Apparently there was some sort of election a few days ago?
I spent the entire day stumping for my state representative, and despite the fact that his win in 2008 over the incumbent Republican was attributed to the Obama surge, he managed to win by a larger percentage against the same opponent this time around. My polls had solid turnout for a midterm, despite the fact that the district is heavily Democratic.
Of course, what happened in my district apparently didn’t happen nationwide. A look at the breakdown shows that blue districts where Obama won less than 55% of the vote turned red. Plain and simple, Democrats failed to get people to the polls. The narrative that Republicans poured out in droves doesn’t necessarily hold true – voter turnout was down nearly 20% across the board coming off of a Democratic wave in 2008.
So why did Democrats lose? Why did their base stay away? Why did Republicans retake the House?
Let me tell you, it wasn’t because they were too progressive.
Also let me tell you, it wasn’t because they were too centrist.
In fact, it had nothing to do with their policies – it had everything to do with message.
Starting in 2006, Democrats managed to seize control of the message, the basic political narrative. Not necessarily that they were better able to handle things, but simply that Republicans had fucked things up so badly that the only possible solution was to switch parties. Notice that there weren’t actually a lot of ideas coming out of the Democrats, at least not “Contract With America” style ideas. Sure, they actually did have a lot of ideas, but they didn’t sell those ideas. Democrats in 2006 and 2008 simply sold the idea that “Republicans broke this shit. Do you really want to let them keep at it?”
Unfortunately, the Democratic establishment saw that this message was a winner, and ran with it. In 2010, Tim Kaine unveiled the “Don’t Give Them Back The Keys” campaign slogan.
No, really, that’s what they were trying to sell. The problem is that after everything that they actually did (or tried to do), they couldn’t even come up with a cohesive “this is why we deserve your vote and they don’t” message. They didn’t actually control the message, they just jumped into the stream as it bent toward them for a bit.
Republicans have effectively dominated the political narrative for well over a decade. They understand the concepts of political theatre, misdirection and blatant falsehood as tools for the maintenance of power. Sure, those weren’t very effective in 2006 and 2008, but upon closer inspection, they actually were. Like a bear going dormant, the ass-kicking that they received those years didn’t serve to change them, didn’t serve as a refutation of their message – it simply served as a way to burn off some fat and come out hungry.
Democrats dropped the ball almost as soon as it was handed to them in 2006. Nancy Pelosi unveiled her “100 Hour Plan,” which was actually a big success, except for the branding and follow-up marketing. Sure, the House passed all of the legislation she’d promised. Of that list, five (lobby reform, deficit reduction, 9/11 Commission recommendations, minimum wage hike, and ending tax subsidies for oil companies) went on to get Bush’s signature, while the other three (lower drug prices, stem cell research, more college funding) died in the Senate. A 63% success rate for the first 8 pieces of legislation that the Democratic tide was elected to enact is pretty amazing, but did they campaign on that? Marginally. 2008 became a referendum on Bush, which, to be honest, is how the Republicans probably would have played it if it had been the other way around. The problem comes in 2010.
This year’s campaign was dominated by a single narrative that will sound familiar to voters in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Gone were the Democrat’s salad days of winning through blame. They’d have to stand on their own record! Unfortunately, they declined. Obama and the Democratic Congress have actually achieved a lot that has been good for the economy, but they couldn’t be bothered to tell us about it. The best they could muster was “they caused this, don’t let them back in!”
Letting the Republicans dominate the message with completely wrong-headed narratives like “we should cut spending in a recession!” is what lost them the election, but the fact that they let the Republicans any manner of control after January 20th, 2009 is what lead up to that. It was obvious from the very beginning that Obama was going to get nothing but sabotage from the Republicans. He asked for their help on health care and received ideas from them that were quickly shot down as soon as they were incorporated. Republicans actually filibustered their own ideas and pinned them on the Democrats. That Obama, Reid and Pelosi didn’t get the message by May 2009 is what cost them the House in 2010. Political theatre, Republican Style, could have prevented this, and here’s how: Filibuster.
Republicans took their 41% majority and used it to control the Senate, requiring every bill to have 60 votes. Unfortunately, Democrats only had 59, and sometimes members would go rogue, dropping their vote count all the way down to 55. Every single time this resulted in failed legislation. They ceded control. They should have taken it. If the Republicans wanted to kill legislation with the threat of a filibuster, the Democrats should have called their bluff. Let Jim Inhofe stand there with a phone book for five hours in order to stall climate change legislation. Democrats should have been rolling in cots and taking turns talking to any camera they could get in front of about how Republicans were obstructing the people’s business. Do that once, it’s theatre. Do it twice, it’s annoying. Do it correctly three times, and suddenly, America is looking at the Republicans like they’re the asshole that just barfed in the sink. They either back down, or they start loosing support. Once numbers get bad enough, they’d have flinched. Then the real work could have begun.
If there had been actual control of the Senate from May of 2009, health care would have been done (and done better) in August. Works projects would have been underway. Spending would have gone up, but the economy would have recovered faster as people got back to work. Jobs numbers would have started to look less grim. The Tea Party could have been reduced to a squawk box simply by showing real improvement and a path to deficit reduction.
Democrats also failed to comprehend that Republicans had turned America into a bunch of dimwits. Anti-intellectualism dominated the landscape. Therefore, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were not the best choices for getting the message out. Grab some Southern Democrats and push them in front of a microphone with this message:
“So, Republicans want to cut spending in a recession. Sure, that sounds like the right thing to do, but we’re talking about unemployment benefits here. Employment is the engine that drives the economy. If your car blows a cylinder, and you’re strapped for cash, do you not figure out a way to fix it in order to get to work? Do you quit your job because you can’t get there? No, you suck it up and spend money you might not have, because if you don’t, you’ll have no money at all. Republicans want to let that car rust in the driveway and let the kids starve. What we’re doing might not seem perfect, but we’re going to get that car moving again. We’re going to fix this engine, because it’s time to get America back on the road!”
Hammer it home. Adapt it to “Do you sit in the pit with a blown engine or do you fix it and try to win?” in the NASCAR areas, but don’t let go of that narrative. Whenever a Republican talks about “belt tightening” and “deficits” and “smaller government,” respond with “you can’t drive to work with a broken-down engine, and it’s not going to fix itself for free.”
Economics and narrative. That’s what it boils down to. Now, the Democrats have a smaller margin in the Senate and have lost the House. There’s only two ways to change that in 2012: change up.
Demand the filibuster, and either take credit for the economy rebounding or blame the Republicans if it doesn’t. Chances are, it will show remarkable improvement by this time next year, so it is imperative that Democrats do not allow Republicans to claim it was their changes that cause the turnaround.
Will Democrats do that?