It’s a rebuilding year for the Democratic party, probably the first of many, made more bitter because it ends an eight-year period during which talk of permanent Democratic rule did not seem wild.
Resounding defeats on Tuesday in elections across the country stunned Democrats, who were betrayed not just by faulty polling but by their own mad hopes. The party had banked on a permanent shift — by age, gender, ethnicity, or all three — that would eliminate all Republican support and immanentize California-style Democratic permanence. (As it happened, even the Golden State turned a couple of House seats over to Republicans.) It’s the ordinariness of the news that makes it so painful. After all that hype, Democrats learn that even President Barack Obama, a figure of national transfiguration who once lifted us above rising tides and salved the trauma of history, is subject to the same six-year crisis that afflicts every two-term president. It can’t be easy to accept.
Apparently Democrats aren’t accepting it. Some favorite explanations for the Democrats’ coast-to-coast defeats:
“To explain why some Democratic gubernatorial candidates lost in blue states while others (such as Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island, Dannel Malloy in Connecticut, and John Hickenlooper in Colorado) managed to hang on, one really needs to take into account the state and local context of the races,” declares The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis. He bases his case on a single data point: Maryland gubernatorial loser Anthony Brown, who ran “who ran one of the worst campaigns I’ve ever observed up close.” The campaign was apparently so bad that nobody covering the race (including MacGillis himself) seems to have noticed Brown was in trouble until the day of the election.
To be sure, Democrats didn’t have candidates with the boiling charisma of Pat Roberts or the smoldering passion of Asa Hutchinson. But Tuesday’s GOP victories, in nearly every state and including not just federal legislative offices but governorships and state legislative positions, are not explicable through Tip O’Neill’s sometimes-true-sometimes-not observation that all politics is local. To point out that Hickenlooper and Malloy survived is merely to observe that Republicans didn’t win every race in the country.
Democrats did well circulating the two-thirds trope. By mid-afternoon on the East Coast the day after the elections, the observation that a mere 36.6 percent of eligible citizens turned out to vote had gone from Twitter to the mouth of the president, who announced, “To the two-thirds of voters that chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you too.”
This is indeed the lowest turnout of the last 20 years, but it is no departure from historic midterm voting trends. Midterm turnout was 40.9 percent in 2010; 40.4 percent in 2006; and 39.5 percent in 2002 — all of which could be rounded down to one-third without exaggeration. (Voter-suppression truthers might have pointed out that the second-lowest percentage turnout — 38.8 percent in 1994 — also resulted in a Republican rout; but so far nobody has.) This is part of a larger downward trend in turnout for all national elections: Since the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the highest voter turnout in any election has been 63.3 percent in 1952 (Eisenhower vs. Stevenson); and voter participation has dwindled, with occasional stirrings, since that time. (Who complains when a long-sitting House Democrat wins by getting a mere 16 percent of eligible voters in her district?) This year’s turnout was not off-trend — despite the president’s pleas to Cousin Pookie and Uncle Jethro and a jarringly overt Yellow-Dog Democrat pitch by the first lady. It’s also not alarming: An opinion poll that sampled a third of the population would be considered remarkably thorough.
“Mitch McConnell, probably more than any other politician in the United States, is associated with being the architect of Citizens United,” Phillip Bailey tells Democracy Now. “He has often said that money is speech. He has filed amicus briefs in many of those Supreme Court cases seeking to tear down McCain-Feingold or campaign-finance law. So this race, in many ways, was Mitch McConnell’s dream come true, and you did see somewhere north of $80 million spent in it.”
It would be quite a feat for Kentucky Republican McConnell, already the likely Senate majority leader, to be the architect of Citizens United as well, given that Citizens United was not a Senate bill but a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission. The F.E.C.’s own numbers suggest that spending in the Bluegrass State was in fact south of $80 million. Kentucky’s was the fourth-most-expensive Senate race of 2014. The year’s most expensive race — the $111 million contest in North Carolina — cost the same as a moderately budgeted superhero movie. It’s notable that the overall “cost” of any campaign is not some steamroller of dollar bills flattening the voters but a total of money given by willing donors to all candidates. In North Carolina, Democrat Kay Hagan spent substantially more than Republican Thom Tillis, and she still lost. As John Lott and Brad Smith point out in the Wall Street Journal, campaign spending has been rising steadily, in tandem with federal spending, for at least four decades — well before Citizens United and despite McCain-Feingold or countless other infringements on the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
Yahoo News’s Matt Bai stands athwart history yelling I don’t need these fancy numbers cause I got instinct, dammit. He pins the midterm debacle on the end of the Obama era. He draws on Swift (Taylor, not Jonathan) for advice on how Democrats can solve the most important question facing middle age: how to attract the rising generation. “It’s not as if Republicans have managed to broaden their appeal beyond the Bingo Night demographic for any longer than the current moment,” Bai writes. “The math is still moving inexorably in a more progressive direction.” He blames disaffection on Democrats’ failure to put forward ideas (rather than voters’ rejection of those ideas), on the unpopularity of Obama, and also, confusingly, on the popularity of Obama: “The biggest reason for the disappearance of the new Democratic map is that the Obama surge never actually belonged to Democrats in the first place,” writes Bai. “It belonged to Obama — to his celebrity and his ironic detachment and his inspiring story.” His policies — not so much, Bai forgets to add.
There’s just one Democratic crowd pleaser, and that’s Bill Cinton. He will not be running in 2016 except by proxy.
“Whether it was immigration reform, climate change, healthcare, women’s choice, or addressing income inequality, all important issues to voters and the President, every Democrat running for office should have embraced the President instead of running the other way toward Republicans,” muses a figure by the name of Rmuse at Politicsusa. “What is not a surprise, is that despite voter support for the President’s agenda and position on issues important to them, Republicans won; except against Democrats who ran on either expanding on the President’s successes, or campaigning on those he championed for good of the people.”
