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The Democratic Debacle -- and What It Means

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America has seen tidal wave off-year elections before (three, in fact, in the past 16 years). But what was epic about the glub-glub election of 2010 is that even with months of warning most imperiled Democrats could not find high enough ground.

In the House, Republicans gained a minimum of 60 seats, dethroning Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, probably making this the GOP's biggest off-year triumph since (gulp!) 1938 once all the votes are counted. The Democrats clung to a narrow Senate majority, holding a minimum of 51 seats (counting independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders) with two contests still undecided. The up-in-the-air races included the wacky Alaska Senate race, where GOP incumbent Lisa Murkowski seems poised to be the first senator elected on a write-in vote since Strom Thurmond in 1954.

Nothing worked for the Democrats unless you were Harry Reid. The once-and-future Senate majority leader broke the 50 percent mark in his high-decibel race against gaffe-prone tea party trumpeter Sharron Angle, who probably was his weakest potential GOP challenger.

Russ FeingoldPresidential get-out-the-vote visits were not a bulwark. Barack Obama made two appearances in Ohio in the closing weeks of the campaign, yet White House favorite Ted Strickland narrowly lost his reelection race for governor and the GOP defeated five Democratic House incumbents. Ohio, which is perhaps the most contested political terrain in America, also reminded the Democrats of the limits of their vaunted ground game.

Nor could most Democrats find the high ground by taking the low road with attack ads demonizing their opponents. In Florida, Alan Grayson -- a freshman House Democrat whose go-for-the-jugular style makes most cable TV news hosts seem soft-spoken in comparison -- ran a reprehensible commercial lambasting his opponent Daniel Webster as "Taliban Dan" for his conservative views on social issues. Grayson won a paltry 38 percent of the vote in a district (the Orlando area) that Obama carried with 52 percent just two years ago. In Kentucky's sour-mash Senate race, the notorious Aqua Buddha ad boomeranged against Democrat Jack Conway, who was walloped by tea party favorite Rand Paul by a 56-to-44-percent margin.

Embracing the president's record was certainly not a route to safety. Three-term Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, who even ran TV ads trumpeting his health-care vote, lost by more than 100,000 votes to Republican plastics manufacturer Ron Johnson, another tea party recruit. Virginia House freshman Tom Perriello displayed such dogged loyalty to the Obama agenda (despite a district that gave McCain 51 percent of the vote two years ago) that the president rewarded him with a campaign rally in Charlottesville last weekend. But Perriello fell 9,000 votes short in his battle against Republican Robert Hurt.

But fleeing from the president was also a no-exit strategy for Democrats. In South Dakota, three-term House Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin ran ads boasting that she "votes more conservatively than 53 percent of the House . . . [and] voted against Wall Street bailouts, the health-care bill and cap-and-trade." Still, Herseth Sandlin lost to Republican Kristi Noem by 7,000 votes. New York City's Michael McMahon was the rare House Democrat from the Northeast who opposed the health-care bill, but that act of apostasy did not save him from a 4,000-vote defeat.

In 1994, complacent House Democrats were stunned by the voter rebellion that cost them 52 seats and made Newt Gingrich speaker. This time around, though, the flashing red lights and loud Klaxons may have only made things worse. By going negative so early and trotting out the (yawn) traditional charges that the Republicans want to destroy Social Security, the Democrats (aside from rare exceptions like Feingold and Perriello) did not even attempt to offer the electorate an affirmative rationale for voting.

This scorched-earth style turned out to be a disaster for Democrats, since it is hard to find more than a handful of races (the Nevada Senate race is, of course, the exception) in which these "my opponent is worse" tactics made a difference.

Aggressively defending the Obama-Pelosi record (instead of feigning amnesia) probably would not have prevented the electoral debacle for congressional incumbents, but it would have given Democrats a positive platform on which to go into the 2012 campaign -- when perhaps a rebounding economy will have changed the political environment.

Despite the lopsided verdict at the polls, election night 2010 was a limited triumph for the Republicans. According to national exit polls, only 41 percent of the voters in this off-year election held a favorable view of the GOP. Oddly enough, the Democrats scored a tad better with a 43 percent favorable rating.

