Obama, Udall and What 2014 Was Really About

Obama, Udall and What 2014 Was Really About

By Carl M. Cannon - November 9, 2014

WASHINGTON – To understand what went wrong for Democrats in the midterm elections, we can look to the Senate race in Colorado, where Barack Obama was first nominated for president. The state went for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012—and until Tuesday it had a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators.

Now it will have one Democratic senator, as well as a chastened and only narrowly re-elected governor in a state where the president’s job approval has slipped below 40 percent. Similar results occurred from Georgia to Alaska. This was inevitable because the Democrats’ main problems are national in nature, originating here in the nation’s capital, and radiating outward.

This is fitting, because after all the shouting the 2014 election was a referendum on federalism—on how much political power ought to reside in Washington instead of the states.

Republicans made no secret of their strategy to turn the midterms into a plebiscite on Obama’s performance. This is a common midterm gambit, especially when a president and his party are out of favor, as is often the case in an administration’s sixth year in office. But this administration made things tougher than they had to be for its own candidates.

In the Senate, party discipline imposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made it difficult for “red state” Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Obama administration. Moreover, the White House-controlled party apparatus micromanaged Democratic political campaigns to bad effect.

For starters, the White House political team urged beleaguered Democrats to run on the economy. Cherry-picking employment statistics that makes the economic picture seem rosier than it is, the president and his surrogates boasted about Obama’s fiscal stewardship. Improved economic numbers notwithstanding, this is a narrative most voters do not yet accept; and Democrats who parroted this line made themselves seem out of touch.

Meanwhile, the national party and shadowy Democratic-funded political action committees funded hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads trumpeting a supposed Republican “war on women.” Although this tiresome trope has worked in the past, it backfired this time.

How was it going to work against Iowa Republican Joni Ernst? She is a woman, and a military veteran who knows what actual war looks like. In Colorado, the relentless attacks employed by Sen. Mark Udall and his surrogates were so crass that even some home state Democrats were privately pulling for his defeat.

Until this year, Udall was known for his pro-environmental record, his skepticism about government snooping—and as a principled and appealing person. That reputation evaporated in the crucible of a campaign so infused with the reproductive rights argument that Udall earned the unflattering moniker “Mark Uterus.” 

As a prominent Denver Republican told me days before the election, “Democrats have squandered Udall's tremendous personal and political strengths. … He is truly one of the nicest, most decent people in Colorado politics, yet he has come across as a dour, mean-spirited, tired old incumbent.”

For anyone who knows Udall personally, this was a sad commentary on the campaign. For those who remember Udall’s father, it almost beggars belief. A longtime Arizona congressman, Morris K. Udall was in some ways reminiscent of Barack Obama. Like the president, he was tall and bright and loved basketball, though he could be laconic when it served his purposes—and even when it didn’t.

But Mo Udall’s humor was directed at himself more often than at others, an art Barack Obama has never mastered. When Udall lost his 1976 presidential bid in the Democratic primary to Jimmy Carter, he reprised an old line: “The voters have spoken—the bastards.”

In all seriousness, Mo Udall knew why he didn’t win in 1976. His campaign was underfunded and disorganized, while the candidate himself was too liberal for the times. It never bothered him. Four years later, when progressives pressed him to run again, Udall quipped, “If nominated, I will run—for the Mexican border. If elected, I will fight extradition.”

President Obama, in his own public postmortem of the 2014 midterms, seemed by contrast simultaneously nonchalant and clueless about what has happened to his political party under his watch.

When Obama took office, Democrats held a 257-seat majority in the House of Representatives and a veto-proof, 60-seat majority in the U.S. Senate. Six years later, 75 of those Democratic districts in the House have been lost, along with more than a dozen Senate seats, giving the Republican Party its biggest congressional majorities since the Hoover administration.

In the president’s telling, none of this is his fault. “To everyone who voted,” he said in his 90-minute White House press conference Wednesday, “I hear you.” But he negated the sentiment in the next breath with a whiny allusion to the “two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process.”

So the problem was Democratic turnout. Or, maybe, his own party’s candidates. Or perhaps the lazy voters themselves. The bastards.

It seems not to have dawned on Obama that this was the first election since his solemn and often-repeated promise that Americans who already had insurance can keep their doctors and their health plans was exposed as a lie. It’s a lesson Democrats ignore at their peril.

On Election Day, voters in five states—Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota—backed referendums raising their state’s minimum wage. In four of those states, the voters also sent Republican senators to Washington, two of them replacing Democrats, and in the fifth, Illinois, a Republican gubernatorial candidate upended a Democratic incumbent.

The lesson here is that even a conservative-leaning midterm electorate isn’t opposed to helping the working poor in this country. What Americans oppose is having all these decisions made for them in Washington.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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