I have to admit that I am somewhat amused at the intellectual poking and prodding being done by pundits–particularly Democrats–as they analyze the results of the November midterm election. It’s as if they’re a gaggle of pathologists standing around a corpse in a morgue unable to agree on what caused the death of the unfortunate soul lying on the slab in front of them.
While they argue vehemently back and forth, an aged maintenance man mops the floor around them. Clearly a grizzled veteran of the place impressed neither by death nor doctors, he looks over the shoulders of the physicians, takes a peek at the body, shrugs, says to no one in particular, “Somebody cut the guy’s head off,” and returns to his cleaning.
It’s the same with this election. There’s no need to scrutinize the exit polls or torture the demographic data. Anyone who didn’t immediately recognize what killed the Democratic Party this year just isn’t—and hasn’t—been paying attention. That’s because we witnessed a copycat killing, an eerie replay of the 1994 execution of the Democrats at the Congressional and state level precipitated by Bill Clinton’s disastrous first two years in office.
It was, in fact a killing predicted in this space back in January, when I wrote the following in the wake of Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the race for the late Ted Kennedy’s senate seat:
Instead, Democrats now find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun held by members of a disenchanted electorate who are currently demonstrating a clear proclivity to vote for the party of no ideas—the GOP–over the party of badly executed ones.
And they have no one to blame but themselves.
Barack Obama placed the Democrats in front of the firing squad by repeatedly deriding and ignoring the party’s base voters. He did it during the health care debate by barring any discussion of a Canadian-style single payer system and then abandoning its watered-down cousin, the public option, in a futile attempt to attract Republican support.
He did it by ignoring progressives like Paul Krugman who warned that his economic recovery plan would fail because it placed far too much emphasis on re-inflating Wall Street and far too little on resurfacing Main Street.
He also did it by continually contending that a failure to communicate, rather than failed policy, was at the heart of the dilemma the Democrats faced as the election grew near. In essence he was telling working and middle class Americans that they weren’t smart enough to understand all that he had done for them, when, in reality, they clearly believed he had accomplished very little.
That belief is reflected in the results of a survey the Center for Working-Class Studies conducted immediately before the election. Although Mr. Obama continually tried to convince people that his stimulus plan was effective, 80% of the respondents who categorized themselves as “working class” believed the economy was bad or very bad, 64% said it would stay that way for two years or more, less than 40% believed the country was heading in the right direction, and 56% said they felt the American Dream was slipping away.
In short, they weren’t buying what he was trying to sell, something that would prove disastrous on November 2 because, while we can debate about the make-up of the party’s base and the definition of its “working class” component, two things are inarguable: first, that 2010 was the third change election in a row and, second, the base, amorphous and hard-to-define as it may be, is critically important in such elections because it is the one group that can be counted on to stay the course.
That fact is underscored by the results of the CWCS survey. Although deeply pessimistic about the state of the economy and the future, 69% continue to have a favorable opinion of the president and more than 70% favored Ted Strickland over John Kasich in the race for Ohio governor.
Unfortunately, poll results aren’t ballots, and as happened in 1994, the disaffected members of base did what the disaffected and disappointed do: they stayed at home. Voter turnout in traditional Democratic strongholds like Mahoning, Trumbull, Cuyahoga, and Summit counties fell well below 50%, depriving Strickland of the votes he needed in what turned out to be a very close election. As a result Ohio, the swing state of all swing states, fell into the hands of the Republicans–bad news for the Democratic president who will almost certainly need to carry the state if he hopes to win reelection in 2012. As CWCS co-director, John Russo, said in March 2010, “working people are looking elsewhere for agency and voice.”
Finally, while we may have witnessed a copycat killing, the effects of this year’s election have the potential to be more wide-reaching and long-lasting than what followed the Democratic drubbing of 1994. Unlike that year, this mid-term fell immediately before the redistricting process will begin across the country. Mr. Obama’s failures have placed the redistricting pen—actually it’s more likely to be a computer mouse these days—in GOP hands in a vast majority of states. That means the likelihood of Democrats regaining the majority in the U.S. House any time soon is extremely remote.
In addition, unlike Mr. Clinton, who recovered from the battering he took during his first two years in office by working with the Republicans on welfare reform and riding the economic boom of the mid-90s, Mr. Obama faces recalcitrant Congressional Republicans who are committed to driving him from office, a deeply troubled economy that is not expected to grow significantly over the next two years, and a Democratic base that will grow even more frustrated if he follows what appears to be his natural instincts and compromises with the GOP on critically important issues.
As of this moment, the White House seems unconcerned about their dimming prospects for the future, apparently buoyed by their belief in the cliché that you can’t beat someone with no one, a reference to the currently weak field of Republican presidential hopefuls.
They would do well to remember that history has a way of repeating itself and that Bill Clinton was the “no one” George Bush was unconcerned about in 1992.