Florida senator-elect Marco Rubio -- whose tea party passions forced Florida Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party and into an ill-fated independent candidacy -- underscored the limited mandate for the GOP in his victory statement. "We make a great mistake if we believe that these results tonight are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party," Rubio declared. "What they are is a second chance. A second chance for the Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."

What is apparent from the GOP tsunami, though, is that Barack Obama blundered badly (at least, by short-term political standards) in embracing an ambitious legislative agenda beyond fighting the Great Recession. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's pre-inaugural mantra, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," may be immortalized as a great moment in Democratic hubris. The president -- and, yes, Pelosi and Reid -- failed to adequately explain or to sell the Democratic economic agenda beyond disastrous PR moves like announcing "Recovery Summer" with the unemployment rate at nearly 10 percent.

The national exit polls underscore the degree to which Obama and Co. (aided by the recession) have pushed the electorate sharply to the right. At a time when the percentage of voters who call themselves liberal (about 20 percent) has remained constant, the number of self-identified conservatives among voters has risen from 32 percent (2006) to 34 percent (2008) to a whopping 41 percent (2010). In fact, conservatives outnumbered moderates (39 percent) among 2010 voters. Since such ideological markers normally move at a glacial pace, the dramatic increase in conservatives may be the most lasting legacy of the 2010 election.

Another troubling omen for the Democrats is their dwindling support among white voters, dropping from 47 percent in 2006 (when the GOP lost 31 House seats) to 45 percent in 2008 (when the Republicans lost another 21 seats) to a rock-bottom 38 percent this year. Take away the Democrats' continuing appeal to all voters under 30 (56 percent said they voted Democratic in this year's House elections) and these trends are even more tilted toward the Republicans. Turnout patterns, however, do give the Democrats hope for 2012, since voters younger than 30 represented 18 percent of the electorate (for House races) in the presidential year of 2008, but their proportion dropped to 11 percent this year.

Once most off-year elections were the equivalent of a World War I battle, with little terrain gained or lost. The Democrats, after all, controlled the House for four decades before the 1994 Gingrich Revolution. But now, partly because congressional politics has become a $4 billion industry, every election cycle has become nationalized. As a result, either there are historic tidal waves (1994, 2006 and now 2010) or else incumbent presidents defy tradition by holding their own in off-year elections (1998 and 2002).

Every president, beginning with Ronald Reagan, has had to deal with divided government at some point during his time in the White House. It is equally telling that Jimmy Carter, who was blessed (or afflicted) with Democratic congressional majorities for four years, lost for reelection in 1980. The gamesmanship in Congress over the next two years may do little to restore the electorate's faith in its elected leaders. But politics has become so volatile that it is an apt time to rewrite Mark Twain's adage about the weather and make it: "If you don't like Congress, just wait two years."

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I agree. What is happening in the global economy means a lowering of standards for the U.S. We need manufacturing here in our country now. Build infrastructure. Bridges are collapsing and we sit by and watch as multi-national corporations milk our wealth out of our country. That is a big problem. Unlimited political contributions from corporations owned by the Chinese government scares me. We sit by and do nothing, then complain. That Supreme Court decision was the second worst decision they ever made. The worst one they made was an illegal, corrupt decision in the first place.

November 10 2010 at 10:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dan Nigro

Democrats and republican loyalties aside; Congress should rethink NAFTA. This bill has cost the USA more in jobs lost, industries lost and ultimstely taxes and revenues lost. As Americans we've forgotten that there's nothing wrong with working for a living. Allowing some of our largest companies to bring their manufacturing and distribution centers out of the country has damaged this economy as much as the sub prime loans. The solution is simple repeal NAFTA and demand that the banks put the stimulus money to work for what it was intended. Any company manufacturing parts outside of the USA should pay very large tariffs for the parts made overseas and installed in American products and let the chips fall where they may. If Ford and GM didn't manufacture parts in Mexico or China would their drug cartels be more brutal?

