Last night’s elections went almost as badly for Democrats as any national election I can remember.
The 1994 midterms were bad, with Democrats going from majority to minority in the House, the Senate, and the governorships. House Republican candidates outpolled Democratic candidates by about 5 milllion votes, picked up 54 seats, and replaced Democratic Speaker Tom Foley with Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The 1980 elections were bad, with Ronald Reagan ousting Jimmy Carter from the White House after one term. The Reagan popular win was big, but his electoral win was historic – Carter won only Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island and West Virginia. Democrats lost 34 House seats but still held a big majority on paper; in practice, the mostly Southern conservative bloc of Democrats in the House voted as readily with President Reagan as with Speaker Tip O’Neil. Much more important, the Republicans gained 12 Senate seats, ousting some of the Senate’s leading liberals, like Birch Bayh, Frank Church, John Culver, John Durkin, Warren Magnuson, George McGovern and Gaylord Nelson, and Republican-Liberal Jacob Javits lost to a Republican upstart, Alphonse D’Amato.
Last night was just as bad. Democrats lost eight Senate seats, not counting Mary Landrieu, who is unlikely to survive a Louisiana run-off. Republicans might even claim a tenth seat if Virginia incumbent Mark Warner’s narrow lead doesn’t hold. Democrats claimed not one offsetting seat taken from Republicans, despite hopes in Georgia, Kansas and Kentucky. In fact, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell faced an unually strong challenger but still won by the second biggest margin in his six Senate campaigns.
Although Democrats picked up an important Republican governorship in Pennsylvania early in the evening, very little went well after that. Democrats predictably lost governorships in the red states of Arkansas, but also lost in deep blue Maryland and Massachusetts. (What say we stop nominating Martha Coakley for things?) As of this writing, Democrats are holding onto incumbencies in Alaska, Colorado and Connecticut by small margins, but any or all of those could flip in the final counts. That leaves Democrats with a loss of at least three governorships, and as many as six, from a pool that was already heavily Republican.
Umpteen Republicans have already crossed my TV screen proclaiming that the American people voted for an end to gridlock in Washington. I don’t see much support for that idea. Electing Republicans to end gridlock might make sense if the electorate liked Republicans – but generic Republicans poll even worse than generic Democrats these days. Furthermore, sending Republicans to the Senate only ends gridlock if the problem was with the Senate. This morning, right-leaning talking heads are blaming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for gridlock, but I’ve seen no evidence that any significant number of voters chose their Senate candidate based on the candidate’s position on Harry Reid. Much more likely, voters decided based on the candidates’ position on President Obama and his programs.
Moreover, the individuals responsible for the most important instance of the breakdown of government function were not punished last night. Fourteen Senators who voted in 2013 on whether to raise the federal debt ceiling and adopt a continuing budget resolution to fund the federal government had seats up last night. Republicans retained all 14 seats – the six who voted to send the country into default, the seven who voted not to default, and the one, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who didn’t vote. Some of them had significant challenges, like Senator McConnell in Kentucky and Republican candidate David Perdue in Georgia, but none of them lost, and none of them was ever pushed to justify their party’s role in shutting down the federal government, or promise they’d never do it again.
The Republican wave simply wasn’t about ending gridlock.
On the other side, there are some wishful-thinking liberals who attribute last night’s results to dissatisfaction among liberal Democrats – dissatisfaction that President Obama has not been liberal enough, that he has been too accommodating of Republicans and their concerns. On the surface of it, there is some support for this. For instance, Latino support for Democrats dipped, presumably prompted at least in part by the president’s positioning himself as “deporter in chief,” while failing to obtain immigration reforms legislatively and failing to impose them by executive action.
Similarly, issue referendums do not suggest an ideologically conservative reaction to Obama’s liberalism. Three states increased their minimum wages, including deep red Nebraska and pretty deep red Arkansas. Coloradans rejected a “personhood” constitutional amendment. Oregon and the District of Columbia legalized pot last night; 58 percent of Florida voters wanted to legalize medical marijuana, but that state’s constitutional amendment rules require a 60 percent supermajority. Massachusetts mandated paid sick leave at firms with more than 10 employees. Even a town in Texas oil country, Denton, voted to outlaw fracking.
Still, left-wing disillusionment with a centrist President Obama does not logically compel victories by conservative Republicans. The only way this “disillusionment” argument could be right is if Democratic turn-out was down in 2014 – compared not to the presidential year of 2012, but to the last midterms of 2010. Definitive numbers aren’t in, but I’ve seen no evidence so far of significant decreases in Democratic turn-out, despite some Republicans’ best efforts at voter suppression.
