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The Democratic Debacle -- and What It Means

3 years ago
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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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