The 2010 Verdict

The 2010 Verdict

By James Ceaser - November 10, 2010

Facts speak for themselves.

The Democratic Party under Barack Obama in 2010 suffered the greatest defeat for a newly elected president in a midterm since the Republican Party under Warren Gamaliel Harding in 1922. Democrats, at this writing, dropped 61 seats in the House of Representatives, where they will now be in the minority, and 6 seats in the Senate, where they will continue to hold a slight edge. The Democratic defeat was historic by other measures as well--in House seats lost in a congressional election (the most since 1948), and in House seats lost in any midterm (the most since 1938). But it is the performance of a president's party following his first election that is the relevant point of comparison today.

The midterm election is one of the distinctive features of America's constitutional system. By allowing for an expression of voter sentiment separate from the selection of the president, midterms help supply the concrete political support in Congress for checking presidential programmatic power. A check of this kind seems to be exactly what the public had in mind in 2010, ending liberal hopes that Obama's presidency would inaugurate a "new" New Deal.

The comparison of Obama to FDR has been looming in the background for the past two years. Time magazine, in the cover of its post-election edition, superimposed Barack Obama's head onto a memorable photo of FDR seated in his convertible following his 1932 landslide victory. The expectation was that Obama, like FDR, would lead Democrats to further gains in the ensuing midterm and then onwards and upwards to an era of Democratic dominance. Democratic totals in Congress in 2008 were taken to be a floor for the party's support, not a ceiling. "The future in America's politics," wrote Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, "belongs to Barack Obama's Democrats." Happy days were here again.

If 2010 represents the future in American politics, it is not the one Progressives expected. This holds true not just for the Democrats' standing today at the national level, but at the state level as well, where Republicans gained control of at least seven new governorships and fourteen state legislative chambers, giving them their highest total of state legislative chambers since the 1920s. More importantly, the renewed strength of Republicans in the states gives the GOP an important edge in the crucial process of the redistricting of legislative seats that begins next year. It was the perfect time for a surge.

President Obama and the Republicans did not agree on very much over the last two years, but on the question of what this election was all about there was not an inch of daylight between them--at least when the campaign began. The contest, as the President repeatedly proclaimed, was a judgment on "the change," referring to his whole domestic package of stimulus policies, health care reform bill, and presumably his proposals for increased taxes on the wealthiest. Obama spoke of "guarding the change," with Republicans responding by echoing the sentiment, if not always the exact words, of John Boehner, "Hell No." Herein lies the main line of political conflict for the period ahead. With the advancement of the progressive Obama agenda by legislative (as distinct from administrative) means halted, Obama, now the "conservative," will be using every ounce of his powers to sustain the parts of his program that have been enacted, while the Republicans, as proponents of change, will be seeking to reverse many of them.

The 2010 election was one of the most nationalized, some will say the most nationalized, midterm campaign in American history. Every Republican competing for national office, from Hawaii to New Hampshire, ran against the Obama agenda and made it the centerpiece of the campaign. The President, who was in full campaign mode for months, joined the fray, defending his agenda while excoriating its "enemies." Only some Democrats, sensing the ship to be sinking, latched onto the stratagem of trying to "localize" their contests--not because the politics of 2010 really were local, but because they were not. This tactic worked in some of the Senate contests, like Delaware and Nevada, where the Republican candidates proved to have special vulnerabilities.

The 2010 campaign was also highly personalized, although not in the usual sense of focusing mainly on the President's character attributes, as was the case in the Clinton "impeachment" mid-term election of 1998. "Personalized" in 2010 meant instead focusing on Obama's policies and his continued boasts of having made "historic changes." Even Republicans' frequent invocation in their ads of the other Democratic leaders, the smiling Nancy Pelosi and the dour Harry Reid, became in the end a way of speaking about Obama's change. All this fit with the President's own evident comfort level in placing himself conspicuously front and center as the voice and mind of the administration. Although Obama made a point in his Denver convention acceptance speech in 2008 of telling Americans (and the world) that "it's not about me," a phrase he has repeated frequently since, there must be some reason why he has had to issue the disclaimer so often. It has not been entirely forgotten, either, that Obama reportedly reassured a few nervous congressional Democrats last January that any fears that 2010 might resemble 1994 were unfounded, because the "big difference" between 1994 and 2010 "is that you've got me."

