Tuesday, November 02, 2010

It's not the economy, stupid

Democrats will console themselves as they absorb whatever happens in today's election by the mantra that they were doomed to lose seats because of the state of the economy. But that wasn't written in cement. Fred Barnes reminds us that, while the President's party might have lost seats this year due to a sluggish economy, it was not absolutely certain that they would lose the House and come close to losing the Senate.
Yes, the economy is always a factor in elections. But a wretched economy doesn't automatically doom Washington's ruling party to disaster in a midterm election. Since World War II, the average midterm loss by the president's party is 24 House and four Senate seats. In 1982, despite a deep recession and joblessness above 10%, Republicans lost only 26 House seats and none in the Senate. The difference between 1982 and today is that President Reagan's policies—cutting spending and taxes, firing striking air-traffic controllers—were popular.

And, by the way, a prosperous economy doesn't guarantee midterm success. In 1994, Republicans capitalized on President Clinton's liberal policies to win a rout despite a generally strong economy.
If people had had faith that the Democrats' measures on the economy were going to lead to economic growth, Democratic losses today would still happen, but they wouldn't be in the numbers we're likely to see tonight. Gallup wouldn't be showing the biggest Republican lead among likely voters in its polling history.

To test whether it's all about the unemployment numbers, test a contrafactual history. What if Obama had governed like his rhetoric in 2004? What if he'd pulled in Republicans from the first in crafting the stimulus bill instead of telling them right away "I won" and then excluding their ideas from the table? Even if they had passed a similar stimulus bill but added in just enough of Republican ideas to gain some Republican votes, it wouldn't have seen as just a partisan porkfest stuffed full of measures pulled from the liberal wishlist they'd been keeping in a drawer for just such an occasion. And then, what if the Democrats had responded differently to Scott Brown's victory earlier this year? Barnes imagines what could have happened.
There's a simple way to test whether Democratic policies, rather than the economy, are the dominant factor in the midterm election: Consider the alternative. After Mr. Brown was elected on Jan. 19, Mr. Obama could have abandoned his full-throttle blitz to pass health-care reform and other legislation, instead seeking compromise with Republicans. The bipartisan route, adored by independents, was open to him.

Mr. Obama could have yielded on health care and settled for a scaled-back bill that provided coverage for the uninsured and those with pre-existing conditions. He also could have proposed meaningful spending cuts or a second stimulus that included broad-based tax incentives for private investment. And he could have chosen to extend all the Bush tax cuts for another year or two.

On each of those issues, Mr. Obama would have attracted significant Republican backing—and he and his party wouldn't be in such dire straits. Democrats would still lose House and Senate seats, but not nearly as many.
It is not only conservative commentators who realize how badly the Democrats erred in their overreach. One of their own members is making the same consideration. John Fund talked to a Representative Brian Baird, a six-term Democrat from Washington state, who is retiring this year. And he's quite frank about the mistakes he saw his own party make.
"It's been an authoritarian, closed leadership. That style plus a general groupthink mentality didn't work when Tom DeLay called the shots," Mr. Baird says. "We've made some of the same damn mistakes, and we were supposed to be better. That's the heartbreak."

Mr. Baird, 54, is a loyal Democrat who voted for all of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's legislative priorities, including the stimulus bill, cap and trade and ObamaCare. But he admits all three have serious flaws.

Mr. Baird recalls that he was "very excited" when his party took control of Congress in 2006, but he saw ominous signs early on. Before the 2006 election, he says, Mrs. Pelosi had 30 members working on a rules package to make the House more ethical and deliberative. "We abandoned all that work after the election, and leaders told us we should trust them to clean things up. I don't know a single member of the Democratic caucus who saw the final rules package before they voted on it."

Democrats also watered down efforts to practice fiscal responsibility. "We initially had numbers a bit more honest than the Republicans—we at least included war costs in the budget," he says. "Now we're authorizing programs for three years instead of five in an attempt to pretend we're saving money."

When President Obama was elected in 2008, Mr. Baird was again optimistic that Democrats could bring real reform. But fierce Republican partisanship and the White House decision not to focus on job creation as its "number one, two and three" priority dashed that hope.

"Obama decided we weren't going to have a highway transportation bill because it might have required a gas tax increase," he recalls. After passing a misdirected stimulus bill, Mr. Obama made the fatal error of pushing forward with other priorities: cap and trade, financial services reform, ObamaCare. Each became compromised quickly.

