The average American lost big in the midterm election yesterday when their last, best, if imperfect, hope, the Democratic party, was, in legislative terms at least, buried. There’s lots of reasons why that happened, but we’re already on the case for 2016 and will, with some luck, resurrect our party and, maybe, undo some of the harm we can expect to experience over the next two years. As TPM’s Josh Marshall notes, it’s likely that “the Democratic party’s future is bright. More importantly […] its central goals remain in the ascendent.”
But meantime, I’ve been obsessively reading what my preferred progressives have had to say about why we lost and what we need to do about it. Their comments seem to have three distinct foci: (1) strategic Republican obstructionism paid off big-time; (2) Democrats failed to stand tall and represent when it came to their core values and principles; and, in more specific terms, (3) Democrats failed to craft a coherent economic message at a time when, despite general prosperity, the middle and working class is hurting.
Several progressive writers bitterly noted that obstructionism and negativity have worked spectacularly for Republicans who have been more than willing to take advantage of the fact that few Americans will take the time to really understand the issues, and are, hence, easily fooled by whatever noise the GOP and its media mouthpieces make:
Steve Benen at the Maddow Blog:
When there is no accountability in a political system, there is no incentive for even well-intentioned policymakers to behave responsibly. It seems quite twisted: an unpopular party with unpopular ideas failed miserably at basic governance, and was rewarded handsomely for its efforts. The process isn’t supposed to work this way, and yet we now know it works exactly this way.
The resulting precedent is more than a little discouraging. When failure is rewarded, it encourages more failure. When obstruction is rewarded, it encourages more obstruction. When radicalism is rewarded, it encourages more radicalism. When a refusal to compromise is rewarded, it means politicians will be led to believe they, too, should refuse to work on bipartisan solutions.
It’s not a recipe for sound governance.
Josh Marshall of TPM;
. . . it is much easier to break the government and reap the benefits of doing so if you are not the party of government. This is obvious when you put it this way. But it’s worth considering what a central reality this is.
We should also remember that this is exactly what Republicans did in 1993 and 1994. The script was identical. The difference is actually a good one for Democrats in that they got a lot more accomplished in 2009-10 than the more entrenched Democratic majority of 1993-94. Still, the strategy was identical and it had a similar result – the difference being needing three cycles to finally grab the Senate.
Jonathan Chait at New York News & Politics:
Liberals may still own the future of American politics, but the future is taking a very long time to arrive.
So what happens now? In the short term, nothing. The newly minted Republican leaders are mouthing the requisite platitudes about cooperation. But Mitch McConnell did not become the majority leader by cooperating. His single strategic insight is that voters do not blame Congress for gridlock, they blame the president, and therefore reward the opposition. Eternally optimistic seekers of bipartisanship have clung to the hope that owning all of Congress, not merely half, will force Republicans to “show they can govern.” This hopeful bit of conventional wisdom rests on the premise that voters are even aware that the GOP is the party controlling Congress. In fact, only about 40 percent of the public even knows which party controls which chamber of Congress, which makes the notion that the Republicans would face a backlash for a lack of success fantastical.
Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast:
But what about Obama? He’s done as far as any new initiatives are concerned. He probably can’t do this immigration reform-by-fiat now. They’ll impeach him for sure. All he can do now is try to protect health care and try to make this ISIS war work. There might be some opportunities on trade and tax policy, but those will exist about 75 percent on Republican turf. And emphasis on “might”: The Republicans, McConnell’s pretty speech to the contrary, won’t want to work with Obama on anything. Their interest, as ever, is in pushing the perception that Washington is dysfunctional. It works for them. It worked Tuesday night. It worked in 2010. They want Americans to perceive Washington as broken, especially heading into 2016. There’s no better simplistic argument for “change.” Obstruction has just been rewarded, in a huge way. You expect them to change?
David Edsall at The New York Times quotes political scientist David Legee to explain one crucial mechanism of the GOP success: diminishing the president. Republican opportunism cannot thrive when people really believe in that “hopey-changey stuff,” and reducing the perception of the President and his ability to inspire hope and effect change was a key goal:
Bi-election year 2014 was the final chapter in making the president small. The immediate aftermath of 2008 was that Americans had finally conquered their racial aversions. The election of Barack Obama was a victory both for renewed national hope and long-awaited democracy. Obama was big, a star, a voice to be reckoned with, a mind to be taken seriously.