This slight to Bill Clinton highlights one of the most fascinating rivalries of modern American politics. Going back to the start of the 2008 campaign, Obama knew that he could only defeat Hillary by, in effect, defeating Bill; the original meaning of "change" was change from the Clintons. Bill Clinton in turn chaffed at Obama's oblique criticisms and was visibly dismayed at the prospect of being replaced as the brightest star in the Democratic Party's firmament. Clinton's reputation took a nosedive after he imploded during the South Carolina primary contest, accusing Obama of playing the race card. Not only did Bill Clinton, America's first black president, have to bide his time and eventually cede the spotlight to Barack Obama, America's second black president, but he was virtually forced after the election to hide from public view as a UN envoy. But the worm has turned this year, and as Obama's approval ratings went down, Clinton's popularity, especially with Democrats, went up, proving once again that William Jefferson Clinton, the self-described comeback kid, has had as many lives as Fredrick Charles Kruger. Clinton and Obama, being practical politicians, understood the advantage both to their principles and to themselves of working together. Clinton was almost as much in evidence during the 2010 campaign as Obama, going to places where Obama was not welcome. Now, in the wake of the 2010 election, which overshadows Clinton's own historic mid-term drubbing in 1994, many are wondering whether Barack Obama will be studying Bill Clinton's 1995 playbook in hopes of a political recovery over the next year.

Because midterm elections take place in distinct races, 472 of them this year, rendering a national verdict involves administering a very rough justice. The sins of the Progressive Democrats in the House were visited on Democrats of a more moderate disposition. Huge numbers of these Democratic "blue dogs" were defeated. There was something poignant, too, in watching these foot soldiers in the Obama-Pelosi army being mowed down in droves, in many cases having been denied funding from national party headquarters with which to make a fight. Meanwhile, most of the staunchest progressives, running often in Democratic redoubts, escaped to live another day, including Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank. A few of the old venerables, like committee chairs Ike Skelton (Armed Services) and John Spratt (Budget) were not so fortunate. Since there is little honor and less pleasure in serving in the minority in the House, it would not be surprising if a few progressives decided to avail themselves of Congress's generous retirement provisions. About the only solace these House Democrats can take is that so many moderate colleagues were ousted that there is little chance for severe acts of recrimination.

A number of analysts, anticipating the need to soften the blow against the Democrats, began arguing in October that the 2010 election was about generalized anger directed at incumbents because of economic conditions. Some anger, no doubt, there was, which naturally fell on the party (the Democrats) that, given its extraordinary majority, had full responsibility for running the show in Washington. And in the Republican Party, too, there was more than the usual pressure exerted against incumbents early on, coming from a vast and energetic new movement, the Tea Party. (Two Republican Senate incumbents, Robert Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, lost primary contests, and--what is not the same thing--a number of establishment candidates running for GOP nominations, including Charlie Christ in Florida and Mike Castle in Delaware, was defeated.) But when it came to the final election, the story in the House was not one of incumbents losing, but of Democratic incumbents being ousted. All but two Republican incumbents were re-elected, while more than 50 Democratic incumbents met their political maker. In the Senate, every Republican incumbent who was nominated (and perhaps one other, Lisa Murkowski, who was not) was re-elected, while two of the Democrats' finest, Russ Feingold and Blanche Lincoln, went down.

The results of the 2010 election changed the landscape of American politics. In viewing the national electoral map of House seats, it is as if someone came in overnight and redid the whole canvas, changing huge swaths of blue to red, especially in the vast area between the coasts and--adding to the impression of Republican dominance--in non-urban districts, which cover much larger geographic areas. Republicans have their largest majority in the House since 1948. And the political reality is even redder than it looks, since a number of the blue dogs who did survive, having observed the cruel fate suffered by their colleagues, will now be less likely to sit and stay at the President's command. In the Senate, one new Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was elected by firing a shot at President Obama's cap and trade policy, and a large number of the 23 Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2012, especially those who come from redder states, have heard the footsteps. The Democrats in the House come January will be a more progressive lot, with a small but helpless contingent of surviving blue dogs, but the Senate is apt to be vey different. Some Democrats may look to do "business" with Republicans, although there would appear to be too few moderate Democrats to mount a sustained opposition against Obama from the center. If Obama is to face some pressure from within his party, it is more likely to come from progressive intellectuals and bloggers outside of Congress. Given where the center of American politics now is located, such posturing will be of no real significance.

