Obama’s Midterm Misconception

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Democrats may be headed for a sound and meaningful defeat.

As the prognosticators have adjusted their horoscopes and hesitantly determined that the Republicans may well have a fruitful November, President Obama has sought refuge in a fantasy. “In midterms,” Obama complained to donors last night, “we get clobbered, either because we don’t think it’s important or because we get so discouraged about what’s happening in Washington that we think it’s not worth our while.” Noting obsequiously how grateful he was for their money and support, the president went on to hit a bittersweet note. “We’re going to have to get over that,” he insisted. “This is a top priority.”

Comforting as it must be for the president and his friends, there are a few rather vital words missing from this impressively aloof explanation: namely, “when I’m president.” As in, “in midterms, we get clobbered when I’m president.” As the Hill noted without favor, the Democratic party’s problem is not that its electorate is disqualified from voting in the off-years, but that its political fortunes are in poor shape. Democrats have “refused to campaign with Obama,” the paper confirmed. Why have they done this? Because they don’t wish to be associated with the White House. And why don’t they wish to be associated with the White House? Because people don’t like the president and they don’t like his signature law.

The blithe assertion that Democrats don’t do so well in the midterms has gained currency of late, as if it were an immutable rule of American politics of which all and sundry were regretfully aware. Instead it is a tautology, the argument being at root that “Democrats don’t perform well in midterm elections because people don’t go and vote for Democrats in midterm elections.” Well, yes, Virginia. That’s how politics works. When people vote for you and your interests in great numbers, you win; when they don’t, you lose.

Still, this rather simple explanation is evidently unpalatable to the president, whose inquiry into the mystery of his party’s declining fortunes will apparently not involve acknowledging just how electorally septic his primary achievement has become. “The challenge,” Obama divined before his wealthy crowd, “is that our politics in Washington have become so toxic that people just lose faith.”

As a piece of analysis, this offering suffers from the intractable problem of being untrue. While Barack Obama has been president, Democrats have certainly had a tough time with the midterms. They were “shellacked” in 2010, after they rammed through a health-care bill that the public opposed, and, if the polls are to be believed, they may well be “clobbered” in 2014 as well. But ’twas by no means ever thus. In 2006, Democrats swept all before them, winning a majority of the state governorships and regaining control of the House (+35 seats) and the Senate (+5 seats) in such style that a reeling President Bush conceded he had been given a “thumpin’.” In 1998, too, the party beat the odds. What gives?

To buy what the president is selling, one would have to believe that there was no “toxic atmosphere” in Washington, D.C., in 2006, which year’s elections were fought at the height of the backlash against the Iraq War and against the acidic backdrop of the Abramoff and Foley scandals, the indictment of Tom DeLay, and the Terry Schiavo affair. Likewise, one would have to swallow whole the suggestion that the Democrats’ 1998 midterm triumph was the product of calm waters — a feat that would require steadfastly ignoring that Democrats managed to win a famous victory at the same time as President Clinton was being impeached and as the details of his affair with Monica Lewinsky were being plastered across the nation’s news media. This, suffice it to say, is a stretch.

As ever, Obama’s refusal to examine the real causes of his predicament is serving him poorly. Were one to construct a back-of-the-envelope summary of Bill Clinton’s tenure, one would almost certainly focus in on his two midterm judgments, which were so different from one another as to beggar belief. In 1994, Clinton’s Democrats suffered a spectacular defeat, losing 54 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate — and thus relinquishing control of both bodies. In 1998, by contrast, the party actually gained, severely disappointing Republicans who had hoped that a combination of the Lewinsky scandal and the alleged “six-year itch” would deliver them a victory. Four years after their historic “revolution” appeared to have spiked Clinton’s agenda, the Republican party became the first opposition outfit since 1934 to fail to pick up seats in a midterm, and the first since 1822 to fail to do so in a president’s second administration.

What happened in the meantime? Did the levels of toxicity vary dramatically between the two plebiscites? Was the Constitution amended to keep Republicans at home during the latter cycle? Or did Bill Clinton merely change and adapt? Evidently, it was the lattermost. In the first two years of his presidency, Clinton had tried to push a vast and unpopular health-care bill, he had signed a tax increase, and he had heralded a dramatic gun-control bill — the dangers of which he had underestimated considerably. In response to these measures, the people rebelled, taking control of Congress away from his party. By 1998, Clinton had gotten the message. He moved to the right, signed welfare reform, and even declared the era of Big Government to be over. Most importantly, the economy was booming. Despite the personal scandal that had eroded trust, he and his party were rewarded for his malleability.

Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether Obamacare is “the Democrats’ Iraq War.” Without embroiling myself too deeply in that cluttered debate, I will merely say that the very fact that the question needed to be asked should tell us something important. Despite speech after speech, millions of dollars in promotional literature, and the passage of a significant amount of time, the law that bears the president’s name remains deeply unpopular — “toxic,” one might even say. Our elections are designed to afford the people the chance to render the final judgment upon the behavior of their employees. If Barack Obama and his merry band are “clobbered” in November, it will be because, for the second time in three cycles, the people did what they were given the chance to do.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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