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Why the Democrats lost on Tuesday

The usual explanations don’t capture the full scope of the Democrats’ errors. Simply put, President Obama ignored the basic rules of politics that he appeared to understand so well in 2008.

Why did the Democrats lose on Tuesday? A range of explanations will portray the election as being a referendum on President Barack Obama, Obamacare, and perhaps the economy. Pundits and politicians — both Democratic and Republican — will contend that Obama strayed too far to the left, now forcing him and his party to the right as they prepare for 2012. Yet these explanations and strategy fail to capture the full scope of the errors committed by the Democrats. What were those errors?  Simply put, he ignored the basic rules of politics that he appeared to understand so well in 2008.

The narrative.
At its most basic, politics is the power of a compelling narrative. It is a story that describes who you are and what you want to accomplish. The Democratic narrative for 2008 was simple: “Change.” Obama and the Democrats promised change, and that drove them to power. But they lacked a good narrative this year. In a year where the economy still stunk, how did Obama defend his stimulus bill, financial reform, and health care changes? The narrative was simple: “It could have been worse (had we not acted).” Such a narrative hardly inspires voters or wins over swing voters, but that was their narrative. For the Republicans, their narrative was also simple: “Change.” They appropriated the Democratic narrative and used it against them.

Leadership. Obama demonstrated a striking lack of leadership. He wanted health care and financial reform, but he delegated the tasks to Congress. The same was true with global warming and other issues. Obama failed to take ownership for the legislation, letting others drive the agenda, producing changes that were more pork than policy.

Obama and the Democrats promised a lot, but delivered very little. They passed stimulus bills and financial reform, but their scope was muted. They were not bold but cropped, failing to really address the depth of economic and financial reforms that plagued the nation.

Similarly, he proposed closing Gitmo and ending the war in Iraq. Neither really occurred. He did little to pressure Israel for peace. In many ways, the Obama administration co-opted itself into being less bold than it needed to be to effect change.

David Schultz
Courtesy of Hamline University
David Schultz

Siding with the banks. Consistently Obama got it wrong on the economy. He continued Bush’s TARP policy to bail out the banks. He again sided with them on foreclosure. He did not press them far enough on bonuses. Consistently he threw away the Democrat economic populist advantage. It appeared to many that he favored banks over homeowners and workers.

Party discipline. Can you imagine Lyndon Johnson pleading with a Ben Nelson to vote for financial reform? Obama could not even get his own party behind him to support policies he wanted.

Republicans. From day one the Republicans sought to sabotage Obama and the Democrats. Foolishly he tried to placate Republicans even though the latter were not bargaining in good faith. One or two tries to bargain with them should have demonstrated this futility.

Define or be defined. John Kerry is the poster child for swiftboating. Politics is about defining yourself and the opponent or be defined. Obama let himself and his policies get defined — such as Obamacare — and he never recovered from that, forcing Democrats into a defensive posture.

Rewarding friends.
Winning campaigns is about building coalitions. It is also about rewarding supporters. To build a lasting coalition one has to reward supporters. Obama forgot this. Unions worked hard for him in ’08 but he told them to wait on The Employee Free Choice Act. Gays and lesbians wanted him to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but he also told them to wait. The middle class wanted jobs and economic help; he assisted the banks instead. At almost every critical point Obama alienated supporters by telling them to wait. As a result they abandoned him on Tuesday.

Modifying the filibuster. Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate but acted as though they were powerless. The filibuster rule meant Obama’s agenda was held hostage to the likes of Sens. Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu. The first act of the Senate should have been to repeal this rule.

All politics is national.
Tip O’Neill once said all politics is local. Actually it is the reverse. National issues now drive local politics. This happened across the 50 states as local elections became referenda on Obama. Democrats in local races in 2006 and 2008 ran against Bush; this time Republicans did the same by running against Obama.

The roots of the Democratic demise go back to day one with Obama. There are many things he should have done differently, but mostly it was to forget the basic rules of politics in 2010 that he appeared to understand so well in 2008.

David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). He has taught state constitutional law for nearly 20 years.