After this election, the predictable knee-jerk reaction from the media is going to be that President Obama and the Democrats "overreached" and they now need to scale back their agenda and "compromise" with Republicans. In fact, we're already hearing that. Obama himself used the word "overreach" in his post-election press conference, bowing to the conventional wisdom of the Beltway pundit class.
This is like a bad movie you've seen 10 times, and it's completely wrong. "Move to the center," what Democrats are being told by the GOP and the media, is a recipe for more of what lost in 2010. So let's talk about what really led to the loss before we decide how Democrats should react.
A Whirlwind Recap of 2009
Obama came into office with sky high approval in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He immediately started working on a stimulus package that prevented the recession from being an actual repeat of the Great Depression and began the long, slow recovery. Republican obstructionism as well as the general do-nothing attitude in Washington when it comes to the plight of the middle class prevented more dramatic measures that could have spurred a much faster recovery from even being considered, such as direct job creation for the unemployed.
Fast forward to August 2009. The economy remains anemic. Democratic health care legislation that would guarantee health coverage for virtually every American while also reducing the deficit is bogged down while Democrats seek Republican support in Congress (which they didn't need). The health insurance industry and the Republican media machine stokes a number of "grassroots" anti-health care rallies. This culminates in a rash of disruptions at town hall meetings during the Congressional recess, where angry audience members shout down bewildered Democratic legislators. Also in August, conservative groups begin bringing assault rifles and other guns to anti-Obama protests, including to one rally outside a convention center where the president is speaking.
Ceding Anger To The GOP
All of this had the effect of redirecting populist economic anger away from the real source of middle class hardship--unregulated corporations and, by extension, Republicans--and toward the very institutions that could improve the picture for the middle class--a bold progressive agenda to rein in corporations for the public good. Republicans casts themselves as the party of the people's resistance against "the powers that be," which necessarily involved redefining those powers not as Wall Street banks and industry lobbyists but as the "socialist forces" taking over government.
This is just the latest iteration of what has been the conservative strategy since time immemorial. Each generation of super rich have to answer the questions at the heart of that strategy: How do you steal people's life chances and get them to thank you for it? How do you get the people to hand ever more power and privilege to the already powerful and privileged?
When this strategy is successful, as it was in these elections, it produces results that make you scratch your head. Consider this exit polling paradox. The economy was the top issue for voters. And when asked, "Who's to blame for the economy?" a plurality said bankers (34%), followed by Bush (29%), and Obama (24%). Of those who blamed bankers, Republicans held an 11 point advantage.
That may be the single best illustration of what went wrong for Democrats. It's not that people blamed Obama for much of anything; they just didn't think of Obama and Democrats as fighting anybody else who was to blame. Democrats were clobbered by default.
What The Electorate Looked Like
Even if you ignore the 'ceding anger' argument entirely, this second reason alone would be enough to explain the Republican tidal wave of 2010. I'm talking about who came out to vote and what the electorate looked like compared to 2008. Some of the most telling numbers:
"Voters under 30 dropped from 18 percent [in 2008] to 11 percent [in 2010]; African-Americans from 13 percent to 10 percent, and Hispanics from 9 percent to 8 percent. Meanwhile, voters over 65, the one age category carried by John McCain, increased from 16 percent of the electorate to 23 percent."
In short, the electorate was older, whiter, and more conservative this year. The electorate was less representative of what America actually looks like than it was in 2008. This is very normal for a midterm election. It's true that reporting, "This was all really normal!" doesn't sell newspapers or advertising time. But normal it was. Anyone telling you that this election represents a major shift in American political thinking is either ignorant or dishonest, or both.
Enter Republican Party, Stage Right.
A Repudiation? Not The Kind Boehner Thinks.
In his victory speech, Rep. John Boehner, the next Speaker of the House, called the elections results "a repudiation" and a message to President Obama to "change course." I think Boehner may be right, just not in the way he intends. If anything, this election should be seen as a repudiation of a Democratic strategy that seeks to move slowly and conciliate corporate power and the right wing. If anything, it's a repudiation of the Obama administration's instincts favoring political negotiation over political conflict. Those instincts lead to a bogged down legislative process and then legislation that is so compromised it's difficult to hold up (or explain) as a victory for ordinary Americans.
It's time for President Obama to pick a fight with the right. It's time to take off the gloves. Obama must reclaim his position as the representative of an American public fed up with a corporate elite that is selling the middle class down the river. He should hammer home that message every chance he gets. Then watch as progressive rallies and protests begin to overshadow the Tea Party gun rallies. And when the 2012 electorate comes out to vote, in record-breaking numbers and with diversity that mirrors America itself, it's going to be a Republican nightmare that dwarfs 2008.
Check back later for, What Happens Next: Looking Ahead To 2012.