To be sure, a "landscape"--a term that once carried the implication, if not of permanence, then at least of some duration--is not all that it used to be. Like the modern construction projects that turn a barren lot into a plush green field in a day, the contemporary political scene now lends itself to more rapid re-configurations. The nation over the past two decades has lived through a period of its greatest partisan fluctuation, with the presidential majority having changed party hands four times, the House three times, and the senate twice. Every midterm since 1994 has been highly nationalized by historic standards, a result not only of huge events--the first health care reform proposal (1994), the looming impeachment (1998), the 9-11 attack and the prospect of the Iraq War (2002), the Iraq War (2006), and now Obama's "change" agenda (2010)--but also of sharpening party conflicts that draw clearer divisions on national issues. Congressional elections seem to have entered into new territory.

Of all the recent mid-term elections, 2010 is the closest the nation has ever come to a national referendum on overall policy direction or "ideology." Obama, who ran in 2008 by subordinating ideology to his vague themes of hope and change, has governed as one of the most ideological and partisan of presidents. Some of his supporters like to argue in one breath that he is a pragmatist and centrist only to insist in the next that he has inaugurated the most historic transformation of American politics since the New Deal. The two claims are incompatible. Going back to the major political contests of 2009, beginning with the Governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey and to the Senate race in Massachusetts, the electorate has been asked the same question about Obama's agenda and has given the same response. The election of 2010 is the third or fourth reiteration of this judgment, only this time delivered more decisively. There is one label and one label only that can describe the result: the Great Repudiation

What accounts for the Great Repudiation? It is not always easy to come by a genuine explanation from listening to political actors. While the social scientist aims to present the truth of the matter, politicians and spinners live by a different ethic. Their job is to offer explanations that serve their party's (or their own) future political prospects. It is only by coincidence that their accounts resemble the truth.

The ballots were hardly counted in 2010 before the President and his allies were shifting the narrative, embracing a Beta version to serve as the post-election explanation. Instead of the election being a fair and clear judgment on "the change," it was now said that the American people never understood the real issues. Part of the reason was a Republican campaign of misinformation, aided not just by the spending of huge sums of money, since Democrats overall spent as much as Republicans, but by the influx of "secret money," which always buys more. Another reason has been a failure in communication. The President was working so hard to address the nation's problems that he neglected to devote sufficient time and attention to explaining his policies to the public. The election outcome was all the result of a misunderstanding. If there was one substantive mistake to which the President admitted, it was that he had unwittingly fallen victim to a massive intelligence error. Contrary to the reports of our government's agencies and to the assurances of his brain trust, Obama was shocked to discover in the end that there were no SRPs (Shovel Ready Projects).

The main Democratic explanation going forward, however, has taken a different tack, denying that the election ever had anything to do with "the change." It was instead all about Americans' reaction to economic conditions. In light of the administration's original promises for the beneficial effects of its stimulus package, this explanation evidently has met resistance. But what the administration now thinks is that there was no fix for the economy, in the sense of being able to achieve a recovery at the rate that Americans came to expect. The blame rightly belongs to the previous administration, although President Obama now understands that pressing this argument, a year and half in office, looks petulant. The new line is therefore simply to blame "the economy," as if it were an alien force dropped in from the outside, with no connection to the President's policies. The economic crisis, previously viewed as an indispensable ally in helping the President enact the agenda, now appears as a malevolent agent, and a perversely ill-timed one at that, since, as Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker explained, "the longest and deepest mass suffering" of the Great Recession, in contrast to the Great Depression, "has occurred with Obama in the White House." The notion that "the economy" is an actor in its own right, disembodied from "the change," has led some analysts to float the strange argument that Republicans should have won more convincingly than they did.

The real purpose of this explanation, however, is to limit the reach of this election's meaning in a way that leaves the President himself and "the change" untouched. The election was an anguished response of voters to the economy--nothing more. It was the Great Protest, not the Great Repudiation. This position, which the President embraced in his post-election news conference, allows him to join up with the spirit of the election and participate in its message. He will now concentrate on the economy like a ... dare one say "laser beam"?

