Obviously, the Democrats got thrashed in last night’s elections. This was pretty much as expected. Based on the restults, the coverage I saw last night, public statements by major players, and a few too many years spent following politics (some college was even silly enough to give me a degree in it!), here are my first thoughts on what happened and what’s going to happen.
What Could the Democrats have Done Differently
The big question is: could the Democrats have won by making different choices on what other policies they pursued?
To me, the answer to that looks to be “no.” Healthcare reform is about even in popularity in the latest polls (although it’s behind for both Republicans and Independents). Passing cap-and-trade doesn’t seem like it would’ve added any new votes.
Could the Democrats have performed better by being more conservative — passing less legislation, or focusing more on spending cuts? Evidence there also suggests “no.” The biggest piece of this evidence is the royal whipping the “Blue Dogs” took. In realistic terms, how far to the right of the positions taken by the “Blue Dogs” who lost should the Democratic party have been prepared to go to win this election? Going to the right of these guys clearly would’ve meant giving up every substantive legislative achievement of the past Congress, and I can’t imagine that would be a decision anybody would make ever.
Bill Clinton won on “it’s the economy, stupid!” Barack Obama would’ve done well to listen to James Carville’s rallying cry as well. The economy is in the shitter and people are worried, of course they want change. If I’m right on that assertion, then the only thing the Democrats could have done is have a larger stimulus. (Regardless of your economic leanings, you’ve got to believe that a larger stimulus would’ve caused short-term growth; the question is, when looking at different options to grow an economy, which give you the right medium- and long-term tradeoffs?)
The Obama administration had to have known that the Democrats’ electoral performance in this cycle was going to depend substantially on how the economy was going. Reality essentially forced them to play that hand. Yet, like a bad poker player, they never went all-in on the must-win pot. I simply don’t understand what downside existed to getting the largest stimulus package possible.
Dangers for the Democrats
The most obvious danger is now that there’s going to be a call from within the party to move to the right. As I said above, even the rightmost party members lost; I can’t imagine where that move would get them.
The reality is that, unless the economy improves, the party stands a significant danger of losing the White House in 2 years. That needs to trump any move to the right or the left.
There’s also a danger that Democrats and Progressives will blame the loss on the economy. It’s also a reality that the Obama team, which won the primaries and the White House substantially on outstanding communications, has failed to do a good job of communicating with the citizens of this country for 20 months now. We need to accept that Obama is no Reagan. Where we go from there is difficult.
Dangers for the Republicans
I saw Eric Cantor on the news last night, talking about how this election was a mandate to repeal health care reform, cut spending, and more. It’s certainly true that the electorate was happy to kick out the Democrats, but I think that’s reading too much into it. Looking at the Senate map, we see a few standout losses for the GOP. West Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada all looked winnable, and are all conservative states — in West Virginia’s case, with a history of social conservativism; for the other two states, a tendency to libertarianism. Yet, in three races that required the victor to appeal to people across geographic and socioeconomic lines, the Democrat won. That’s not a shining endorsement.
Similarly, in many of the states in which Republicans had major House gains, there’s a danger that the party will see an endorsement of the policies Cantor talked about. That may be true, but in places like Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, Republicans were in charge during the last redistricting cycle and drew seats that should lean to the party’s positions. These wins could be an endorsement of policies, or they could be a validation of decade-ago redistricting plans. If they are the latter, then going too far to the right could put many of these seats at risk.
There’s also a major gotcha in the widely-touted Republican goal to roll back Obamacare. A logical first place for them to start — one that many party members have advocated beginning with — is to repeal the mandate that all individuals buy health insurance. This is an attractive first step, since such a mandate seems unfair to many in the center and with libertarian bent.
However, the individual mandate is economically chained, whether the GOP wants it or not, to the requirement that insurance companies must provide insurance to everyone. Without the individual mandate, an economically rational person will take advantage of guaranteed coverage and wait until they’re in the emergency room to apply for and get insurance. The only economically rational actors who will always carry insurance will be individuals with chronic conditions that require ongoing care.
As a result, insurance companies will be stuck with massive pay-outs with little pay-ins. In just a few years, this will require either an insurance company bailout — sure to be unpopular, and probably resulting in an effective nationalization of health insurance — or moving all the high-cost insured to Medicare — effectively creating a single-payer system. It’s a poison pill, and the Republicans had better have a clever plan to get around it. Otherwise, their attempt to repeal healthcare reform will just speed us to a single-payer, “socialist” result.
The Republicans also need to be aware that some economists believe that their proposed economic policies will cause a double-dip recession. If things get worse over the next two years, rather than better, it may be the GOP that’s out on its ass, not the Democrats. Just like Obama, they’re making a big bet on the economy getting better. The GOP needs to go all-in where he didn’t.
Redistricting, Polarization, and the Example of California
This will be two redistricting cycles in a row in which the GOP has controlled key states. Last time, they drew new districts that cost a lot of Democrats their seats. It’s reasonable to assume they will again.
