Midterms post-mortem: Wrong to say Obama over-promised and under-delivered

Two years after Barack Obama swept into the White House, questions are being asked about how the Democrats did so badly in last night's elections; Left Foot Forward's Frank Spring reports from the States.

Two years after Barack Obama swept into the White House, questions are being asked about how the Democrats did so badly in last night’s elections; Left Foot Forward’s Frank Spring reports from the States

The US midterm election ended as predicted last night, with Republicans winning 60 seats in the US House of Representatives, at least six Senate seats, and nine governorships at the time of writing. By any standard, it was a great night for Republicans, and represents a staggering swing to the right for the US, coming a scant two years after the left-of-centre electoral tidal wave that brought Barack Obama to the White House and gave the Democrats comfortable majorities in the House and Senate.

What happened? Fingers are already pointed – directly or by proxy – at the Democratic leadership, headed by Obama. One line of argument goes that Democrats over-promised and under-delivered after 2008.

This position is technically indefensible – the Obama White House and Democratic Congress have had one of the most active and successful two-year stretches in history – but the appearance of inaction, particularly in Congress, had credence with the electorate.

Outgoing Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said this week that the problem was that Democrats had not done a good job explaining or emphasising the scale of their achievements. It is certainly possible that a lack of awareness of Democratic achievements hurt progressive candidates, but it fails to account for the defeat of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat who ran almost exclusively on recent progressive achievements.

The heart of the problem lies in the nature of Democratic achievements. Credit card regulation, financial reform, student-loan help, and the Ledbetter Act in pursuit of equal pay for women – these are real accomplishments, but they are marginal in the face of 9.8 per cent unemployment. Even the two titanic accomplishments of this Congress and White House – the economic stimulus and health care reform – do not lend themselves to political messaging in a staggeringly difficult economic climate.

The full benefits of health care reform have yet to be realized – some will not come into effect until 2014 – and the best pro-stimulus argument ultimately boils down to “things would have been much worse without it”, which, while reasonable, is cold comfort indeed to an electorate in the grip of financial terror. Eighty six per cent of voters told pollsters that they are worried or very worried about the future of the economy in the next year; this is an electorate afraid not for the distant future, but for tomorrow.

It is also true that many of the seats lost last night were conservative constituencies reasserting their nature. Of the 26 seats Democrats took from Republicans in 2008, 22 were in districts that had either been Republican for decades or gone Republican in 1994 and stayed that way even through the 2006 Democratic landslide – essentially, districts that went Democrat only in the progressive tidal wave of 2008. Only four of them were either swing districts with frequent party shifts or historically Democratic seats coming home.

Of the 22 historically Republican seats that went blue in 2008, four of them stayed that way in 2010; of the four swing or progressive districts that changed to Democrat in 2008, three stayed. In some respects, the Dems emerged slightly ahead in this two-year tug-of-war, holding on to seven House seats in swing or conservative areas and reclaiming their traditional seat in Louisiana’s second district, lost in 2008.

While the bad news was almost entirely for Democrats, Republicans have to face some failures as well. The GOP spent millions of dollars and committed untold energy and air time to bringing back the biggest scalp available to them – that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. The story of the campaign is a tale worth telling in great detail, but the result is simple – they lost, Reid won.

Republicans were also fended off in California, driven from the Governor’s Mansion (Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was term-limited out and replaced by Democrat Jerry Brown) and defeated in the Senate race, where Democrat Barbara Boxer (another Republican bête noire) bested Carly Fiorina’s $142 million campaign to unseat her. And, as of this writing, it appears that the GOP fell short in a winnable Senate race in Colorado.

If “it could have been worse” does not work as a balm to American voters regarding the stimulus package, it is unlikely to do much better with Democrats in the face of a very bad result. They can, perhaps, take some solace in the fact that, while the party and candidates are not blameless, they are largely being punished by a panicked electorate for failing to clean up a terrible and complex mess not of their making in an unrealistically short time, as well as suffering the consequences of a natural political realignment as Republican seats went home.

The dissections will continue for some time, but next week, victorious candidates of both parties will pick up the phones and start raising money for 2012.

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