Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election 2014: Chronicle of a defeat foretold

THE TELEVISION schedules of everyone in America will now return to their regularly scheduled commercial programming. Our long national TV campaign-ad nightmare is over.

The defeat of the Democrats in their bid to hold on to the United States Senate — the defeat that pundits and analysts have been predicting for weeks — came to pass last night, as voters seriously vented, letting off steam in a number of battleground states and ushering in a unified Republican Congress for the first time in eight years.

A number of governor’s races went the Democrats’ way, and 147 ballot initiatives let liberalism ring, with approvals for recreational marijuana and a striking agenda for enhancing the minimum wage. But other governors’ races — Florida, lost by a hair; Wisconsin, lost in a walk — went the Republicans’ way. And the big enchilada, the Senate was gone.

E.J. Dionne, his timing pitch perfect, tweeted the comments of a Democratic consultant lamenting the outcome of the election while being relieved about D.C.’s vote to decriminalize marijuana: “At least we can get stoned tonight.”

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When is a wave not a wave? The anti-incumbent outrage that animated a lot of the political media never really materialized. Incumbents Democratic and Republican alike stayed on in states from Maine to Nevada, Iowa to New Jersey.

There was a wave, to be sure, one that solidifies control of the Congress by the Republicans. But with several incumbents held over, at the Senate and gubernatorial levels, it was clear that any anti-incumbent wave was a situational experience, not a wave but a wavelet, with voters assessing on a state-by-state basis who was doing well and who wasn’t, an overview that wasn’t subject to being applied across the board.

There were exceptions, some breaks in that wave for the Democrats. Progressive ideas advanced in red states, with ballot initiatives in four states approving new minimum wage standards. In Colorado, the regressive “personhood” amendment went down to defeat (for the third time). And in blue-state Oregon and red-state Alaska, voters approved measures decriminalizing marijuana for personal use.

But the throughline, the deeper story, is one that’s set Democratic objectives back, at least in the short term.

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THE BLAME game-on-the-Potomac is well under way. And there’s plenty enough to go around. Yes, Harry Reid, the outgoing Senate Majority Leader, deepened the divide in Congress with his own intransigence about what bills came to the floor for debate

And yes, President Obama engaged the GOP that was his legislative bĂȘte noire, but he did it diffidently, surgically, too calculated by half, acting like a man trying to psych his way out of a street fight.

But Democrats lost finally not because of any deficit of messaging, or any shortage of concern from President Obama and the White House over turnout or voter disenfranchisement, or the economic issues more regularly keeping Americans awake at night.

Republicans won in no small part because of the structural changes to the electoral map, their own tireless efforts at gerrymandering, and, simply enough, because many of the key Senate races this year were in red and/or purple states where longstanding political culture and history reflected the Republican identity, and where Democratic candidates’ reluctance to embrace their own leader favored the Republican message.

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Consider Iowa. Republican Joni Ernst won there in a squeaker over Democrat Bruce Braley in a race that shouldn’t have been that close. In a state like Iowa, it’s frankly a wonder that Braley was even remotely competitive. Much of the Democratic Party’s success in recent years has come through not only expanding the electoral map, but also expanding its outreach to a demographically evolving electorate.

Braley, whose party represents that expanding electorate, was up against a huge challenge in a state like Iowa, whose population is overwhelmingly whiter, older and — thanks to a long and grand tradition of farming and agriculture — necessarily more rural than most Democratic voters. Iowa is a stronghold of people more like Joni Ernst, culturally and politically speaking, than people like Bruce Braley. And it has been for years.

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DAVID CORN of Mother Jones, in a postmortem that went up so fast last night you knew he wrote it some time ago, observed how we got here:

Obama's wins have often been nuanced or mixed, especially from the perspective of his supporters. In the lame-duck session after the 2010 elections, he won a tax package that was a mini-stimulus—but at the cost of extending George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. His health care reform—the product of a long and ugly legislative tussle—did not include a public option, and then yielded the website fiasco. ...

He issued orders that protected certain undocumented immigrants—but deportations increased, and he delayed further action that would protect undocumented immigrants. He went along with GOP-pushed budget cuts to protect other spending priorities and to prevent a debt ceiling implosion. 

Through much of this, he had trouble presenting his side of the tale — and he was often reluctant to bash the Republicans because he believed he was obliged to keep trying to forge reasonable deals with the opposition. At times, the president did let loose on his Republican enemies, but this was done only intermittently, in specific circumstances, and Obama never developed a consistent plot line that depicted the GOP as a force of unwavering obstructionism.

Uncertain messaging, complex policy wins, compromise, and mess — it's not a surprise that members of the Democratic coalition with tenuous ties to the political process dropped out. ...

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For Corn, the way forward for Democrats should have meant taking a look backwards: “To beat back the expected oppositional waves of 2010 and 2014, he needed a playbook as unconventional, imaginative, and effective as those he used in 2008 and 2012,” he writes. “He needed to keep show-me independents on his side and Democratic-leaning voters, particularly those who otherwise would be unconcerned with politics, somehow engaged in the process. And he had to do this while presiding over a Washington that seemed to be a miasma of disorder and while contending with a troubled economy and all hell breaking loose overseas.”

The way forward contains as much risk for Republicans as for Democrats, and maybe more. To whom much is given, much is expected, and much will be expected from the Congress set to begin in January. Making credible headway on immigration, trade promotion authority, the tax code, and infrastructure issues will be Job #1 — or should be.

That is, unless the freshly galvanized Senate, full of righteous fervor and venom and ready for payback, decides to use its majority for the settling of old scores. Deciding the tone and tenor of the relationship with the White House may be the GOP’s real Job #1.

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STEVE SCHMIDT, the veteran Republican strategist, went on MSNBC the day before the election and offered a future path as reasoned, and more rational, as you could expect from a Republican op with campaign cred. “The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections, and he electorate in 2016 is going to be 2 percent less white than it was in 2012.

“And it still remains the case that [for] every demographic group in this country that is growing, Democrats are gaining market share. Every demographic group in this country that is shrinking, Republicans are gaining market share. So we shouldn’t be fooled by the results tomorrow.

“It’s going to be a great victory for Republicans, but those Republican victories are occurring in red states, in purple states. They had a midterm election with significant structural advantages against an incumbent president whose numbers in the sixth year of his term are in the low 40s. ...

“We should not look at this as some sort of overwhelming mandate to keep obstructing the president, at the expense of doing the business of the American people ...”

The election now and mercifully over was predicted from a long way off. It’s in the Republicans’ hands to decide — by what they do and, especially, what they don’t do — whether the next tsunami will be as easily predicted. With the wave going in the other direction, two years from now.

Image credits: New York Post page one: Newseum via The Huffington Post/©2014 News Corporation. Reid: Associated Press via Politico.

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