And here’s a problem: this creates safe seats for both parties. In order for the Republicans to create seats that they’re likely to win, they need to cluster Democrats into (a presumably smaller number of) districts in which they have a large advantage.
Are safe seats bad? The example of California suggests so. The last time that elected officials were in charge of drawing district lines for the state legislature, the two parties collaborated to create as many safe seats as possible. This has been awful for the state: pretty much any incumbent can win by going to Sacramento and advocating for the right thing at all costs, not compromising an inch, even if they don’t actually get anything done.
The more safe seats we get nationally — heck, the more safe states we get nationally — the less incentive that there will be for our Congresspeople to compromise to get things done, in just the same way.
And, of course, with a consequence-free bully pulpit for our elected representatives on both sides of the aisle, we’re sure to see more and more radical talk from the left and from the right. That will translate to polarization, and to gridlock, just like in California.
See, we really are leading the nation!
The Republican Big Tent & Delivering
The Democratic Party achieved its greatest feats from the ’30s to the late ’60s, when it was able to get both the Dixiecrats and the northern liberals to get behind the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society. But the Civil Rights struggle broke up that coalition and set the stage for the modern Republican party to emerge.
Now the Republican Party has grown in its own right, and its southern base represents more than just the old Dixiecrats — it’s an aggressive, exceptionalist, big-business group. The Western base shares the aggressive exceptionalism, but with a big dose of the area’s traditional libertarian values.
Now it’s the challenge of the party to somehow get those two groups moving in the same direction. The big problem is: for the traditional libertarians, we need to cut the deficit; for the business-focused, we need to cut taxes. Sometimes it’s easy to do both. Right now, with the economy the way it is, it will be very, very hard.
Worse, red states tend to be more net recipients of Federal funds, while blue states tend to be net donors. So cuts are likely to hit disproportionately on the Republican base. This all adds up to a challenge: how will the GOP deliver on its fiscal message over the next two years? If they can somehow strike a successful balance, there’s a chance they can be the “big tent” party of the future. If not, one side or the other is going home unhappy.
Their big asset in all of this, of course, is that both constituencies hate the modern Democratic Party. But how long will standing against Obama hold them together, when taxes need to rise or deep cuts need to be made, when tort reform alone won’t fix the medical spending problem, or when banks’ mortgage portfolios blow up again and they need another bailout?
The Republican Philosophical/Public Opinion Cycle Challenge
Here’s the thing: the GOP is all about repealing healthcare reform, because the new system’s “socialist.” However, the new system is actually based upon the system implemented in Massachusetts by former Republican Presidential challenger and then-Republican Governor Mitt Romney, which itself originated in concepts from the very conservative Brookings Institution. These concepts came about in the late ’90s and early part of the ’00s — about 10 years ago.
A lot of people on the left think that labeling Obamacare “socialist” is disingenuous — a statement not that the GOP doesn’t like the policy, but that the GOP doesn’t like that the Democrats implemented the policy. However, there’s an explanation that doesn’t involve any lying or propaganda, and that still explains what’s going on for many Republican leaders: this explanation is that consensus political philosophy within the Republican party is iterating faster than that philosophy can spread to the rest of the electorate.
If one accepts that the Tea Party is distinct from Neoconservativism, which I think it is in many ways, then there’s plenty of evidence for that theory. Heck, the fact that Palin has such large positives combined with such large negatives is strong evidence, as is the party’s insistence on both tax cuts and budget balancing, which are an incompatible pair unless you show a lot more cojones than any party has showed since, maybe, LBJ or even FDR.
And here’s where the GOP runs into trouble. Reagan changed the thinking of a lot of liberals; the result was consensus in key parts of the Democratic party around Welfare Reform in the ’90s; Bill Clinton could’ve vetoed it, but instead he backed it. It took 15 years, but the Republicans sold the Democrats on the concept.
And then the cycle sped: it took 10 years, but Obama put forth a conservative solution to healthcare reform, and people liked him for it and voted for him. Single-payer had lost.
Except, in the interim, the Republican (or should I say conservative?) political philosophy had moved on: this plan is in fact, viewed through that orthodoxy and using that movement’s vocabulary, “socialist.” And that creates a problem.
First of all, it creates an atmosphere in which Democrats think Republicans are lying and manipulative, because, once the Democrats compromise, they get called the same nasty names as ever. That minimizes the chance of compromise down the road.
Second, and more seriously for the GOP, it means that the party will never be able to create a true, massive consensus around any radical policy shift it wants to pursue — because it’s iterating philosophy faster than certain large groups within society can accept that philosophy. Now, the GOP can still be a leading force, and get a lot done, but it will never have a Reaganite hold on overall American philosophy unless it waits for the rest of the country to catch up.
Ultimately, this will be a dangerous cycle to the party. And, with modern communications tools, I can’t see the cycle of philosophical iteration getting any longer — it’ll probably get shorter. Usually this kind of increasing radicalization of the leadership combined with slower evolution of the party apparatus and even slower evolution of popular opinion results in the party eating itself. How this will play out for the GOP, I can’t guess.