November 06 2010 at 11:23 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dan Nigro's comment

It's actually trade with China and India that cost more US jobs than any good or bad that NAFTA has done. That said, can we seriously afford a trade war with China? Are you, and you, and that guy over there, willing to put up with high prices, scarce goods, high interest rates, and a crumbling stock market, all in the name of ideological purity? I'm sure as hell not.

November 09 2010 at 1:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

How soon we forget,Clinton took office with a $4.7 trillion national debt and paid it off before GW took office. 12 years of GOP congressional and senate controll 1994-2006 along with 8 years of GWB and what do you get? Almost a depression, but definately a great recession! During the 20s we had 3 consecutive republican presidents (Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.)that used the Reagan trickle down formula too. They lowered taxes to the top 1% wealthiest taxpayers ($160 million ), eliminated many regulations, allowed monopolys to be formed, showed their greed by opposing child labor laws and other blue collar laws.Nothing prevented the recession of August 1929, unemployement at 26% and the October stock crash.Hoover passsed the Smoot/Hawely Tarrif on Europe caused a trade war, hence the great depression! Democratic president Roosevelt and WWII brought this country out of the depression and it was not until the early fifties did stocks ever rebound! "Corporations learned a hard lesson from WWII", if it had not been for the working class Americans and brave soldiers during the war working as a team to victory,there would have been "no more corporations"! During the fifties and early sixties, the corporate elite paid their 60-70% income taxes, fair wages and benefits, born was the upper middleclass America! Hopefully "we the people" can turn this recession around for the corporate elite one more time!

November 05 2010 at 10:41 PM Report abuse -18 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jimstngry's comment

Clinton didn't pay off the national debt--that's incorrect. The common claim is that he balanced the budget, but that's not true either. Just looking at the Treasury debt numbers you'll see they went up year after year under Clinton too--the balanced budget myth is just that: a myth. You're also mistaken on the rest, but we'll save that for another day, but consider this: if you succeed in getting the President to taking a big bite out of your boss, how does that help you? Won't that jaust get you laid off, or your pay cut?

November 08 2010 at 12:17 AM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply

Why would the Democrats even think of "rewarding" Nancy Pelosi as head of the Minority leader of the House when she helped orchestrate one of the worst maulings the Democrats have had in over fifty decades. Go figure. I guess she would miss the trappings of power and the chauffered limos, mingling with the rich and famous, photo opportunities with her picture plastered all over the media, etc. Power is very seductive, especially in Washington.

November 05 2010 at 6:13 PM Report abuse +26 rate up rate down Reply

Political saying...As Ohio goes, so goes the nation. Obama understood this and visited Ohio 12 times during campaigning. Guess what....OHIO WENT RED! Yeah! If not for the fact Betty Sutton(Democrat) was running against a car saleman, Ganley(Republican), she would have been out on her butt too! Watch it Betty, because we are watching you! YEAH FOR OHIO!!!!!

November 05 2010 at 10:57 AM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply

Has anyone bothered to notice that the states in the worst financial state are those in which the Democrat Party has enjoyed a stranglehold for years? The voters have and 16, a record, just switched their legislatures to the GOP. Dems now hold only 17 governorships. The people have awakened save for the elites of Cal, NY, Mass, Ore, Col, Vt, Ilinois, etc....Good luck to those states'

November 04 2010 at 6:41 PM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to carleronn's comment
Audrey Nowels

Maybe now, Obama will look at himself and his Dem friends instead of always blaming Bush and any other name he can remember. Bush ran the country the best he could with all the Dem's around to muddy the water. We need to watch every dime we spend. Do Term Limits. Get rid of the polititions 'be rich for life when they leave office with their retirement salary'. Make their health care like ours. Get rid of them when they don't do the job the way we want, and not have to wait for an election period. Print every thing Nationally BEFORE it is law and make every man and woman in office READ the whole thing. NO MORE CLOSED DOORS, Lets have an open government. Stop spending money for travel on Air Force One every day, AND FOR GOD'S SAKE, AND OURS, GET RID OF PELOSI'S AIRPLANE. also STOP hiding the theft FRANK AND WATERS seem to have done. Stop waiting, keeping them in office, when they should be gone NOW.

