Why the Democrats Lost

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.

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10 thoughts on “Why the Democrats Lost

  1. Kukri

    Well said, sir, well said. We’ll see how if the 112th can fix the economy.
    Did any one have any sightings of Carville on Tuesday night repeating his line of the mid 90s, “It’s the economy, stupid?”

    Reply
  2. jb

    Could anyone have fixed it quickly? Could anyone have seen the depth of this? Easy to criticize, as the vast amount of Americans have done by the testament of the recent election. Who do I trust more running the government, as an average middle class citizen? It is not the republicans.

    Reply
    1. liberalironist Post author

      Could anyone have seen the depth of this? Sure. That’s why President Bush proposed the Troubled Assets Relief Program–passed mostly with Democratic votes–heretofore and eternally known as the Damn Bank Bailout. Serious observers saw the crisis in financial markets which could have led to runs on the banks and ground our lending system to a halt. Coming out of that crisis, numerous observers predicted a global depression felt by all. Aggressive economic stimulus by countries like China and high-level meetings among governments party to major international trade and finance organizations–all tools and institutions that didn’t exist at the time of the Great Depression–probably prevented this depression and drove home what was at stake.

      I’m now relying on counter-factuals, though–as I am when I say, following Paul Krugman, that the Federal stimulus did create jobs and did soften the landing for many businesses and States compelled to slash their budgets. A larger stimulus wouldn’t have made it like the 2007-2008 Financial Crash didn’t happen, but the President has known that his economic and jobs forecast was unduly rosy since summer 2009, and he didn’t take meaningful action at that time to address a deteriorating job market.

      Your skepticism of Republican proposals to stimulate job growth (keep taxes low, cut Federal spending and reduce economic regulation) may be justified, but voters didn’t vote in the Republicans for what they want to do, they turned out the Democrats for what they failed to do. Economists had already called the stimulus insufficient and for over a year the results had suggested this was true; the Democrats essentially ignored those warning signs as they pursued progressive reforms the Republicans framed as being too costly. The President could have pushed for a bigger stimulus in February 2009, or he could have pushed for it last winter. I don’t know whether he could have secured the votes to pass it, but the Democrats have passed some remarkable legislation this term–and the fact that he apparently didn’t consider it means the President is not just a victim in these midterms.

      Reply
  3. Leigh

    Agree with the stimulus being too small but would it have passed of it were larger ?

    Also, I have a problem with the electorate treating an election as a referendum. They should elect those who will do best for the country. That’s where I think the Democrats had trouble with their message. Bill Clinton was recently giving great speeches on the economy and Dems vs. Repubs. On 60 Minutes last night, Obama seemed to have just given up on the “half of the country that voted for John McCain.”. Not gonna win in 2012 with that attitude ! Hillary 2016

    Reply
    1. liberalironist Post author

      Would a larger stimulus have passed? I’m in no position to say that for certain. But it’s actually bad policy *and* bad politics to ask for less than you think the country needs. When George W. Bush asked for a combined $720 billion corporate and dividend tax cut in 2003, he got a $350 billion dividend tax cut–and that was a pretty big deal considering he’d passed a $1.35 trillion income tax cut in 2001, and had *already launched the Iraq War*. (Not a source of inspiration for responsible budgeters, but a point in favor of offering a bold proposal, I think.) I’ll sustain Paul Krugman’s opinion on this issue again, this time from his column “The Focus Hocus-Pocus:”

      “…By late 2009, it was already obvious that the worriers had been right, that the program was much too small. Mr. Obama could have gone to the nation and said, ‘My predecessor left the economy in even worse shape than we realized, and we need further action.’ But he didn’t. Instead, he and his officials continued to claim that their original plan was just right, damaging their credibility even further as the economy continued to fall short.”

      Krugman’s point in this column, which I agree with in at least general terms, is that the President *undermined his own political defense* by avoiding the request for a bigger stimulus, either in February 2009 or in response to the uneven economic performance following those half-measures.

      As far as whether the electorate should elect those who will do what is best for the country rather than as a “referendum” past performance, I agree in principle (and I definitely think that the Democrats’ approach of stimulus spending is more-realistic than the Republicans’ proposal of lower tax rates and spending cuts), but Paul Krugman once again rightly noted that “voters respond to facts, not counterfactuals, and the perception is that the administration’s policies have failed” (“Falling Into the Chasm, Oct. 24, 2010″). Besides, you’re rejecting the voters’ technically-correct but badly-misguided association of the (insufficient) stimulus with economic stagnation–in favor of an unproven message about what the incumbent party can do next. I agree with you, but we were already sold on the Democrats’ legislative agenda.

      As far as Secretary of State Clinton being a great uniter who could bring the country together in a 2016 Presidential run, I don’t think such optimism is warranted about the early favorite in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primary who lost her lead partly as a result of attacking then-Senator Obama while he was still polling behind. I remember seeing someone write “Hillary 2012″ immediately after Senator Clinton conceded in the primary; since that time Barack Obama has done remarkable things as President. Obama won the Presidency in 2008 with the largest share of the popular vote in 20 years, in the Presidential election with the highest turnout at least since 1968. Better to build on that platform than to take a salt-the-Earth strategy because of current setbacks.

      Reply
  4. 監視器

    Simply, one of the best article l have come across on this precious subject. I quite agree with your suppositions and will eagerly look forward to your forthcoming updates.

    Reply
    1. liberalironist Post author

      Thanks for the compliment! I won’t always give time-sensitive updates on current politics, as this blog isn’t exclusively focused on political news. But I’ve always been interested in national politics and I’ll try to offer a perspective on political events I consider relevant. (Note: This doesn’t necessarily mean that I consider an election or a piece of legislation or some political scandal irrelevant just because I decline to discuss it. It may be a small World out there, but there is a lot happening in it, and when trying to cast events in a somewhat-different light, you need both time and space.)

      Reply
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