Is there a slowly emerging twist in the developing conventional wisdom? Are the Democrats truly down for the count?
Since the Democrats suffered such huge loses in the mid-terms that THIS should be their theme song, the conventional wisdom by a variety of pundits of both parties have included points such as a)the Democrats are decimated, b)this could be the beginning of a long resurgence of the Republican party due to the Tea Party movement and discouraged Democratic liberals progressives, c)Barack Obama is political toast and might as well announce now that he’s a one term President and create a national unity cabinet.
But is it now starting to shift? First there was THIS column by Larry Sabato. When I and others saw it we took it at face value (I put it on my Twitter account and passed it along to some others). But now he has added an “IRONY ZONE” label to it. (This is akin to how talk show host Phil Hendrie who himself does the voices of his callers had to finally tip off viewers that he was doing it since some listeners took him very seriously). Sabato was poking fun at the pundits who the day after an election look at the results and think they can predict what will happen two years down the road.
Now CNN is suggesting a bit of caution might be in order — that the breathless prouncements might be more breath than valid political science prognostications:
One week removed from the great “shellacking” of 2010, Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are still picking through the ashes of their lost House majority and debating the best way forward.
Rumors of their demise are, of course, exaggerated. Republicans survived midterm massacres in 1974 and 2006; Democrats lived to tell the tale of 1994. Election night exit polls showed the GOP is no more popular among voters than the Democrats.
But any time a party loses at least 60 seats in the House and six in the Senate, recriminations are bound to fly. Angry liberals accuse the White House of selling them out on a range of issues — public option anyone? — and demoralizing the base. Diminished Blue Dogs point the finger at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dismal approval ratings and complain about being saddled with unpopular stimulus and cap-and-trade plans, among other things.
Adding to moderate malaise: Pelosi’s unexpected decision to seek another term as her party’s House leader. The San Francisco speaker has been holed up in her Capitol Hill office this week, working the phones to stave off any possible challenge.
Her decision means more moderate Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer and more liberal South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn — numbers two and three in the current House Democratic leadership — are left fighting over the position of minority whip for the next Congress.
Some observers warn the Congressional Black Caucus will explode if Clyburn — a veteran African-American legislator — doesn’t get the nod.
What does all of this mean? Maybe President Barack Obama picked a good time to pack his bags for Asia. But he can’t avoid a radically changed landscape for the next two years as he pursues a second term.
And there is the crux of this issue: what will happen the next two years? How will Obama, the Democrats and the Republicans respond? How will each party respond to its internal pressures — the Democrats facing a very disappointed
liberal progressive wing and the Republicans face a very assertive talk show political culture Tea Party movement wing.
And, amid these pressures, how does each party when it all comes out after ugly political sausage making look to the country’s independent voters and center?
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile notes that the results can actually be read several ways and history strongly suggests that the Democratic party is now down from the count — if it responds smartly:
About the midterm facts: With four exceptions, every president has lost seats during the midterms. Sometimes the losses resembled a leak; sometimes they were like the gusher in the gulf.
This time, the well — poorly sealed — blew.
But to make sense of it, we need to look at parallel midterms — not just the ones where the president’s party lost big, but ones where the political climate and national condition parallel ours. (This leaves out years like 1826, 1874 and 1910.)
She then goes through various years in details. And here is her conclusion, based on the data she presents:
The lessons for President Obama and the Democrats read differently than the pundits and Republicans would have it. The lessons are:
1. The country swings, usually by narrow margins, and the midterms are the counterbalance.
2. A crisis (civil war, recession/depression) or major social change (Social Security, Medicare, civil rights) peaks the change. It’s as if the country’s like an athlete: After a long struggle, and victory, it needs to rest, to retreat a step to catch its breath.
3. Those presidents who use a major loss in the House to clarify their purpose and reaffirm their goals not only win re-election, they also reclaim the national agenda. They become, in short, better leaders and more effective communicators. Ironically, a major loss in the House does not weaken the better presidents; it empowers them.
