or a way to slow rising costs, which it is, but as a “big government takeover,” complete with “death panels.” Which it isn’t.

What I’m hearing is frustration, and it’s getting louder. I’m hearing the view that the Obama administration, which has done much good, can do better — by speaking clearly, standing its ground — and, when pushed by bullies, shoving back.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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