By Ron Daniels
In the face of a calculated and relentless assault by Republicans on Barack Obama, a president with a dismal approval rating, Democratic candidates panicked and frantically ran away from the president and his/their “record” over the past six years. Moreover, they forgot Congress’ ratings were considerably lower.
Historically, midterm elections have traditionally been unkind to the president and party in the White House. A loss of seats in the House and Senate is not unusual. It was also a particularly difficult year for the Democrats because they had to defend so many Senate seats in red states. However, the difficult political terrain does not explain the magnitude of the debacle, the rout, the bloodbath the Democrats suffered, including the scare in Virginia where Mark Warner barely survived, the loss of governors in deeply blue states and major gains by Republicans in state legislatures around the country. It was brutal!
Democrats lost control of the Senate and suffered unusually high casualties in other offices because they focused almost exclusively on turn-out instead of both message and turn-out. Ducking and running from the president or his/their record was not a “message” likely to motivate the base or independent voters to “turn-out” in the numbers necessary to stem the tide of what became a red wave of political destruction for the Democrats.
How in the face of a steadily improving economy did Democrats lose so badly? The unemployment rate has gradually come down to 5.8 percent with increases in jobs in the 200,000 plus range for several months – not spectacular but in the right direction. The stock market is breaking records, and even though this has mostly benefitted wealthy interests, the 501k plans of workers and middle class people have also recovered from the disastrous losses of the Great Recession. Gas prices are low and continuing to decline, a trend that usually brings relief to working people.
And, why did the Democrats run away from the impact of the Affordable Care Act? Despite a bungling launch, millions of Americans who previously lacked access to affordable health care now have it. And, what about the Affordable Care Act’s impact on the deficit? Remember what a big issue the deficit has been for the Republicans in recent years? The fact is that the Affordable Care Act has slowed the escalating cost of health care and contributed to a significant reduction in the deficit.
Moreover, President Obama’s “policies” have significantly contributed to the reduction of the deficit because the recovering economy is generating more tax revenue to pay the bills. Little wonder you heard not a peep from the Republicans about the deficit. But, you didn’t hear a peep from the Democrats, either.
In 2012, the economy was in much worse condition than it is today. By conventional wisdom, President Obama should have been soundly defeated. He was re-elected despite much higher unemployment/joblessness than is currently the case. Because enough voters were hopeful that conditions would get better, they defied conventional wisdom and re-elected President Obama.
Today’s economy is better, but there is a legitimate complaint that the recovery is plagued by low wage jobs and wage stagnation. Hence, the argument goes that people are sour on the direction of the economy and Obama. Under these circumstances, it was critical that the president and the Democrats create an overarching narrative that reminded the American people which party’s policies wrecked the economy, creating the pain in the first place.
And with millions of people out of work, which party fought time and time again for extensions in unemployment benefits that eased the pain. While wages are stagnant, the American people needed to be reminded that it was/is President Obama and the Democrats who have repeatedly called for an increase in the minimum wage over the objection of most Republicans. This is a proposal that had traction because voters in five states, including a red state like Arkansas, passed referenda supporting increasing the minimum wage. Nonetheless, in Arkansas, Mark Pryor, the Democrat who favored the minimum wage, lost decisively to his Republic opponent.
How is this possible? While local/state issues are obviously important, and candidates must conduct good campaigns, as a general proposition, Democrats like Pryor lacked a message that connected the reality of an improving but sluggish economy to a positive agenda for lifting workers and the middle class out of the doldrums of wage stagnation.
The lessons of the Democratic debacle should be clear: there is always a need for a message, a compelling narrative to motivate voters to turn-out. For the Democrats this should mean consistently articulating people-oriented, progressive values, principles and policies; ideas that have been consistently opposed by conservative Republicans. Voters need to be clear about which party is on the side of workers, the middle class and poor people. Candidates must have the courage to run on rather than from a record of success in order to give people a reason to vote.
Ron Daniels is president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.