Republicans have agreed on the importance of the economy as part of the explanation for their victory. Yet in their account the anemic recovery is not unrelated to the core elements of Obama's "change." The problem in Obama's approach has been his failure to appreciate what generates productive wealth, which comes not from bigger government and more spending but from the activity of private business and entrepreneurs. Economic "philosophy" in this large sense was in fact the main voting issue in this election. It was for this reason as well that Obama's "populist" appeal against the big banks, Wall Street, the insurance companies, and the wealthy gained so little traction. While most Americans, including many on the right, were angered at "big business" and Wall Street, many also became convinced that Obama's populism struck squarely at the sources that generate wealth. Even Obama's plan to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, considered by White House advisor to be a sure-fire winner as an electoral issue, made little headway. The economic question in the campaign went back to the great colloquy in 2008 between Barack Obama and Joe the Plumber. This time, however, Joe seemed to have the upper hand.

For many Republicans, and especially for the allies in the Tea Party movement, the issues of economic policy were also linked to a deeper concern. The size of government and the extent of the federal debt represented not only a burden on future generation and a threat to American power, but also a violation of the spirit and letter of the Constitution. The Tea Party in particular, with its belief in Jeffersonian ideas, has been responsible for re-introducing the Constitution into the public debate, a place that it has not held in the same way for over a century. This theme is what connects the Tea Party to the American tradition and makes their concerns matters of fundamental patriotism. The stakes in the 2010 election for these voters went far beyond economic questions, and for Democratic leaders to reduce everything to frustrations about the "Economy, Stupid" represents a final act of disparagement and belittlement.

There was accordingly an additional factor that played in this election outcome that was hardly noted or tested in the polls. It was a cultural clash between an elite and much of the public, between liberal intellectuals and the Obama administration on the one hand and the mass of Tea party activists on the other. The one has shown disdain and the other has responded with resentment. It is impossible, then, not to say that the person of Barack Obama was a major factor in this election, for when he was not himself the leader he became the frequent enabler of this dismissal of middle America. That Obama would have to descend from the lofty heights that he inhabited during the campaign and after his election was something that no sane observer, and no doubt Obama himself, could fail to have foreseen. But this loss of bloated charisma has never been the real problem. It has instead been his demeanor as president. Obama modeled himself on Abraham Lincoln, and it is painful in retrospect to draw the contrast in how they have behaved. One showed humility, the other arrogance; one practiced sincerity, the other hypocrisy; one made efforts at cultivating unity, the other seemed to delight at encouraging division: and one succeeded in becoming more and more a man of the people, while the other, despite his harsh populist appeals, has grown more distant.

Elections in America serve two functions-- a "formal" function of filling the personnel for the constitutional offices, which takes place in every election, and an "informal" function of signaling what the people want, which takes place in a meaningful way only in certain elections, where national public sentiment has congealed on a common message or theme. The situation in Washington now reflects a conflict stemming from the results of these two functions. On the formal side, the array of forces puts neither party in full control. Democrats hold the presidency, Republicans will now firmly control the House, and the senate appears likely to swing in ways no one can now foresee. The Democrats, who now derive their power from this formal situation and rely on officials chosen in elections conducted two and four years ago, will emphasize the constitutional authority of the offices. They represent for the moment the conservative position. On the informal side, Republicans claim not just their seats and numbers in Congress, but the weight and power of the majority as expressed in the clear and powerful message delivered on election day. This claim cannot, of course, cancel the formal array of power--we are a nation governed by laws and institutions--but there is nothing amiss in reminding those in offices that they cannot stray too far for too long from the wishes of the majority without straining the fabric of authority in a democratic system. The informal function, while it should not be overvalued, should not be undervalued, either.

The Republicans' case, resting on this informal claim that can always be disputed, is already under assault. Along with the Democrats' open campaign to persuade the public that the election did not mean what Republicans thought, there is an allied effort underway, far more subtle, to undermine and weaken the Republican position. It comes from a group of self-proclaimed wise men who present themselves as being above the fray. These voices, acting from a putative concern for the nation and even for the Republican Party, urge Republicans to avoid the mistake of Obama and the Democrats after 2008 of displaying hubris and overinterpreting their mandate. With this criticism of the Democrats offered as a testimony of their even handedness and sincerity, they piously go on to tell Republicans that now is the time to engage in bipartisanship and follow a course of compromise. The problem with this sage advice is that it calls for Republicans to practice moderation and bipartisanship after the Democrats did not. It is therefore not a counsel of moderation, but a ploy designed to force Republicans to accept the "overreach" and the policies of the past year and half. It is another way to defend "the change." If Republicans are to remain true to the verdict of 2010, they cannot accept that the message of this election was just containment; it must mean roll back.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and co-author with Andrew E. Busch and John J. Pitney, Jr., of Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield).

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