"You don't get real reform by pandering to every special interest. With cap and trade we wound up with a bill that didn't accomplish much, was enormously complicated and expensive." Mr. Baird is especially upset that "good solid members will lose this fall because they took a tough vote for a cap-and-trade bill that never made it through the Senate." He has told environmental groups that they lost sight of the goal of reducing carbon emissions by focusing on the minutia of regulation to achieve it.
He continues his criticism of the financial reform that didn't deal with Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Although he voted for ObamaCare, he is still critical of how it was crafted and all that it entailed. He recognizes that Pelosi and the Democratic leadership thought they were sacrificing a few Blue Dogs and ended up selling out their entire majority.

And that supposedly golden-tongued president who was going to make all the difference between 2010 and 1994 with his campaigning for endangered Democrats? Well, he's turned out not to be so inspirational. Dorothy Rabinowitz reminds us of his descent into churlishness.
Whatever the outcome of today's election, this much is clear: It will be a long time before Americans ever again decide that the leadership of the nation should go to a legislator of negligible experience—with a voting record, as state and U.S. senator, consisting largely of "present," and an election platform based on glowing promises of transcendence. A platform vowing, unforgettably, to restore us—a country lost to arrogance and crimes against humanity—to a place of respect in the world.

We would win back our allies who, so far as we knew, hadn't been lost anywhere. Though once Mr. Obama was elected and began dissing them with returned Churchill busts and airy claims of ignorance about the existence of any special relationship between the United States and Great Britain, the British, at least, have been feeling less like pals of old.

In the nearly 24 months since Mr. Obama's election, popular enthusiasm for him has gone the way of his famous speeches—lyrical, inspired and unburdened by the weight of concrete thought.

About the ingratitude of Democratic voters the president brooded in a September Rolling Stone interview. "If people now want to take their ball and go home," he declared, "that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place." His vice president, Joe Biden, had a few days earlier contributed his own distinctive effort to seduce Democrats back to the fold by telling them to "stop whining."

The results of this charm campaign remain to be seen. What's clear now is that we've heard quite enough about the "angry electorate"—a peculiarly reductive view of citizens who've managed to read all the signs and detect an administration they were not prepared to live with.

Nothing wakened their instincts more than the administration's insistence on its health-care bill—its whiff of totalitarian will, its secretiveness, its display of cold assurance that the new president's social agenda trumped everything.

But it was about far more than health-care reform, or joblessness, or the great ideological divide between the president and the rest of the country. It was about an accumulation of facts quietly taken in that told Americans that the man they had sent to the White House had neither the character or the capacity to lead the country.

Their president was the toast of Europe, masterful before the adoring crowds—but one who had remarkably soon proved unable to inspire, in citizens at home, any belief that he was a leader they could trust. Or one who trusted them or their instincts. His Democratic voters were unhappy? They, and their limited capacities, were to blame.

These are conspicuous breaks in the armor of civility and charm that candidate Obama once showed—and those breaks are multiplying.

At a Democratic fund-raiser a few weeks ago, the president noted, in explanation for the Democrats' lack of enthusiasm, that facts and science and argument aren't winning the day because "we're hard-wired not to always think clearly when we're scared." The suggestion was clear: The Democrats' growing resistance to his policies was a product of the public's lack of intellectual capacity and their fears.
Rabinowitz then goes on to remind us of how FDR rallied the public during the Great Depression and World War Two by speaking to the public in a respectful manner to educate them, as in his "Map Speech" at the low point of our efforts in 1942 to educate them about the status of the war around the world. We just can't imagine President Obama speaking to the public honestly and respectfully in that way about the health care bill. He lectured us and lied to us about what the bill means. And he ignored what the American people were clearly trying to tell him about their objections to the bill. And he encouraged the Democratic leadership to make the necessary backroom deals and to take advantage of every legislative maneuver they could find to cram through the bill without a new vote in the Senate that wouldn't withstand a filibuster.

Think back to Fred Barnes' alternate history and you can well imagine a totally different climate for today's election. With the same unemployment rate, but a more conciliatory president and leadership, the Democrats might still be facing a continued majority. Unfortunately for them they chose otherwise. Now the Republicans are reaping the benefit of the public's disgust. It will be up to them to show that they've learned the lessons from the mistakes of Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and Nancy Pelosi. Otherwise, we'll be saying that this was the high water mark of the GOP comeback.