In a perhaps apocryphal story, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reportedly said that “events” were the most likely things to disrupt the course of a government. Sometimes, these events might be unexpected random occurrences that elected officials have little responsibility for causing. But at other times, these events are the consequences of government policies. President Obama and his congressional allies were fighting against the headwinds of the supposed “six-year itch,” when voters are likely to weaken the power of the president’s party in Congress. But we can also think of the 2014 midterms as an “events” election: when the deficiencies of the governing paradigm have caused a popular backlash.
Winning the presidency during a time of great national turmoil in 2008, Barack Obama had the potential to forge an enduring governing majority. However, the midterms of 2010 delivered a blow to that hope of a broad coalition. The president’s hard-fought victory in 2012 gave him another four years in the White House, but it did not return Democrats to power in the House. And now, in 2014, the president finds his party being rejected at the polls throughout the country. Purported “blue states” like Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland have elected Republican governors. Republicans seem to be heading to their biggest majority in the House in decades. Since the 1980 landslide, Republicans had never beaten more than two incumbent Democrats in Senate races during an election cycle. Yesterday, they defeated three (in Arkansas, Colorado, and North Carolina), and Bill Cassidy has a good chance of defeating a fourth, Mary Landrieu, in the Louisiana run-off election.
Despite the clucking of many media mandarins, this outcome was not preordained. Many of the states in which Republicans triumphed at both the federal and state levels are very amenable to Democrats. Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor is a strong campaigner with a distinguished lineage. He handily won election during the pro-Republican 2002 midterms, and Republicans did not even field a candidate against him in 2008. Democrats won Colorado Senate races in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Arkansas’s Tom Cotton and Colorado’s Cory Gardner were fine candidates (candidate quality does matter), but their campaigns — along with those of many other insurgent Republicans — also relied upon a troubled national landscape.
As Franklin Roosevelt’s example shows, a president elected during great unrest can formulate a new governing consensus. But a president who fails to persuade the American public that he has a viable set of policies can also find his administration struggling. And so President Obama’s administration suffered this rebuke at the polls in no small part because of its own failings.
The challenges of dealing with the influx of unaccompanied minors across our southern border, the deeply flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the mishandling of Ebola, the turmoil abroad, the countless scandals regarding the abuse of administrative power, the extended economic stagnation — all these things can partly be traced to the president’s policies. American families have continued to struggle during the supposed “recovery.” For many Americans, there has been a sense of diminished opportunity for many years now, and GDP numbers since 2000 suggest an extended era of slower growth. A frothing stock market has not made many Americans feel much richer. Despite the president’s promises, the health-care law he championed has increased the health-care costs of many Americans and cut down their medical options. The president’s indifference to enforcing immigration law has probably placed further economic pressures on those struggling to enter or remain in the middle class, as guest workers and illegal labor undermine wages and job opportunities.
Democrats have not succeeded in convincing the American people that they actually have a set of policies that can improve the life of the average person. The model of appealing to demographic polarization by targeting a few narrow issues or stirring up class warfare seems, at least this year, to have reached the point of diminishing returns (just ask Colorado’s Senator Mark Udall or Georgia’s Democratic candidate for Senate, Michelle Nunn).
#page#In many races, support from the working class and middle class was key for Republican victory. According to 2012 exit polls, Mitt Romney struggled with those making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, losing that demographic by 15 points. Yesterday’s exit polls suggest that Republicans have at least somewhat redressed that deficiency. In the national exit poll of House races, Republicans lost that income group by only 4 points yesterday. And Republicans also cut the Democratic advantage with those making under $30,000, losing that group by 20 points instead of 28. Meanwhile, they slightly improved their performance among those making over $50,000 a year.
In Senate races, this effect was even more pronounced. In Iowa, President Obama had huge margins in 2012 among those making under $50,000 a year; Republican Joni Ernst lost that demographic by a single point in her successful Senate bid. And she won by 15 points among those making over $50,000 a year (Romney won that demographic by only a couple of points). Tom Cotton lost only those making under $30,000 to Mark Pryor, dominating in every other Arkansas income bracket. In Virginia, Republican Ed Gillespie came as close to winning as he did, it seems, only because of the middle class; he lost both those making under $30,000 and those making over $100,000 to incumbent Mark Warner. Like Gillespie, Colorado’s Cory Gardner also performed the most strongly among those making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. A similar dynamic can be seen in many gubernatorial races. For instance, Maine incumbent Republican Paul LePage relied upon the middle class to make up for his struggles with affluent voters (he performed worst with those households making over $100,000 a year).
The vast American middle (both politically and electorally) is restless. Exit polls show that 78 percent of voters are at least somewhat worried about the economy, and 70 percent think the economy is “not good” or worse. Nearly half think that the next generation will be worse off, and only 20 percent of voters say that they trust Washington to do what is right most or all of the time. Nearly 50 percent of midterm voters think the president’s health-care law “went too far.” Many of those trends are problematic for Democrats and progressives, who have trumpeted the need for an increasingly centralized and executive-driven federal government. Indeed, some rumors suggest that President Obama is contemplating further centralizing power through executive actions on immigration and other matters.
So it appears to be primarily the various administrative scandals, a disappointing economic record, and a failure to create an enduring policy consensus that helped bring the Democratic party to its current debacle. But the outcome of this election holds a warning for Republicans, too. Democrats may have felt in 2006 that they were on the verge of a new era of unquestioned political dominance. Within four short years, that dream was dashed. If Republicans cannot put forward policies that protect the interests of Americans, they may find themselves facing the wrath of voters a few years hence. Many Beltway cognoscenti are suggesting that Republicans now need to show that they can “govern.” But more important than governing is governing well. Republicans should be wary about passing legislation that undermines the average American family and taking votes on measures that could reinforce the (unfair) caricature of the GOP as the party of corporate cronyism. Passing laws just to pass laws might gratify pundits and lobbyists but not persuade the American public.
Seeing what events have wrought for their friends across the aisle, Republicans would be wise to craft a set of policies that will have better outcomes for the nation as a whole. This policy set might include efforts to increase opportunity, defend fundamental liberties and rights, ward off corruption, ensure fiscal responsibility, and advance a vigorous and effective foreign policy. Republicans and conservatives must spend time crafting a governing vision and set of policies that can speak to the real needs and aspirations of the American people. Controlling both the House and the Senate will give Republicans a stage on which to present, defend, and explore their alternative vision for the United States. Depending upon the inclinations of Democrats, Republicans might not always be able to pass laws furthering this vision in the next two years, but they can at least try to articulate it.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.