WASHINGTON – For Democrats, the 2014 election was not the 2010 Republican landslide. It was worse.
Four years ago, the economy was still ailing, and a new wave of conservative activism in the form of the tea party was roiling politics. This time, the economy was better, ideological energies on the right had abated – and Democrats suffered an even more stinging defeat. They lost Senate seats in presidential swing states such as Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina. They lost governorships in their most loyal bastions, from Massachusetts to Maryland to Illinois.
After a defeat of this scope, the sensible advice is usually, “Don’t overreact.” In this case, such advice would be wrong. Something – actually, many things – went badly for the progressive coalition on Tuesday. Its supporters were disheartened and unmotivated, failing to rally to President Barack Obama and his party’s beleaguered candidates. And voters on the fence were left unpersuaded.
A dismissive shrug is inappropriate.
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If Democrats are tempted to seek alibis, Republicans want to read the outcome as a vindication for their strategy of obstruction to Obama’s program and a ratification of right-wing ideology. As The New Yorker’s Jeff Shesol pointed out, leading Republicans from incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Sen.-elect Cory Gardner to Rep. Paul Ryan all discerned a message from the voters against what Ryan called “incompetent big government.”
To make the argument, they can cite the victories of two of their most ideologically driven governors, Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Sam Brownback in Kansas. Both won re-election despite a backlash against their policies. North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis survived a similar backlash to defeat Sen. Kay Hagan.
Yet the one thing that will save the Democrats and ignite progressives will be a Republican Party that ignores the extent to which its candidates – notably Gardner in Colorado and Sen.-elect Joni Ernst in Iowa – had to tack away from the right to win their signal victories.
The nation plainly did not vote in favor of more gridlock. Republicans will throw away the opportunity they have been handed if they mistake the general dissatisfaction with Obama’s leadership that they exploited for a specific turn to right-wing remedies. Many of Tuesday’s ballot issues were won by progressives. It’s instructive that four deeply red states, Alaska, Nebraska, Arkansas and South Dakota, all voted to raise the minimum wage.
Moreover, as Bill Clinton showed after the Democrats’ 1994 midterm defeat, the surest way to beat conservatives is to confront them when they press for steep cuts in government programs that voters like. Clinton’s mantra defending “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment” was revealing and successful. If Republicans move to repeal Obamacare – a cause they used to mobilize their base – the GOP will only remind Americans of the many parts of the Affordable Care Act they want to retain.
Republicans need to remember: The electorate that turns out at midterms is demographically narrower than the pool of voters who elect presidents. To claim a sweeping mandate now will get in the way creating a real one in 2016.
Ironically, perhaps, the party’s potential presidential candidates – particularly Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – will be pushing the party rightward. This could help individual Republicans, especially Cruz, in the 2016 primaries but endanger the party as a whole in the fall.
Yet Democrats and Obama can’t simply blame defeat on an inevitable falloff in their midterm vote. They failed to give the faithful enough reason to cast a ballot.
Amy Walter of National Journal cited a Republican operative: “You can’t win on turnout if you are losing on message.” The clarity of the GOP’s anti-Obama battle cry, as Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein wrote, was not matched by a sustained Democratic argument about the dangers of a Republican victory or a broad defense of a progressive approach to government.
Democrats had pieces of an economic message. But they need a comprehensive and more ambitious answer for voters angry about stagnating incomes. They took out their rage on the party in the White House.
For Obama, there is no escaping the urgency of restoring energy to his administration and confidence in his leadership. He should begin by focusing on the travails of Americans – including blue-collar whites as well as traditional members of his coalition – for whom neither the economy nor the government seems to be working. They’re the ones who keep sending Washington desperate messages, both by voting and by staying home.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.