The coming Democratic wipeout?

August 9, 2010

The most likely explanation for a conservative resurgence at the polls is actually the demoralization of the Democratic "base" over the last two years.

IT'S BEEN obvious for more than a year that the Democrats can expect a beating at the polls in the November midterm elections.

For months, most leading polls have showed the Republicans tied with, or leading, the Democrats in voters' preferences for congressional candidates. And even more ominous for Democrats, President Obama is now more unpopular than popular, with an average of 50 percent of people saying they disapprove of his performance, compared to 45 percent who say they approve, according to the compilation figure calculated at

What's more, the polls have also noted a wide "enthusiasm gap" between people who say they plan to vote Republican and those who say they plan to vote Democratic. This means that conservatives are fired up about the midterm elections, while people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and the rest of the Democratic "base" remain demoralized and seemingly indifferent to the outcome in November.

What does this mean for the elections in November?

Washington election forecaster Charlie Cook predicts a "wave" that will sweep out the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Although considered less likely, Republicans winning a majority of the Senate is also not out of the question.

If even one of these events takes place this fall, it will mark one of the biggest reversal in mainstream electoral politics in decades. If both houses of Congress flip to the GOP, the Republican Revolution of 1994 would look like incremental change.

THOUGH REPUBLICANS will tout any gains they make as proof that Americans have rejected Obama's "socialist" agenda, rejection of the Democrats has a less ideological explanation.'s Steve Karnacki broke down the opposition to Obama into three main groups: conservative diehards who hated Obama and the Democrats from the start, "mushier" Republicans willing to give Obama a chance, and true "swing" voters who have switched from supporting Democrats to supporting Republicans. Karnacki described the impact of the bad economy on these three groups:

The expansive agenda Obama has pursued provides plenty of specific targets for his foes. But if he had pursued different (or fewer) agenda items, I doubt his overall approval rating would be much different. The diehards would still hate him, the mushier Republicans would still have turned on him (maybe more of them would cite the deficit, instead of, say health care), and he'd still be losing swing voters, too.

A bad economy causes voters whose opinions are subject to change to view just about all of a president's agenda items negatively (or to de-emphasize the agenda items that they agree with). A robust economy reverses this phenomenon.

This analysis is okay as far as it goes. But it focuses only on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

To truly understand why the Democrats and liberalism look headed for defeat in November, we have to also look at what will be the most likely explanation for a conservative resurgence--demoralization of the Democratic "base" over the last two years. Blogger Les Leopold, writing on the liberal FireDogLake Web site, summed up this feeling:

It's open season on Obama, whom so many hoped would lead us out of the neoliberal wilderness. He once was a community organizer and ought to know how working people have suffered through a generation of tax breaks for the rich, Wall Street deregulation and unfair competition. When the economy crashed, he was in the perfect position to limit the unjustified pay levels on Wall Street.

Instead, we got a multi-trillion-dollar bailout for Wall Street, no health care reform, no serious financial reforms whatsoever, record unemployment and political gridlock that will be with us for years to come.

Leopold missed the fact that Obama was more of a pro-business, "centrist" politician than the radical conjured up in the fantasies of the likes of Glenn Beck. But his point remains: If millions of Democratic base voters feel that Obama hasn't produced the reforms he promised--while embracing Bush-era "war on terror" policies and escalating the Afghanistan war--then Obama and the Democrats are really in trouble.

However "expansive" the Obama agenda, and however much the Democrats want to use the bogeyman of Tea Party hordes running the country after November 2, they can't get around the fact that core supporters of mainstream liberalism feel the Obama administration has not measured up to its rhetoric of "hope" and "change."

And Obama and the Democrats have only themselves to blame for that state of affairs.

The Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress, including, for a period of time, a 60-vote majority in the Senate, sufficient to overcome Republican filibusters on any issue. They had the potential to reset mainstream politics for a generation.

Yet with the Obama administration in the lead, they mainly assumed the role as savior of the corporate system that was teetering on the edge of the economic abyss in late 2008 and early 2009. The Obama administration wasn't the originator of the massive bailouts of the Wall Street banks and the likes of AIG, but it assumed the chief role as defender of those programs.

It's very likely the case that the massive government backing of the financial system saved it from meltdown, but that's cold comfort for the majority of Americans, who continue to suffer high unemployment, loss of retirement wealth and a continuing wave of foreclosures.

Obama and the Democrats legitimized massive government spending without changing any of the neoliberal assumptions about the aims to which that spending was dedicated. Even though the economic stimulus bill of February 2009 was the largest single spending measure ever passed, it was underpowered from the start.

Unemployment continued to rise under Obama, feeding the public perception that "government" and "government spending" were ineffectual. If the crisis of 2008 discredited neoliberal nostrums, the continuing crisis of 2009 and 2010 appeared to discredit liberal, "big government" solutions.

Today, the administration proclaims the necessity of "deficit reduction," "entitlement reform" (translation: cutting Medicare and Social Security) and austerity, with as much enthusiasm as Republicans.

While this largely reflects the administration's attempt to carry out the agenda of big business, the White House claims it is only responding to public concern about the growing federal budget deficit. But this is a self-serving--and incorrect--reading of the public mood. Polls showing "the deficit" as the public's "number one problem" tend to reflect what the Washington elite and media have already defined as the "main" problem facing the government, according to research by political scientists Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro.

What's more, "When people are talking about the deficit and being concerned about the deficit, that's really a metaphor for a whole lot of things in their mind: It's about debt to China, it's also about the waste of government money as far as they're concerned, it's about bailing out big corporations while their jobs are lost," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim.

In other words, public concern about "the deficit," like public concern about unemployment, is really a reflection of the general economic crisis--and the sense that no one in charge, either in Washington or Corporate America, much cares about how ordinary people are suffering.

And official liberalism, which once at least appeared to stand on the side of "the people," seems incapable of mustering much passion for those ordinary people. It's nothing short of scandalous that the Republicans could filibuster an extension of unemployment benefits for two months--causing misery for millions of people--without the Democrats being able to make them pay for it politically.

THE MISSING element here has been a movement from below to pressure the Democrats to act on an agenda that responds to ordinary people, rather than to bankers and big business.

For much of Obama's term, leading liberal organizations--like the AFL-CIO, the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign--have played "good soldiers" in trying to carry out the White House's agenda. As a result, there has been no sustained national effort to give voice to the millions of people facing economic hardship today.

A national march for jobs and justice in Washington, D.C., on October 2--promoted by the NAACP, AFL-CIO and numerous other organizations, in Washington--has the potential to show the political establishment that real popular sentiment doesn't lie with the Tea Partiers and the deficit hawks.

Of course, with an eye on the electoral calendar, October 2 organizers no doubt hope the demonstration will shake the Democratic base from its lethargy and bring out the vote in November. Whether the march and rally will be successful in those terms is anyone's guess.

But if the October 2 demonstration gives local activists the chance to work together to build networks that can express working-class and anti-racist demands--and if it injects into the mainstream political discussion the urgency that so many people feel about the need for action on jobs and state budget cuts--that will be a positive outcome.

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