Looking past the myths about Election 2014

November 5, 2014

Republicans are celebrating after the 2014 midterm elections handed them control of the U.S. Senate to go along with a stronger grip in the House of Representatives. Democrats, meanwhile, are looking for scapegoats to blame. Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, and SocialistWorker.org's Alan Maass examine the factors that went into this drubbing for the Democrats and how they will affect U.S. politics.

A mandate for the Republicans?

The centerpiece of the Republicans' victory is their takeover of the U.S. Senate, which gives them a majority in both houses of Congress.

The Republicans' net pickup of at least eight seats is impressive on its face, but the GOP did have a strong hand going into this year's elections. Because of a combination of retirements and what states were in play--only a third of the Senate is elected in each two-year cycle--the Democrats were especially vulnerable in 2014. ABC News calculated that only 16 Senate races were truly competitive, and in all but three, the seats were currently held by Democrats.

Still, a swing of eight seats to the Republicans is a big deal, and the GOP has a chance for at least one more--there will be a run-off election in December for the seat from Louisiana. The Republicans added to their majority in the House by at least a dozen seats.

In the governor's races in a total 36 of states, the terrain going into the election was more even, and the Democrats had hoped to do better. But they failed to defeat unpopular Republican incumbents like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Rick Scott of Florida, and they actually lost ground in Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts and Illinois.

Kentucky's Mitch McConnell celebrates
Kentucky's Mitch McConnell celebrates

What makes the Democrats' wipeout all the more incredible is that the Republicans are just not that popular--not, that is, unless they're running against Democrats.

In clear contrast to the big shift in Senate seats, national opinion polls showing people's preference for which party should control Congress--described by political commentators as the national generic ballot-- were split down the middle. The last NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey that asked this question gave Republicans the edge by a margin of 46 percent to 45 percent.

In other words, Republicans weren't the winners in this election because their policies and political positions are overwhelmingly popular. According to the NBC/Journal poll, only 29 percent of people view the Republican Party favorably versus 47 percent who view it unfavorably--meaning a significant number of people counted as among the GOP's core supporters don't like it very much. The comparable favorable-unfavorable split for the Democrats is 36 percent to 43 percent.

The Republicans ran in this election with a single relentless message--against the presidency of Barack Obama. But when it comes to what the Republicans are for, they're far out of step with public opinion on most issues.

This year, the leaders of the Republican Party managed--with a few notable exceptions, like the defeat of House Majority Whip Eric Cantor--to squelch the humiliations they suffered previously when Tea Partying fanatics defeated their favored nominees in the primaries.

But the "mainstream" Republicans prevailed against the Tea Party insurgency by talking like right-wing extremists. "The Tea Party challengers, while not successful, have kept the debate and incumbents' voting records far to the right of where they might otherwise be," wrote Jim Newell at Salon, after incumbent Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts' narrow win in the Republican primary.

As much as they ever have, the Republican Party stands for policies that large numbers of people oppose--tax cuts for corporations and the rich, deeper cuts in popular government programs like Social Security, expansion of the Big Brother surveillance state, privatization of public education, and on and on.

Like after their triumphs in 1994 and 2010, the Republicans will stoke resistance as soon as they start acting on what they're for, rather than ranting about what they're against.

Did Ebola defeat the Democrats?

One explanation for the tide of defeats suffered by the Democrats is that the Republicans successfully "demagogued" a number of unforeseen issues--from the child refugee crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, to ISIS's rise to power in Iraq, to the Ebola crisis this fall. According to this argument, the Republicans--still masters of whipping up their largely white base with coded appeals to racism--outmaneuvered Democrats once again.

No doubt Ebola and ISIS did make for fresh topics for the TV attack ads. But as an explanation for the Democrats' drubbing, it doesn't wash.

For one thing, the Democrats were clearly in trouble long before most people had even heard of ISIS or the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. And it's not as if the politicians' reactions to these "crises" broke down on partisan lines. Both Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made fools of themselves in announcing mandatory quarantines.

Whatever marginal role these crises played in the results yesterday, the important point is that they were seeds falling on fertile ground. They erupted at a time when public opinion had already soured on Obama and the Democrats.

Democratic candidates themselves recognized as much and didn't invite the leader of their party to campaign for them, at least in the states with the closest races. This, of course, only reinforced the Republicans' relentless message that the Obama presidency has been a disaster.

