Twelve steppers often refer to it as total defeat. In politics it’s referred to as an ass whoopin’. What happened November 2nd, despite all the brave but ultimately phony silver linings that progressives may have pointed to (including this one) – the Democrats held the Senate and they still have the White House – was nothing short of a complete failure on a massive scale to connect with and carry the electorate. Yes, midterm shellackings are hardly rare; in deed the incumbent party almost always suffers some losses in the midterms.
But this is no rare or ordinary trouncing. In fact, the “silver lining” scenario is nothing short of reaching – or denial if you will – for those still clinging to it. Imagine if in the Senate races in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado and West Virginia, Republicans had chosen to run candidates who weren’t perceived as, well, let’s be generous here and say “extreme.” That “scenario” would be out the window and we’d be talking about a slam dunk victory for the GOP. That lone silver lining was owed more to the gross incompetence on the part of the Tea Party than to any prowess on the part of the Democratic Party. Put that in your pipe Dems and smoke it, and, oh yeah, choke on it while you’re at it. That’s what arrogance and indifference gets you in politics: a seat at the losers’ table.
So now what? What happens when the house comes crumblin’ down on top of your head? Where do you go from down? It should be crystal clear to any one who was paying attention the last two years that the message – whatever it was – wasn’t getting through. And even when it got through it was thoroughly being rejected. While Republicans ran on precise, concise, and unified messaging that, though completely bogus and revisionist, nonetheless hit a nerve with the voters, Democrats went for a, how shall I say it, John Kerryish (“How am I qualified, let me count the ways and may I add without too much ado how completely humbled I am to be your nominee, and I will do my best to honor the trust you have awarded me with utmost humility, grace, and dedication, for we all know that…”) approach that turned more stomachs than heads and failed to resonate even with progressives, much less independents.
And even when they finally were able to fine tune and scale it down to size, their message went basically like this: “Vote for us; we’re not crazy.” Ostensibly, Democrats ran away from their record, which was a huge gift for the GOP, and thought that by merely indicting their Republican opponents as extremists, or dredging up George W. Bush’s record, or, as Newsweek's Jonathan Alter aptly noted, reminding people that as bad as things are they could've been a lot worse would be enough to stave off defeat. It wasn’t, and, what’s worse for them, 2012 promises to be just as painful unless and until the Democratic Party can come up with an effective game plan that can woo independents back into their column and inspire progressives, as well.
That will be a tall order, given the circumstances. But it’s not impossible. For starters, Democrats can hang their hat on at least one certainty: the 2010 midterm results had little to do with ideology. Yes, the Tea Party movement motivated the Republican base in a way not seen since the days of Reagan, and they came out in droves to support their candidates. But the election still hinged on moderates and independents. These were voters who overwhelmingly went for Obama in ’08, and gave the GOP a thorough beat down in ’06. It is hard to believe that in less than one election cycle they became hardened conservatives. What’s more likely is that this block – which has a long history of swinging back and forth like a pendulum every four to six years – has grown particularly weary of Washington politics as usual and for the last three election cycles now has been on a “throw the bums out” mission. The fact that the first two cycles benefited Democrats at the expense of Republicans should never have been construed by any of us a political mood shift; rather it was what it was: an eviction notice. In ’06 and ’08 it was Republicans who got the heave hoe; in ’10 it was the Democrats’ turn. The fuse on Main Street is growing particularly short and, with the economy still in intensive care, both Parties should take heed of the unrest that is alive and well.
And that is a theme that Democrats, if they wish, can capitalize on over the next twelve to eighteen months. It is quite obvious that the Republicans’ game plan throughout the campaign was to say or do nothing substantive. Their just say no approach worked to perfection as both Obama and Congressional Democrats slipped on banana peel after banana peel and turned a landslide victory into a resounding thrashing. That is the price you pay when your political opponent comes at you relentlessly and you sit back and assume your public will sort it all out. Whatever else we can say about Democrats, we can conclude this much: none of them have ever read Shakespeare.
But the opportunity that presents itself here is one that even Democrats can seize upon. The angst and frustration that most people feel at their circumstances is very real and isn’t going away any time soon. Republicans rode that wave of discontent all the way to victory in the House elections, and damn near did the same in the Senate. We can debate till we’re blue in the face and the cows come home all the Astroturf rallies and phony town halls of last August, or talk about the influx of money coming in from political action groups and the Chamber of Commerce, thanks in large part to The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, to no avail. You don’t get to bring the Titanic back up from the bottom of the Atlantic after it has sunk. What you can do is learn from your mistakes and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Of all the mistakes that Democrats made over the last two years, none was more damaging than the outright dismissal of the pent up anger brewing throughout the country. Though stoked by corporate interests, it was genuine and ran deep. When tempers began to rise during the summer of ’09, Democrats could’ve co-opted some of the rage by identifying with it and redirecting it where it needed to be. FDR did just that when he turned the tables on Republicans who were calling him basically the same names they are currently calling Obama. His famous “I welcome their hate” speech is rated among the finest triumphs of 20th century politics and helped earn Roosevelt not only a resounding reelection, but almost saint-like status. To this day, he is considered perhaps the greatest advocate for the working man in the nation’s history. And all because he headed off at the pass his opponents’ attempts to define him and ostensibly stole their thunder. It was brilliant and masterful, and both Obama and Congressional Democrats could’ve duplicated that feat had they simply paid attention to what was going on. Their dismissive attitude allowed Republicans to gain a foothold among not only the base of the Party but among independents. The Mason-Dixon line was crossed sometime in the fall of ’09, and the GOP never looked back.