So President Obama has to decide whether he will follow the path of Lincoln and FDR, for the sake not just of the Democratic Party but of the country. Will he and the Senate majority — let us not forget that Democrats are the majority in the Senate — use this opportunity to seize the news cycle and proudly promote the principles — fairness, shared prosperity, personal responsibility and equal opportunity — the legislation of the last two years has begun to enact?
The question to President Obama, and all the congressional Democrats, is, will you “show us here the mettle of your pasture”?
As the writer of the epigram said, “the game’s afoot.”
I have begun to conclude that:
(1)Barack Obama and his team have so far not shown the political smarts, nimbless, or ability to anticipate and strategize that successful political politicians and political teams have shown. This is no Lee Atwater, James Carville, or Karl Rove political operation here. they have been shockingly inept and flat-footed since winning the election.
(2)This inability to successfully strategize and anticipate (or to misread: so health care reform was going to HELP Democrats come election time?) means that they are reactive in terms of the real agenda and the news cycle.
(3)There is little signthat Obama or the Democrats plan to substantially change the political game as they have played it the past two years. Democrats debate whether they need to play more to the center or whether in compromising to woo centrist Democrats and Reopublicans they watered down their brand and looked like political hacks. A major course change — so far — seems unlikely.
(4)There is little signs the Republicans plan to substantially change the game as they have played it the past two years — except now they have more power and will be issuing more subpeonas than the number of trips to rehabs by Lindsay Lohan.
Brazile is correct: there is a way out as she notes.
But right now it’s iffy whether Obama or the Democrats are willing — or have the political ability — to go down that path. It’s much easier to be reactive and defensive.
Right now Obama and the Democrats are on a roll(over).
UPDATE: The Washington Post reports that Team Obama has done some serious soul searching. Does this mean “soul” as in body or looking at the bottom of their shoes? The WaPo reports:
After nearly two weeks of introspection, President Obama’s top advisers have concluded that the “shellacking” Democrats took on Election Day was caused in large part by their own failure to live up to expectations set during the 2008 campaign, not merely the typical political cycles and poor messaging they pointed to at first…
…The advisers are deeply concerned about winning back political independents, who supported Obama two years ago by an eight-point margin but backed Republicans for the House this year by 19 points. To do so, they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.
The problem: so far Obama’s attempts to forge partnerships with Republicans have flopped.
Even more important, senior administration officials said, Obama will need to oversee tangible improvements in the economy. They cannot just keep arguing, as Democrats did during the recent campaign, that things would have been worse if not for administration policies.
Correct on that front. Democrats got sick of hearing Republicans saying “but under Clinton” when Bush was President. One independent voter even wrote a satire about it on The Huffington Post. The argument wears thin and seems more of an attempt to avoid responsibility for job performance..whether a version is used by a GOPer or a Dem.
One adviser said they spent the past dozen days “soul-searching.”
Another said that, around the White House, “people aren’t just sitting around doing soul-searching. They’re gaming out the short, medium and long term.”
“People have given a lot of thought to this,” said that adviser, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss internal deliberations.
In some ways, they said, the midterms were not as bleak a harbinger as some Democrats fear. Though Republicans took the House and narrowed the Democratic margin in the Senate, Obama’s personal-approval ratings remain high and his core constituencies remain highly supportive. Re-energizing them will be among his priorities…
Advisers also said it will probably take months, if not longer, to develop a strategy for restoring some of the early promise of the Obama presidency, particularly the notion that he was a different kind of Democrat.
But Obama’s problem will be that the party’s progressive wing will be clamoring for him to be a progressive Democrat while to rebrand himself as a different kind of Democrat he’s going to have to triangulate (which will create howls of protest from the Democratic left and could even spark a primary challenge) and show that he is working with some key GOPers (at a time when most in the GOP see that noncooperation with Obama reaps political dividends and also can be a way of avoiding a primary challenge from Tea Party movement members).
Another big task for Obama: for all the talk during campaign 2008 about him being a Great Communicator most of the time he seems to be a student of the Jimmy Carter School of Political Communication rather than the FDR, JFK or Ronald Reagan schools.
This can be pulled off if he and his team have the political smarts.
(Read my comments earlier in this post about that…)
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.