Instead, I think last night’s results show a broad rejection of President Obama’s leadership by the broad center of the American electorate. The disillusionment was carefully cultivated by Republican cynics who defund a federal program or agency, then unself-consciously condemn the poor performance of that program or agency. Poor performance proves that the program as wasteful, requiring yet more cuts. Rinse and repeat.
We’ve seen this with everything from the State Department’s embassy protection programs, to the Veterans Administration’s health care programs, to federal support for local hospitals’ disaster readiness, to non-military foreign aid for countries struggling with democracy (whether in West Africa or in the Middle East).
Perhaps the height of Repulican cynicism is Senator McConnell’s suggestion that Kentucky’s popular state-run Obamacare program can stay, but Obamacare itself must be removed from the face of the earth.
Introspective Democrats have to acknowledge some blame. President Obama and his surrogates have failed any number of times to make an effective public case for his programs and actions. The Affordable Care Act is certainly Exhibit A. But the problem recurs elsewhere. If it was the right thing to leave Iraq in 2010, why was it the right thing to go back in 2014? If intervention in Syria needed Congressional approval in 2013, why wasn’t Congress needed in 2014?
Much attention has been paid to the President’s aloof personality. But his intellect can also be unhelpful to his image. President Obama is very comfortable with nuance, with highly fact-specific decision-making, and this no doubt plays well in the field of constitutional law. But the American public doesn’t abide nuance well, and prefers to believe that our leaders are acting on clearly defined, essentially moral rules.
Democratic candidates felt compelled to distance themselves from President Obama. Kentucky is emblematic. Alison Lundergan Grimes famously tied herself in knots trying not to acknowledge that she had voted for President Obama. Democrats in Kentucky managed to roll out Obamacare in that state while apparently convincing Kentuckians that it is not an Obamacare program – sort of like, “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” President Obama wasn’t invited to campaign for Democrats in Kentucky, but Bill and Hillary Clinton sure were, over and over.
So it’s not that Democrats ran from being Democrats, nor that they ran from being tied to those hated Washington establishment Democrats. What could it be? Hmmm.
Yesterday’s electorate placed economic issues at the top of its priority list, but the economy has been doing quite well the last two years. Unemployment is down to pre-recession levels, consumer confidence is at post-recession highs, national economic growth is running at very respectable rates, the best growth rates in the industrial world, and booming energy production has brought consumer gas costs to four-year lows.
When a person gives a reason for doing a thing, and that reason is demonstrably false, the person is either crazy or acting on sub-conscious reasons. When people tell electoral pollsters that their votes are motivated by the sad state of the economy while they tell economic pollsters that their confidence as consumers is higher than it has been in years, something else is going on. What could it be? Hmmm.
Opposition to President Obama stands out in American history as starting immediately and building very quickly, persisting thoughout his presidency, and brooking almost no compromise. This is no back-room intrigue – the resistance has been public, upfront, and no holds barred. The opposition has even grown since 2012, demonstrated by the President’s declining approval ratings, even though in the areas of greatest professed voter interest, jobs and the economy, the President’s performance during those two years has been strong. What could explain that? Hmmm.
I’ve observed that Americans do not readily entrust positions of power to African-Americans, whether in public or corporate life. We know this because we’ve done it so rarely.
The cultural biases that all people hold, even sub-consciously, strongly influence our perceptions and more conscious thinking. If we distrust African-Americans with executive authority, we are predisposed to perceive shortcomings and failures in an African-American’s exercise of executive authority.
The more introspective among us can recognize our unconscious biases and reason against them. But that is hard work, and few of us have the intellectual resources, including time and energy, to maintain vigilance against our own prejudices. I think there was an undue optimism eight years ago that all we had to do was elect a black president and these prejudices would wither away – in fact, there was a prominent line of thinking that our mere election of a black president showed that these prejudices had already gone. I think this optimism was founded on a gross misconception of the power that unconscious cultural prejudices have in human thinking. It can take centuries, maybe millenia, to ameliorate, let alone eliminate, biases against people of other races and religions; women still struggle for recognition and reward commensurate to their talents; gay and disabled authority figures are very few and far between.
So yes, I am saying that an important part of yesterday’s outcome has to do with President Obama being African-American. Last night was bad news for Democrats. Worse, last night shows that true racial harmony in this country remains a distant goal for those of us who hold it.