Wow. When Democrats lose almost every toss-up race in the Senate, ten or more seats in the House, and the governorships in true blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland, you know you have just witnessed not a wave but a tsunami. The election results yesterday were a thorough repudiation of the state of the country, and especially of President Obama’s leadership or lack thereof. The voters spoke and they are very, very upset.
Obama brought some of this on himself. Last week, some channel re-ran a documentary about Obama’s 2008 election win. I still get choked up watching the images of elderly African-Americans speaking about what it meant to be able to vote for Obama. But, it is hard now, to even remember the breadth of the promises he made. He was going to change Washington, but Washington was more resistant to change than he had anticipated. He thought it was enough to bring his celebrity charm to the White House. It wasn’t. And, despite his repeated mantra that good policy is good politics, even good policies must be defended, provided with a rationale, and evaluated with some measurement for success. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, will remain long after he has gone and will burnish his reputation over the long haul, but he – and those Democrats on the ballot yesterday - needed to be defending that achievement in the face of sustained criticism, and he didn’t and they didn’t.
Fundamentally, Obama has failed to address the sources of voter anxiety. I perceive three such sources: The lack of social mobility, increased income inequality and wage stagnation, and the sense that the country is adrift. The first two issues, of course, have their roots in the Reagan years. The tech boom of the 90s obscured the underlying dynamics of the changing economy, but those dynamics remained. Workers were increasingly seen as commodities and if the jobs they performed could be done more cheaply overseas, then the jobs went overseas. Business leaders learned from Reagan it was okay to stare down striking unions. Social capital fled minority communities in the inner cities and, increasingly, less affluent rural and even suburban areas in the Rust Belt. Those parts of the country that have experienced higher rates of economic growth are low wage states and right-to-work states and even in more affluent states like Connecticut, good paying union jobs at Electric Boat were replaced by low paying, non-union jobs in the service industry, working at casinos. I do not know if Obama could have passed the kinds of policies that would address these underlying economic dynamics, but I do know he did not really try.
The sense that the nation is adrift is more amorphous but also more challenging for the Democrats and Obama. Despite his great rhetorical gifts, the president has failed to articulate a governing philosophy. “Don’t do stupid things” is not a philosophy. One can object that people want jobs, not a governing philosophy, but if history is any guide, FDR provided a governing strategy that succeeded in captivating the nation long before the recovery from the Depression (mostly the result of spending on World War II) produced enough new jobs to significantly dent the unemployment rate. Both at home and abroad, it is not clear what Obama hopes to achieve, where he is willing to plant his flag and make a stand, and the suspicion grows that he has no map to even locate where he is. In the election that ended in such a devastating verdict on his presidency, the numbers of the GOP candidates all began to shift in their favor when he stated that his administration “had no strategy” for dealing with ISIS. The fight against ISIS was not decisive in the election, to be sure, but his admission had the exact same effect on how voters view Obama as did George W. Bush’s claims that everything was going fine in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Then, people realized that if the president was clueless about what was happening on the ground in a major U.S. city, he could not be trusted to know what was happening on the ground in Baghdad. Bush’s numbers never recovered. When Obama admitted he had no strategy for dealing with ISIS, it fed the suspicion that he had no strategy for anything.
The Democrats must do some soul-searching. I hope the decisive defeat of Sen. Udall in Colorado, a state Obama won twice, will convince all future Democratic candidates that they can’t count on EMILY’s List to win elections for them. Udall’s ads were so singularly focused on issues of reproductive rights and access to contraception, he was dubbed “Sen. Uterus.” Similarly, Wendy Davis, whose name the nation knows only because she filibustered a law that would have restricted access to abortion, did not manage to get even 40% of the vote in her bid for the governorship in Texas. Women may or may not think that religious employers should pay for contraception, but they also know the prospect of widespread denial of access to contraception is unlikely, and that the whole supposed “war on women” had more to do with inside the Beltway politics than with reality. N.B. The GOP should also note that they picked up the Senate this year, when they should have picked it up in 2010, because they did not run on the culture war issues either.
This autumn, it was enough for the GOP to run as the un-Obama. It is far from clear that they have any recipes for dealing with stagnating wages, growing income inequality or decreasing social mobility either. In fact, the policies they are likely to put forward will exacerbate, not alleviate, all those problems. Nor is it clear that they have a convincing governing philosophy. They benefited from Obama’s admission that he had no strategy for confronting ISIS, but what is the GOP strategy? They now control both houses of Congress and could, if they wish, pass a declaration of war, but they won’t. And, even if they did, what would it mean? They are loathe to put U.S. troops back into Iraq too. They know that airstrikes will be insufficient. Ranting about Obama’s lack of leadership may have won them an election, but they must now lead too, and it is unlikely that they will devise some magic bullet to confront the major domestic or foreign problems facing the nation.
Obama and the new GOP leadership will engage in a dance for the next two months, trying to decide how to share power. My worry is that they will look for – and find – areas of agreement rather than areas of compromise. For example, Sen. Harry Reid, for all his faults, was the only person standing in the way of new trade deals that will only further aggravate wage stagnation and income inequality. Will Obama and Senate Republicans now recognize an area of agreement, and pass new trade deals? This is likely. Also disastrous, making the Democrats complicit in the very policies that harm working class voters. Will Obama and the Republican Congress look for – and find – agreement on an overhaul of corporate tax rates? Again, this is likely and disastrous. Instead, Obama should seek areas of compromise in which Democrats agree to overhauling corporate taxes in exchange for, say, removing the cap on FICA taxes and thus shoring up Social Security. If Obama agrees to corporate tax reform as a stand-alone proposal, what will be the bargaining chip for achieving further progressive reforms of the rest of the tax code?
How will it all play out? Who knows. Starting tomorrow, perhaps even later today, the race for the presidency in 2016 will begin in fact if not in form. All political judgments to be made by key Senators and Governors will be filtered through the lens of their personal political ambitions. The only candidate in either party who is very clear about his governing philosophy is Sen. Rand Paul, and his governing philosophy is very, very dangerous. That does not mean it will not catch on. Is there a Democrat out there who is willing to confront Paul’s libertarianism head on, and work through what that confrontation would mean for the Democrats’ stand on issues like abortion? Is our electorate even capable of thinking more deeply about the demands of governance or do they simply view government the way they view the mall, a place to go to when they want something? Can three generations of Americans raised and inculturated on the proposition that there is a quick, usually technological, fix to all the problems of life really debate if there is a common good and, if so, what it demands? These deeper issues would still need to be posed if Sen. Kay Hagan had won North Carolina, or if Joni Ernst was not headed to the Senate. But, now, they are urgent for any prospective candidate, in either party as well as for President Obama as he charts his last two years in office and the legacy he wishes to leave, and for the incoming leaders of the GOP-controlled Congress. Smart money says the muddle will continue.