In 2006 the Democrats won 31 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate, taking each chamber. In 2008 the Democrats won an additional 23 seats in the House and a stunning 9 seats in the Senate. At the time of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, the Democrats had 256 seats in the House and a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate, along with 28 out of 50 Governorships. But Republicans won 2 Governorships in November 2009 and made a net gain of 5 in the current election, advancing their total to 29. The Republicans appear to have gained 65 House seats in this election, not just wiping out the Democratic gains since 2006 but getting to 243 seats in that chamber–the largest Republican House majority since the Democrats picked up 75 seats and took that chamber back in 1948. (Incidentally, that is the last time either party picked up so many seats there.) Considering all this, the Republicans’ advance of 6 seats in the Senate, to 47, is rather anticlimactic. How did the Democrats’ political fortunes go south so quickly?
It’s simple; it’s only because of the respective partisan prisms that the midterm postmortem seems at all perplexing. The Republicans have generally claimed the people revolted against big government policies; the Wall Street Journal‘s lead editorial from the day after the election seconds this claim, and George Will‘s rather harsh op-ed column from the day after that thirds it. The Democrats have generally claimed that they didn’t get their message out, or correspondingly that the Republicans engaged in fearmongering; the New York Times‘ lead editorial on the day after the election lamented that the President and his party didn’t communicate their vision adequately. My own 2-part explanation of the Democrats’ massive reversal maintains that the Republican take is 40% right and the Democratic account(s) pretty-much wrong.
The voters elected the Democrats back in 2008 to fix the economy. They…forgot to do that.
You don’t think it’s that simple? Well, it is. The exit polls said that the economy was the overriding issue motivating most voters (in that case, to vote for Obama and the Democrats). But while erstwhile-deflated Republicans expressed mounting hostility to a progressive agenda that they never liked and the likes of which they hadn’t seen since the Nixon Administration, the Democrats passed Health Care Reform. The dramatic creation of this new entitlement gave the Republican base enthusiasm and a coherent narrative–but it doesn’t explain why the broader public voted for them.
Unemployment has increased gradually but inexorably since Obama became President. GDP growth is nearly flat, the housing market hasn’t improved at all, and the Dow is only marginally making investors money. How can Democrats conclude that their loss is simply the result of failure to stay on-message when the official unemployment rate is 9.6%? (The real figure, when you include those working low-income jobs out of desperation and those who have given up, is probably twice that.)
So, if anyone looks at these election results and asks “What is wrong with this country?!” I’m going to say, “9.6% unemployment.”
If the President has perspective on the electorate, right now he should be saying “Damnit! while I was turning this country into Sweden I forgot to fix the economy! Stupid…” If he actually believes, as he said during his Wednesday afternoon press conference, that the problem is that he just didn’t get his message out, he may not have had his last rude awakening.
Some people claim this is a center-right country. I think the public has demonstrated that it will support liberal policies where discretely justified and explained–but it will punish any party that doesn’t do the thing it was elected to do.
So, what do I think the Democrats should have done?
The Democrats forgot step 2. Paul Krugman warned at the beginning of Obama’s Presidency that you can’t have an economic stimulus that only barely makes up for massive budget cuts by the States, and call that a “stimulus;” he offered this admonition again in several op-ed columns leading up to the midterms. The point of the stimulus is for the government to consume some of the goods and services that people previously consumed, so that businesses can stay open, investors get added assurance that certain business investments are stable, and people keep their jobs. The government also creates jobs through these outlays, although many of them are temporary. The problem is, if state budget cuts are almost as deep as the stimulus is high, it isn’t a stimulus, just a stopgap on further recession-driven pain.
The stimulus took a lot of the pain out of the States’ budget cuts (which are almost always drastic during a recession because, unlike the Federal Government, no State besides Vermont can spend at a deficit.)
President Obama’s economic forecast predicted that unemployment would peak in summer 2009 at around 8.2% and begin to fall. In September it stood at 9.6%–officially. Economic anxiety has reached a fever pitch as things have slowly become worse. The President didn’t even take stock of his stimulus plan in early-March of this year, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid felt compelled by the sense of drift on the unemployment issue to say that it was “really good” that “(o)nly 36,000 people lost their jobs today.” The Wall Street Journal showed that the economy was just as dominant of an issue among the 2010 electorate (62%) as it was in 2008 (63%)–but this time those economic concerns motivated votes for Republicans.
The Democrats didn’t fix it. It’s as simple as that.