Obama has had a remarkably easy time in office. When he was sworn in, a partial disinflation of real estate had the GOP in great disfavor. (A substantial part of the population still blames Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush for the hobbling of the American economy.) He confronted no major crises, foreign or domestic, that were not of his own choosing. He had two years of single-party control of Washington, and until January he will still have the Senate on his side — which puts the Obama administration well within historic norms for presidential power — possibly even a little better than the average. By his own calculation, the president achieved 75 percent of his first-term goals. Ronald Reagan couldn’t even get rid of the Energy Department. At some point the Left will need to make peace with the truth that Obama put many, many favorite ideas of the Left into practice, and the results are now part of the historical record.
Now we got ‘em right where they want us, agree the editorial board of the New York Times, Brookings Institution fellow William A. Galston, and others. In the Wall Street Journal, Galston points to a survey finding that “ending gridlock and getting things done” was named as a first- or second-order priority by 36 percent of Americans. (As the president might point out, two-thirds of Americans do not seem to mind gridlock, which is more accurately known as checks and balances.) Galston applauds Vice President Joe Biden for declaring (“flatly”), “We’re ready to compromise.” The Grey Lady’s ed board too finds now the time for compromise, though remarkably, all the calls to give up ground are aimed at the Republican winners. The Times board even has the effrontery to caution that there are limits to how much Democrats, after having been flayed and scourged at the polls, are willing to give. “Mr. Obama would never agree to end the mandate, which would gut the health law, and there is no reason he should,” the ed board avers. “Voters said they wanted the two parties to stop bickering and work harder, not erase the progress made in the last six years.”
“Granted, voters have sent mixed signals about what they want,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board granted. That compulsion to view the electoral mandate as unreadable entrails has been common through the media, which banked on blaming the Democrats’ losses (expected to be real but not severe) on an irrationally angry electorate. But even before Election Day was over, it was clear that the angry voter isn’t really a thing this year. There have been half-hearted attempts to swap in the “self-loathing electorate” and other irrational mobs, but exit polling suggested a more clear explanation: Voters are feeling very specific and well-founded dissatisfaction with specific Democratic-party politicians. Within the extremely limited range of expression allowed by voting, they expressed that dissatisfaction Tuesday.
Few statistical outliers have soothed Democrats more than the passage of minimum-wage ballot initiatives in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Illinois. The wage measures confirm the Left’s guiding narrative that voters don’t know what’s good for them. (See! They elect Koch-funded plutocrats but deep down they want socialism.) And just wait till next time, when the minimum wage really breaks as a voting issue: “Politicians beware: The movement for higher wages has arrived,” MSNBC warns. Forced-wage activist Arun Ivatury also says Republicans should be feeling spooked. “They’re going to create enormous headwinds for themselves,” Ivatury tells Politico’s Marianne LeVine and Timothy Noah, “if they’re seen as the party that opposes the minimum wage.” (In a sign that the election results are still taking a while to sink in, many commentators are marveling that “four” of the states that passed minimum wage increases were red states — overlooking that Illinois, incredibly, now has a Republican governor and turned over a House seat to the GOP.)
But why all this future talk? As National Review’s Patrick Brennan points out, Democratic candidates already did try to make minimum wage an issue over the last few months, and Republicans largely stuck to opposing this long-discredited relic of central planning. If the minimum wage were a powerful issue, it would have worked on Tuesday. It didn’t, and there’s no reason to believe it will work any better in 2016.
“In Oregon, voters legalized recreational use of marijuana, joining Washington state and Colorado, who adopted similar measures in 2012,” Peter Dreier writes in a progressive laundry list at BillMoyers.org. “In Washington, DC, voters passed a measure to let residents grow cannabis indoors and possess as much as two ounces.”
This is fine news, but it’s not clear why this is even counted in the asset column for the Democrats — who are as active as Republicans, and often more active than Republicans, in prosecuting the war on drugs. Also Florida voters failed to pass a medical-pot referendum by the required 60 percent vote.
“The third factor [that Republicans won’t have on their side in 2016] is the temper of the times: widespread exasperation with Obama’s leadership,” Bill Schneider reports at Reuters. “Obama will still be president in 2016. But he will not be the central figure in the campaign.”
Obama almost definitely won’t be on the ballot next time — on that we can all agree. There is also considerable truth in Schneider’s observation, “Every landslide carries with it the seeds of its own destruction.” But it’s a little early to pretend the ceiling on conservative growth is in sight. The Obama era has produced fundamental transformations in America. Voters Tuesday said no to those changes, with a degree of consistency that is rare in any election and suggests Democrats’ brand-identify problems won’t end with the Obama administration. Everybody in electoral politics should be worried all the time. But at the moment common sense indicates Democrats should be more worried.
“Mid-terms aside, Obama has had successful presidency,” declares Jay Bookman at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Like virtually all the people cited above, Bookman doesn’t consider the possibility that voters are opposed to Obama’s policies, rather than Obama himself. What matters is that Obama “has taken their best blows and is still standing,” an achievement that “may actually heighten his standing” when history, which always agrees with the judgments of whoever’s writing, renders its judgment. “Once his second term is completed, history will record him as a successful president of considerable accomplishment given his situation,” writes Bookman. “Long after he’s gone, for example, the health-care law that opponents tagged with his name in hopes of tarnishing it will instead prove to be a source of lasting pride, providing coverage to tens of millions of Americans who otherwise would be forced to go without.”
It’s true: Obama’s accomplishments will be with us for a long time. No wonder Americans are angry.