By 2014 Obama was small, a punching bag, easily bullied, the one to whom small politicians could talk tough, abusively, the one whose ideas were ignored, the one whom his fellow partisans would come to avoid at all cost. How could this happen in six short years?
Some commentators were not content to chronicle the success of the GOP chaos-machine that has been operating full-bore over the past four years, but also called out the Democrats who let them get away with it:
Jeff Schweitzer, former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Marine biologist and neurphysiologist, writing at the Huffington Post:
This story highlights the major failure of the left. Democrats have not defined the agenda or narrated the story. This capitulation creates a void of reason such that absurdities like McConnell’s claim can take hold without everybody doubling over in laughter. Like frightened children Democrats run from Obama’s record, as defined by the right, rather than championing his amazing successes as defined by fact. Much to the credit of the Republican political machine, and with equal shame to the Democrats, the far right has been able to convince the public that everything bad is Obama’s fault, but that Obama is responsible for nothing that is good. When that does not work, they create the illusion that what is good is bad; health care comes to mind.
Democrats have ceded the territory of reality to Republican fantasy. . . .
Still more commentators took the blame directly to the failure of Democrats to articulate a bold economic agenda although none have, at least that I have read so far, attempted to answer the question of why that has been the case:
Ed Kilgore at The Washington Monthly states the issue the most directly and simply:
In the end, a vote is a vote. And while Democrats hope to restore their 2008-12 margins among young and minority voters in 2016, and turn them out, if the Donkey Party ever wants to get back into a position to govern and not just block Republican extremism, it’s going to have to develop an economic message that resonates with white voters who now view government rather than corporate elites as the chief obstacle to their aspirations.
Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast does not believe that Democrats actually lack a viable economic agenda, but simply that, once again, they have failed to communicate in terms that are meaningful to the voters they need to persuade:
I’m not going where you (especially if you’re conservative) suspect I’m going with this-the standard liberal moan that working-class white people are voting against their interests. That’s something Democrats have to get out of their heads and stop saying. People don’t vote against their interests. They vote for their interests as they see them. And right now, working-class and blue-collar whites think the Democratic Party is just implacably against them.
Of course I don’t think it’s true that the Democratic Party is implacably against them. I think they just think the Democratic Party is implacably against them, and part of the reason-not the whole reason, but part of the reason-they think the Democratic Party is implacably against them is that Democratic candidates in red states have no idea how to tell them they’re on their side.
Harold Meyerson at The American Prospect gets closer to the heart of the issue when he suggests that no Democrats other than Elizabeth Warren has had the intestinal wherewithal to address the politically privileged status of financial elites. Of course, the thread leading from this insight to the role of money in running the entire political system, a fact that itself likely accounts for the economic timidity of the Democratic party, isn’t explicity stated:
But the Democrats’ failure isn’t just the result of Republican negativity. It’s also intellectual and ideological. What, besides raising the minimum wage, do the Democrats propose to do about the shift in income from wages to profits, from labor to capital, from the 99 percent to the 1 percent? How do they deliver for an embattled middle class in a globalized, de-unionized, far-from-full-employment economy, where workers have lost the power they once wielded to ensure a more equitable distribution of income and wealth? What Democrat, besides Elizabeth Warren, campaigned this year to diminish the sway of the banks? Who proposed policies that would give workers the power to win more stable employment and higher incomes, not just at the level of the minimum wage but across the economic spectrum?
I agree with everything that these pundits have written – aside from a few quibbles – but, ultimately, to me, it all comes down to Citizens United, the Supreme Court and the power of money in politics. Until we disable the political greenback, we cannot expect the best from our Democrats – or from our Republicans. If big money essentially running the entire show, Republicans are their lapdogs, eating big off the table leavings. Democrats, the strays huddled at the back door, if they want to survive, have to make nice to get a few of those crucial table scraps; they might shuffle and growl a little when the oligarch opens the door, but don’t expect them to bite the hand that feeds them.