This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on November 5, 2010.
In monographs for the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress, and in separate articles for The New Republic, TDS Co-Editors William Galston and Ruy Teixeira offer distinctive takes on what happened on November 2, with equally distinctive suggestion about what Democrats need to do to regain the electoral strength they displayed in 2006 and 2008.
In explaining the decline in Democratic fortunes for Brookings, Galston places great emphasis on the conflict between the public-sector activism that Democrats pursued–partly to implement their longstanding agenda, partly to deal with the economic emergency–and profound public mistrust in the institutions of government, which was only made worse by the economic situation and how the White House and congressional leaders dealt with it. And this, says Galston, exposed a fundamental ambiguity about perceptions of the President himself which was one a political strength, but then became a weakness:
Some expected him to be a liberal stalwart, leading the charge for single-payer health insurance and the fight against big corporations; others assumed that his evident desire to transcend the red-blue divide pointed to a post-partisan presidential agenda implemented through bipartisan congressional cooperation. It would have been difficult to satisfy both wings of his coalition, and he didn’t. As he tacked back and forth during the first two years of his presidency, he ended up disappointing both.
There was a further difficulty. While Obama’s agenda required a significant expansion of the scope, power, and cost of the federal government, public trust in that government stood near a record low throughout his campaign, a reality his election did nothing to alter. A majority of the people chose to place their confidence in Obama the man but not in the institutions through which he would have to enact and implement his agenda. Although he was warned just days after his victory that the public’s mistrust of government would limit its tolerance for bold initiatives, he refused to trim his sails, in effect assuming that his personal credibility would outweigh the public’s doubts about the competence and integrity of the government he led.[iii] As events proved, that was a significant misjudgment.
Obama’s efforts to negotiate these difficult straits, says Galston, only made matters worse, as key elements of the electorate came to accept Republican complaints about various administration initiatives:
Once elected, Obama in fact had not one but two agendas–the agenda of choice on which he had run for president and the agenda of necessity that the economic and financial collapse had forced upon him. The issue he then faced was whether the latter would require him to trim or delay the former, a question he answered in the negative. Denying any conflict between these agendas, he opted to pursue both simultaneously. A major health care initiative was piled on top of the financial rescue plan and the stimulus package, exacerbating the public’s sticker shock. And initiatives such as climate change legislation and comprehensive immigration reform remained in play long after it should have been clear that they stood no serious chance of enactment while pervasive economic distress dominated the political landscape.
In his TNR piece, Galston looks at the political mechanics of how the House was lost, and suggests that a strong rightward shift in ideology among independents since 2006, and a general decline in the percentage of Americans who perceive themselves as moderate, are not just factors that explain 2010 but represent a fundamental challenge to the Democratic Party:
According to the Pew Research Center, conservatives as a share of total Independents rose from 29 percent in 2006 to 36 percent in 2010. Gallup finds exactly the same thing: The conservative share rose from 28 percent to 36 percent while moderates declined from 46 percent to 41 percent.
This shift is part of a broader trend: Over the past two decades, moderates have trended down as share of the total electorate while conservatives have gone up. … Unless the long-term decline of moderates and rise of conservatives is reversed during the next two years, the ideological balance of the electorate in 2012 could look a lot like it did this year.
With his CAP colleague John Halpin, Teixeira has developed a take that focuses more on the structural background of the 2010 elections than on a narrative of what Obama and congressional Democrats did right or wrong over the last two years. As they succinctly put it in their TNR piece:
Why did the Democrats decisively lose this election? It’s not really a mystery. The 2010 midterms were shaped by three fundamental factors: the poor state of the economy, the abnormally conservative composition of the midterm electorate, and the large number of vulnerable seats in conservative-leaning areas.
Laying it out in greater detail for CAP, Teixeira and Halpin put it this way:
Independent voters, white working-class voters, seniors, and men broke heavily against the Democrats due to the economy. Turnout levels were also unusually low among young and minority voters and unusually high among seniors, whites, and conservatives, thus contributing to a massively skewed midterm electorate. The Democrats therefore faced a predictable, and arguably unavoidable, convergence of forces. Incumbent Democrats suffered a genuine backlash of voter discontent due to a weak economy with considerable concerns about job creation, deep skepticism among independents, poor turnout among key base groups, and strong enthusiasm among energized conservatives.
They go through these factors in some detail, and have this to say about the many conflicting theories circulating among the chattering classes:
Political commentators are notoriously prone to overinterpreting election results and extrapolating singular causes for victories and losses from a multitude of possible factors. These interpretations usually underlie some desire to influence ideological debates and power struggles or to shape media stories about the election. And 2010 is no different….
Years of political science research show fairly conclusively that structural issues explain most of the variance in election results. Context, candidates, and politics matter, of course. But progressives should examine the basics if they want to understand why 2010 happened as it did: the poor condition of the economy; a conservative-leaning midterm electorate; and a Democratic Party with many marginal seats to lose. Strategic and policy decisions certainly made some difference in the magnitude of losses, but in a horrible economy it’s difficult to escape the reality that Democrats were poised to lose a significant number of seats no matter what they did.
Given their widely varying takes on the election, it’s not surprising that Galston and Teixeira have different advice for Democrats going forward, with Galston expressing optimism about a more limited and less partisan agenda along the lines of President Clinton’s approach after 1994, while Teixeira and Halpin suggest a reengagement with those elements of the electorate that stayed home in 2010 but tend to vote in presidential elections. But they agree completely that positive action and positive results on the economy are a must.