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Why the Democrats lost on Tuesday

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.

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/04/2010 - 09:31 am.

    The word you’re looking for David, is incompetence.

    The people that were hypnotized by a meaningless, one word slogan reaped what the Democrats had sown; vacuous sound bites and fruitless scurrying.

    Consider that the Democrat party, and the American public owes the GOP a debt of gratitude for keeping a sober foot on the brakes while the left drove the country like drunken 16 year old in a stolen corvette.

  2. Submitted by Tim Walker on 11/04/2010 - 10:44 am.


    Republicans beat Democrats every time at playing hardball politics.

    Every election, Democrats fail to learn this lesson. I’m beginning to think that they may have a learning disability.

    Also, the electorate these days votes with their guts, so the Democrats attempt to appeal to voters with an intellectual message just doesn’t work any more.

  3. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 11/04/2010 - 11:44 am.

    Excellent early analysis, Prof. Schultz. There was always a tension between Obama’s promise of a new way of doing things and his intention to enact substantive policies that a small but organized minority of Americans opposed. He overestimated the goodwill of the Republicans and underestimated the depths they’d go to retain power. The problem that remains is that the country as a whole can’t make up its mind what it wants, either.

  4. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 11/04/2010 - 11:51 am.

    The Democrats did not deliver — that’s the problem.

    -65% wanted a health care public option and Obama and the Democrats gave the country a bill that provided a windfall to big insurance corporations via a mandate. Ordinary citizens did not get the public option so many supported and, moreover, Obama lied about his prior support of a public option. That minute that happened, Obama and the Democrats became falling stars — burning on the way down.

    -Ordinary citizens want some degree of economic security but Obama and the Democrats gave bailouts to the rich and joblessness and a path to mortgage foreclosure to ordinary citizens.

    The question now is will the Republicans do any better in delivering in delivering what ordinary citizens want? Heck no. Both the Democrats and the Republicans seem to be controlled by corporate interests.

    The defining difference between Democrat and Republicans these days? Tweedle Dee Dee and Tweedle Dee Dum.

  5. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 11/04/2010 - 01:00 pm.

    David Schultz is right on target.

    Compromise is great, but it is a tactic that works only if you begin the bargaining process by demanding more than you know you are going to get in the end. For example, in the health care debate, Democrats should have put the single-payer option ON the table and should have made the Republicans FIGHT to take it off. They then could have compromised and still delivered a strong public option, rather than the minimalist “Massachusetts Plan” they gave us.

    For another example, take the banks. The Democrats could have opened up the bargaining by proposing to restore financial regulations to what they were back in, oh, let’s say 1965. They could have required the bankers to defend each deregulatory measure granted to them by Congress since that time. I would like to have heard Mr. Blankfein try to explain why credit-default swaps are in the public interest and need to be kept legal, or why the Glass-Steagall Act was a silly law that we are all better off doing without. I don’t believe he would have succeeded.

    Decades of timid triangulation and hasty capitulation have brought Democrats to the brink of absolute purposelessness as a party. Bit by bit, they have compromised almost everything their base holds dear. They have very little left to compromise now. Rather than go for broke, Democrats must learn how to fight again.

    I say this fully aware of the “inside game” politicians have to play because we have foolishly allowed legislation to become virtually purchasable by means of campaign contributions. I am also fully aware of how well this corrupt game works to reward Republicans and punish Democrats. When Republicans stand up for their ideology and do what the rich want them to do, they get rewarded richly. When Democrats stand up for their ideology and do what’s the right for the rest of us, they get rewarded poorly. So it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that we need serious campaign finance reform, even if we have to amend the Constitution to get it.

    But all of this merely explains the cowardice of the Democrats. It does not excuse it. The country desperately needs politicians who are willing to do the right thing – and not only for the very rich. If only the Democrats could still be that party!

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 11/04/2010 - 01:02 pm.

    It should be interesting watching the Republicans saying no to each other. They haven’t produced an original idea since Obama took office.
    The hole dug by the GW Bush administration was so deep, that even the wisdom of David Schultz wouldn’t have saved Obama.

  7. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 11/04/2010 - 01:47 pm.