To recapture this demographic, Democrats are going to have to do two things they have historically not been very good at: Getting down off their lofty and sometimes elitist perches and develop a sense of empathy for the common citizenry; and – this is critical – keep it simple stupid. Too often Democrats look like the proverbial virgin who couldn’t get lucky in a bordello. Even when Providence throws opportunity squarely into their laps they can’t seize the moment. They actually talk you out of an argument. The debates between George Bush and John Kerry were a case in point. Virtually every pundit who saw them concluded Kerry won on points. But out in the real world where real people live, Kerry came off as off-putting and preachy, while Bush seemed far more comfortable and relaxed. As one poll later discovered, Bush was the guy most wanted to “have a beer with.”
Somehow, someway Democrats must find someone within their ranks who can walk and chew gum at the same time. Bill Clinton was the last one who was able to do that. He proved you could be both empathetic and speak in concise, easy to understand sentences that resonated with voters. So adept was he that even when he lost the Congress in 1994, he was able to turn the tables on Republicans. Within a few months after that historic loss, Clinton regained his political footing and handily won reelection. Despite running the near perfect campaign, Barack Obama is clearly not up to the task. Though a gifted orator who can out duel anyone on a political stage, Obama has about as much empathy as a pet rock. The BP Gulf-oil spill tragedy was a painful reminder of just how wanting he is in that category. When the head of your Party is incapable of connecting with average voters you’re already going up to bat with two strikes against you.
But, like it or not, this is the hand the Democrats have been dealt, or, more accurately, have dealt themselves. But, as bad as things may seem, it isn’t impossible. And that’s because of two things that will work in Democrats favor. One is, ironically, the economy. After almost two and a half years of bad news, most economists now believe that 2011 will see noticeable improvement not only in GDP growth but in unemployment. To substantially reduce the number of unemployed, GDP will have to grow at twice the rate it has been growing. Indications are that the economy is on the verge of doing just that. As the economy begins to recover, the hope is that much of the rhetoric that has been driving the political dialogue in the country will give way and allow cooler heads to prevail and govern effectively. With the air being let out of the Tea Party balloon, Democratic fortunes will slowly begin to rise.
The second thing Democrats have going for them is that for all their passion and capitalizing on the fears and frustrations of the electorate, Republicans have no viable plan to deal with the systemic problems within the economy, and they know it. They ran on balancing the budget and lowering taxes, something virtually all economists know is impossible to do. When Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina how she planned on balancing the budget while keeping the Bush tax cuts, the deer in a headlight look was most revelatory. If Democrats can manage to regroup, unite and construct a narrative that connects with voters, they can catch lightning in a bottle here and put themselves in a position of being able to say, “See, we told you so.” According to at least two polls – CBS and Pew Research – voters may already be showing some buyer’s remorse over the election, and it’s not even January yet.
But before any body goes scheduling a ticker tape parade, it is critical that Democrats accept one undeniable and inescapable conclusion: they are their own worst enemies. The Party of No should never have been in a position to now command the power they now wield; that power was ceded by the Party of Arrogance, which has what basically amounts to an intimacy problem with the electorate. When poll after poll reveals that more Americans trust the Democrats on the economy, yet still voted for Republicans that is telling. If the Democrats cannot correct this core issue any boost they get in 2012 will be short-lived. Despite their advantage in sheer numbers, the damage that was done this time around will take years to exorcize.
The Democratic Party must do its own personal inventory, as it were, and clean out the toxic elements within it. Nothing less than a total purge will do. The standing orders should be as follows: keep it concise, keep it on point, and keep it simple. Every Party member should be locked in a room and forced to watch speeches of FDR and JFK. Those who can’t or won’t drink the kool aid, should be shown the door. If the last two years have proven anything it’s that if nothing changes, nothing changes. The simple truth is that the main reason for their ascendancy to power in the first place was due to the worst Presidency since Herbert Hoover. George W. Bush gift-wrapped first the Congress then the White House to the Democrats. The grateful benefactors then spent the last two years fumbling the ball back to their counterparts, as if to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
The time for fumbling the ball must come to an end. These are scary times. With the likes of a Sarah Palin lurking over the political horizon, the Democrats must finally deliver on the promise of their mission statement. Who are they? What do they stand for? And, most importantly, what are they prepared to do to fight for it? That last question strikes at the core of their dilemma. After their 2010 lay down, they must do the gut check of gut checks before the majority of Americans will reward them with a return to power.
You can’t say you’re for the little guy if you have no bloody idea what the little guy is going through, and you can’t change his lot in life when you can’t even change your own. Democrats must clean house, make amends for how they have performed and show they are ready to lead by example. The country demands and needs sober, rational leadership. They will turn to the Party that can best provide it. In 2010 that Party was the GOP, and, painful though it may be to admit, the Democrats have earned the seat they now sit in.
The nice thing about total defeat is that you can finally start over with a clean slate. And a weary nation waits with baited and guarded breath.