Why Democrats Got Hammered

Jamelle Bouie at Slate riffs on a Charlie Cook article to ask “What Could the Democrats Have Done Differently?”

“Democrats are still reeling from the Great Whupping of 2014, trying to orient themselves for the next two years of Republican control in Congress. The recurring question, even now, is: What happened? Unemployment is down, and Republicans are unpopular. How did Democrats lose so badly?”

Cook argues that “Bad Decisions Came Back to Haunt Democrats in Midterms.”  His case boils down to a claim that Americans still blame Democrats for shifting to climate change and health care after “checking the box” on economic stimulus in 2009.  Dems should have focused on “action that would have turned the economy around and created jobs for many working-and-middle-class Americans.

Bouie agrees that “economic anxiety drove last Tuesday’s results,” but disagrees that ‘a ‘focus’ on the economy would have saved Democratic prospects.”  He rightfully points out that the first stimulus debate “strained the Democratic coalition,” and Democrats could have “talked about the economy more” and “kept a rhetorical focus on economic growth.” But he doesn’t see how this would have changed the 2014 election results.

Bouie and Cook don’t mention that the Democratic Party had no power to deliver economic growth in the face of Republican obstruction.  Conservatives accepted a round of economic stimulus in the wake of an electoral drubbing in 2008 – as long as it included tax cuts they knew would have little stimulative effect.  But they loudly proclaimed their chief goal: making Obama a one-term President.  Republicans would never have allowed passage of any policy that would have improved the lives of Americans because they knew Obama would get credit for it.  And they had the power to obstruct in the Senate using the filibuster even before Scott Brown won the special election because Blue Dog Dems in red states would not stick with the Party in support of liberal policies.

So I would argue that Democrats got hammered two weeks ago not because they lost focus on the economy.  They lost because they ran away from Democratic policies and failed to point out Republican obstructionism.  In Arkansas, for example, a ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage won with almost 550,000 votes — 70 thousand more than Senator-elect Tom Cotton — and carried every county in the state.  Did Democratic candidate Mark Pryor run on this issue?  No.  Though he gave a lukewarm endorsement of the ballot initiative last December, by February 2014 Pryor came out against a Federal minimum wage hike.

In fact, liberal policies won across the country, even in red states.  Voters rejected personhood amendments in North Dakota and Colorado, and passed minimum wage increases in South Dakota and Nebraska as well as Arkansas.  In each, Democratic candidates who waffled on these issues lost, just as Pryor did.  The linked article goes on to note something everyone who studies politics knows: that liberal policies often have wide popular support but the electorate has muddled views about how to get them in place.

This suggests that Democrats got hammered because they ran away from President Obama and liberal policies.  Whatever you think of him, Barack Obama is clearly the most astute politician of his generation (or at least the best since Bill Clinton).  He is quite frankly the best liberal spokesman out there and even Republicans get this.

The President tried to help them with this by pointing out that his agenda actually did appear on the ballot even if his name did not.  But Democratic candidates responded again and again by arguing that this was not so, and one even refused to say whether she had voted for him in 2012.  Think about that for a second: a candidate nominated by the Democratic Party for a United States Senate seat refused to say whether she had supported the leader of that Party for President.  Is it a coincidence that she dropped in the polls right after saying this?

Democrats didn’t get hammered on November 4 because they didn’t give Americans economic growth and other policies that will improve their lives.  They got hammered because they didn’t run as Democrats, proudly supporting those policies and pointing out that Americans didn’t get them because Republicans blocked them at every turn.  This kept liberal voters home – why turn out to vote for candidates that agree with the opposition and distance themselves from the Party leader who destroyed conservative opponents twice in elections that weren’t even close?  If you’re a Democrat in Virginia who cares about climate change, crony capitalism, poverty, wealth inequality, and tax breaks for gazillionaires why would you get excited about working to elect Mark Warner?  And it’s not as if playing the “I’ll work across the aisle” card persuaded any conservatives to vote for him.

Barack Obama proved that a liberal candidate who proudly and aggressively stands for Democratic values can turn out voters and win electoral majorities across the country.  In the 7th Congressional District in Virginia where I live — one of the most conservative in the Commonwealth and a Tea Party hotbed — more than 163,000 people voted for him in 2012.  He out-performed the Democratic candidate for Congress in that election by 15,000 votes (and outperformed Dave Brat’s 2014 vote by 26,000!).  Statewide, Obama received almost as many votes in 2012 as both Warner and Gillespie combined in 2014.  The liberal votes are there, but they don’t show up for candidates who try to split the difference and play centrist while their opponents rile the base with hell-in-a-handbasket rhetoric.  Does anyone think a few Obama visits to the state and bear hugs with Warner wouldn’t have helped keep this from being close?  It’s not as if that many voters were genuinely on the fence.

Democratic values – equal opportunity, tolerance, support for the middle class and working poor, a strong social safety net, broadly shared prosperity, investment in infrastructure, strong national  defense without fighting needless wars overseas, fiscal common sense, and consumer protection from corporate greed – are nothing to be ashamed of.  Democratic candidates should stand proudly in favor of them while showing the stark differences between the let’s work together America Democrats work to achieve and the every man for himself version Republicans promote.

At an event last Saturday I heard a State Senator point out that there are no more “persuasion elections.”  That is, few voters today truly consider candidates without regard to party affiliation and picking off those who do is not a way to build election wins.  Instead, Liberals need to proudly express their views and turn out those who agree but rarely make it to the polls.  I think this is right, and it means that while Democrats must work to deliver policy outcomes Americans want, Democrats also need to make sure voters know what they stand for – and how they differ from Republicans.

One thought on “Why Democrats Got Hammered

  1. I encourage you to continue posting articles like this one to your blog. You should be writing for MSNBC. Wish there was a way we could get Rachel Maddow or Chris Mathews to see your work…

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