According to polls, only about 40 percent of Americans say they approve of Barack Obama's performance as president, with about 50 percent disapproving. A good 30 to 40 percent of the population has always opposed him, so that's no surprise. But Obama appears to have lost 20 percent or so of people in the middle of the electorate who used to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, he's basically down to the Democrats' core supporters.

But even people most supportive of Obama express dissatisfaction with his performance, though they weren't about to vote for Republicans yesterday. After all, Obama was expected to be a "transformative" president. Taking office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, his administration could have reshaped American politics for a generation. Instead, Obama has been a careful guardian of status quo.

Though official indicators show improvements in the economy, Obama is all but certain to leave office in two years with a majority of the U.S. population enduring lower living standards than when he moved into the White House. Despite the positive statistics about the economy, more than two-thirds of people tell pollsters that the U.S. is "on the wrong track."

If the White House gets the blame for this bitterness, Obama and the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves. They may talk now and then about income inequality and jobs, but they've done precious little about either. As radical journalist Arun Gupta explained:

Most media outlets have little interest in unpacking historical conditions that shape politics, preferring gossip about the personality, values, tastes and lineages of candidates. Yet it's the historical contradiction Democrats are trapped in that explains how and why Bill Clinton and Obama pursued a neoliberal agenda that dashed the hopes of their supporters, resulting in the biggest midterm losses in Congress of any president in the modern era [in 1994, 2010 and now 2014].

Obama has had plenty of chances to deliver for supporters. For example, earlier this year, after House Republicans blocked the passage of bipartisan immigration legislation, Obama promised to sign an executive order stopping deportations, which have taken place at record levels throughout his presidency.

That doesn't come close to meeting the demands of immigrant rights supporters--but it was going too far for Democrats running for re-election this fall and hoping to win racist votes. So Obama caved and announced he wouldn't take action until after the election. Now it seems unlikely he'll issue any such executive order.

And the consequence of surrendering on a measure that means a lot to the Democratic base? Obama's largest decline in favorability since the beginning of the year has come among Latinos. Democrats hoped a strong turnout among Latinos would help them hold on to the Senate seat in Colorado, for example--but incumbent Mark Udall went down to a clear defeat.

If the "bad news" about Ebola and ISIS stuck to Obama and the Democrats, it's because they haven't had any "good news" to offer.

Isn't there another choice?

We at Socialist Worker are used to seeing the phrase "holding their nose" in the same sentence with "voting." It's how we often describe the logic of "lesser evilism"--where people "hold their nose" and vote for a Democrat who they don't really support in order to defeat the "greater evil" of a Republican victory.

We're not so used to seeing the formulation in the mainstream media--but there it was on Election Day in the headline of an Associated Press report picked up by numerous media outlets: "Voters holding their noses, hoping for change."

The article's first paragraph read: "Coast to coast, voters cast ballots with an audible harrumph on Tuesday--many of them unhappy with their choices and doubtful things will get better no matter who wins." Ron Buck, a Kansas resident, summed up the distaste of many voters when he said he supported Republican incumbents like Pat Roberts for senator and Sam Brownback for governor, but admitted that "both seem kind of like leftovers you don't want to eat."

Data from exit polls conducted during Election Day showed the disaffection people feel toward the mainstream political system. Just two in 10 voters trust the federal government to do what's right all or most of the time. Two-thirds of people say the country is "seriously off on the wrong track"--more negative than two years ago by 12 percentage points.

Republicans have an in-built advantage in non-presidential year national elections. Fewer people vote, so the electorate is older and whiter--closer to the GOP's natural base. But an even bigger factor influencing the vote this year was the "kick out the bums" sentiment against incumbents--especially the biggest incumbent of all, the party that controls the White House. In a two-party system, the main vehicle for expressing discontent with the status quo is to vote against the party in power.

In a handful of races, there was a genuine left-wing alternative to vote for. In New York, Howie Hawkins' Green Party campaign for governor--with running mate Brian Jones, a longtime contributor to this website--was a lightning rod for discontent with incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his austerity agenda.

With almost all the ballots counted, the Green ticket had over 173,000 votes, just under 5 percent of the vote. Hawkins-Jones broke 10 percent in six counties, including 16.2 percent in upstate Tompkins County, where Ithaca is located.

In some ways, the results of ballot measures were a clearer measure of what voters think than the elections themselves, given the limitations of the two-party system.

A number of progressive measures passed around the country. In the Bay Area and Oakland, landmark measures to raise the minimum wage to among the highest in the country passed with strong margins. Statewide measures for more modest increases also passed in Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota--significantly, all states that went strongly for Republicans.

Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., passed marijuana legalization measures, though in a stark lesson about the "world's greatest democracy," the will of voters won't be the final word in majority-Black Washington--Congress can overrule any law in D.C., and the Republican majority is sure to do so. Also encouraging was the defeat of initiatives in Colorado and North Dakota to grant "personhood" to fetuses.

Two more years of this...

President Obama woke up on November 5 as the lamest of lame ducks.

He is certain to be spending his last two years in the White House fighting rearguard battles. Right-wing Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is prodding his colleagues to start investigations into Obama's "abuses of power," real and imagined--and to try, yet again, to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But while Obama may issue a few vetoes here and there, his predisposition has always been toward "bipartisanship" and "reaching across the aisle"--even if the result is a rotten compromise that doesn't even satisfy mainstream Democrats.

In the midst of the economic meltdown of 2008-09, Obama arrived in the White House talking about striking a "grand bargain" with Republicans to include "entitlement reform"--which is Washington-speak for cutting Social Security and Medicare, the two most popular government programs.

After the Republican triumph in the 2010 midterm elections--pay close attention to this historical example--Obama declared that the defeated Democrats had to compromise with the victors before they even took office. He negotiated an agreement with Republican leaders in Congress that gave them what they had been demanding all year--an extension of the Bush-era income tax cuts, including for the wealthiest Americans.

In 2011, with Republicans in Congress posturing about letting the federal government default on its debt--something that would cause a worldwide financial cataclysm and that even House Speaker John Boehner and now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they wouldn't allow--Obama refused to call their bluff. Instead, the administration agreed to a decade's worth of draconian cuts in social spending.

Last fall, the Republicans were forced to retreat from the disaster of their shutdown of the federal government over repealing Obama's health care law. But while Democrats got credit for winning a political victory over the GOP, the actual terms of the deal that ended the shutdown locked in government funding levels that were drastically lower than what the Democrats first proposed--and much closer to what the Tea Partiers originally proposed.

So even when the Democrats "win," we lose.

Many progressives blame Obama for being spineless or a lousy negotiator. He may be both of those things, but neither is the real reason why he caves, again and again, to Republican demands.

Obama is so willing to "work across the aisle" because he fundamentally agrees with the Republicans on pursuing a pro-business, neoliberal agenda. As Thomas Frank wrote at Salon.com:

Let me put the Obama years into context like this: What the times called for was a second New Deal, for a wholesale makeover of the economic system. What Obama chose to deliver instead was a second round of '90s-style bipartisanship...[T]he president looked out over a nation laid low by epic white-collar misbehavior and decided that what we needed was for politicians in Washington to get along with one another. To me, this represented an almost inconceivable blunder, a category mistake even, but it was a misstep very much in keeping with the priorities of Washington, D.C.--with the prejudices of the centrist consensus types who populate this town.

So is it any surprise that even before the election was over, "senior White House officials" were already seeding the press with quotes about how the White House planned to look for areas where the president and the Republican Congress can "work together"?

As if to provide a perfect illustration of the kind of "centrist consensus" that Frank mocked, the New York Times' Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear wrote on November 2:

[I]f Republicans are fully in charge of Congress rather than mainly an opposition party, both sides may have an incentive to strike deals, at least during a short window before the 2016 presidential campaign consumes Washington...For Mr. Obama, the question may be whether he is liberated from deferring to Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, if the party is in the minority. Some Democrats said Mr. Obama had more interest in forging deals than Mr. Reid and could take the lead in brokering agreements.

So now that he doesn't have to kowtow to that well-known radical Harry Reid, Obama can...make even worse deals with the Republicans than he has so far!

What will those deals be? Reid blocked a Senate vote on giving the president "fast-track" trade negotiating authority. If Obama is "freed" on this issue, he and the Republican Congress can push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact that will give multinational corporations free rein to impose their will in country after country. Once again, working people will pay the price.

Other conservative dreams on the "bipartisan" wish list include an overhaul of the corporate tax structure--and maybe income taxes as well--to make both friendlier to business and the rich.

It's ironic that a president who is so willing to move to his right was a near-pariah during the election campaign. In Kentucky, the losing Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes wouldn't even admit to having voted for the "liberal" Obama.

The truth is that Obama is nowhere near as liberal, much less radical, as Republicans and Democrats alike made out in this election--and as he proves it over the next two years, we'll suffer the consequences.

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