November 04 2010 at 12:04 PM Report abuse +21 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Audrey Nowels's comment

We're only finding that both the Democrats and the Republicans do the distribution of wealth either up or down. That seems to be the only difference. But in the end, we always seem to forget what we learned from "Deep Throat" during the Watergate scandal. If you want to know who is in charge and who is pulling the strings "Follow the Money." In this case, it's Wall Street, the large banks and the Federal Reserve. Democrats and Republicans are only smoke and mirrors while the voters are pawns in their big game of money and control.

November 04 2010 at 10:24 AM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply

The economy is in worse shape than in 2008-2009, which is one reason for the current round of quantitative easing, and the additional 390$ Billion dollars given to Fannie and Freddie before the election. The dollar has already fallen 20% and is projected to fall another 20% in the next 2 months as a result of FED monetary policy. The median home price is also expected to fall. The inspector general of the TARP says that the government is lying when they claim it made a profit, since they changed their accounting standards. Banks took a loss this quarter, but called it a profit by tapping into their emergency loan funds. This was in anticipation of quantitative easing. There is a currency war going on among major economies worldwide, with the G20 meeting to stop it generally being regarded as a failure. Because state pensions are so heavily invested in bundled Mortgage Backed Securities, there is currently a $268 billion dollar shortfall in State and local pension funds. Add to this the decline in home values, where 25 million homes are underwater, and 7,000,000 homes are slated for foreclosure this year alone. Declining home values also depress local governments due to a drop in property tax revenues. As if this werent enough, we used direct currency swaps to help backstop the European economy during their recent banking crisis, and while the exchange rate is nominally fixed, there is no guarantee on what the ECB will do in the likely event of Greek, Irish, and Spanish defaults. Both the low end and high end bond rates are being artificially clamped downward by the FED, resulting in massive capital distortions that consequently divert capital from money markets and stocks. The underemployment rate is more than 18%, similar to what we had during the great depression. Now we add an unfunded health care bill with massive deficits and new requirements on employers. We already have large employers like Boeing dropping healthcare coverage, and other companies being granted waivers out of political embarrassment. Nationwide there have been massive increases in premiums on most health care plans, including my own. This in turn is depressing hiring and spending on everything from retail sales to software. As president Obama himself admitted, the actual potential losses from credit swap derivatives are around $600 Trillion worldwide, and that's the real reason why despite backstopping more than $25 trillion dollars, the economy is still in trouble. Anyone hoping that the economy will make a comeback by 2012 is going to be disappointed. This is more of a 10-20 year sort of problem than a 2 year problem. Politically, this means that in 2012 you can expect conditions very similar to what we have now, and since the Democrats have 23 seats up in the Senate to the Republicans 10, most likely the Senate will go Republican.

November 04 2010 at 9:44 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to tim293118's comment

Very nice post, Tim! You are so very right! Entitlement programs are the biggest burden this country faces today, with unfunded liabilities roaring down on the federal and state governments. Some day these same govt will have to face the fact they cannot pay the recipients of these entitlement programs. I think a lot of people are in for a shock. If you are a parasite and don't produce a product, like labor, your days as a feeder are numbered.

November 05 2010 at 8:14 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply

Corporate welfare through the tax code is the real drain on our economy. End all subsidies and tax breaks for the corporations. End socialism for the rich and the corporations before you continue to advocate for cutting the insurance programs paid for by working people. Tax the rich to fund the insurance programs raided so often to give tax breaks to the rich and corporate welfare.

November 10 2010 at 6:10 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The Dems will not see the White House again until 2020.....and even THAT is a huge MAYBE. They really jumped the shark this time. Nixon coined "The Silent Majority." We are still out here and I can promise....we see through the CLOWNS at MSNBC. I know Bachmann certainly did the other night with Chris Matthews......she showed him the respect he deserved.....NONE.

November 04 2010 at 6:15 AM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply


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