    Mr Schultz’ list is comprehensive, but, I think, needs to be tied together by recognizing a fact of social psychology. Humanity has shown time and again that in times of fear and uncertainty, most people want to be protected by authoritarians and on the side of the bullies. Any good dictator knows this, and Rove/Cheney exploited it endlessly after 9/11. In these times of turmoil, the Republicans have fully appropriated the persona of the bully, the aggressor who will do whatever it takes to protect his and get what he wants. Obama and the Democrats, endlessly pleading for bipartisanship and compromise, apologizing for the slightest deviation from pinky-pointing civility, temporizing to ensure the opposition has a chance to play, punctiliously qualifying speech to not overstate, show themselves as the effete weaklings who will not fight and who are ready to be crushed in the war of all against all. For that part of the population that doesn’t think that carefully about nuances of self-governance, that seals the deal. This explains, also, why Republican messages about actual policies (health care, the deficit, etc) don’t have to be true – they just have to provide a superficial rationalization for the gut-level reaction that really is driving the voter.

  8. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 11/04/2010 - 02:23 pm.

    If Obama should have been bolder, why is it now the consensus that he “over-reached” and pushed through legislation (health care reform, financial reform) that was too much for the American people to digest and that he now has to move to the center to have a hope of re-election?

    No, there is one reason and one reason only why the Democrats lost on Tuesday: 9.6% unemployment. If unemployment were at 5%, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/04/2010 - 02:53 pm.

    Obama’s biggest mistake was in believing his economic advisors who assured him that their Keynesian strategy of using almost a trillion dollars to pour into the coffers of state and local governments would stimulate the economy within months and reduce the unemployment rate, thus enabling him to focus on his health care overhaul.

    It didn’t work. As the unemployment rate rose to almost 10% and the people looked to the government to do something, Obama and the democrats too busy with the health care debacle to even notice that they had lost touch with the people.

    Enter the Tea Party to fill that void, reminding the people that not only were the democrats’ economic solutions not working, but their plans for health care overhaul, like requiring people to buy insurance, were philosophically at odds with a free society.

    With tax and economic uncertainty removed from the markets and business owners’ concerns, the economy will now roar back, resulting in new jobs and renewed prosperity. Then perhaps we’ll get to read articles in the press about the utter fraud and failure of Keynesian economics. But don’t hold your breath.

  10. Submitted by John Sinna on 11/04/2010 - 02:54 pm.

    The Dems lost because the people finally had enough of being “asked” to fund more and more crap that they don’t agree with. The Dems lost because government has become completely disconnected from the reality in which most people live.

    The message is easy – get out of the way and stay out of the way.

  11. Submitted by Ron Salzberger on 11/04/2010 - 03:06 pm.

    After an agonizingly long season of punditry, there appears to be still more of the same coming our way. Where is the evidence for the claims made in this piece? Where is there a counter-factual (had this not happened, the Dems would have done better) and the mechanism and evidence that supports it? In lieu of evidence, in place of theory, without substance, we get more bloviating.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/04/2010 - 04:44 pm.

    I don’t think he has the personality and political acumen to triangulate and make the most of his situation like Clinton. He is too much of an ideologue to compromise. He could have worked out a compromise on a health care solution 18 months ago with Kennedy, McCain, and a few others, making the best use of Republican ideas. Instead he chose to let the Democratic committee chairmen write it, taking too long, making it too complicated, and kowtowing to industry lobbyists rather than giving the Republicans more of what they wanted. If he had had the sense to do that, I could believe he’d make the best of his situation now. Instead I think we’ll see him play defense for 2 years, looking increasingly impatient and out of touch, then go down to defeat.

    Unless the Republicans nominate some lunatic like Palin. But I think you’re much more likely to see someone like Mitch Daniels or some other former (full-term) governor with a record of balancing the books. If nothing changes, Obama loses in 2012, the Senate gets a few more Republicans, and the house doesn’t move much. It’s up to Obama to show why he should get another term.

  13. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 11/04/2010 - 09:00 pm.

    David Schultz has hit most of the nails on their heads. Obama did a lousy sales job; he could have used FDR’s mid-1930s theme, repeatedly casting the GOP as the party of making the rich richer at the expense of the rest of us.

    The Democrats, bickering among themselves as usual (remember Clinton’s first Congress?), failed to take the bold measures for “change” that people expected and in a fit of timidity failed to sell what they did manage to accomplish. Health care for 30 million people, and free annual physical exams for the tens of millions with Medicare (to catch costly illness when they’re cheaper to treat and with a greater chance of success) are no small achievements, and I cannot understand why any intelligent, compassionate person would want to repeal them.

    The professor stikes one irrelevant and discordant note in criticizing Obama: “He did little to pressure Israel for peace.” That wasn’t an issue in the campaign; if anything, the pressure he did apply probably worked against him, as Republicans in Congress have been more-solidly behind Israel than Democrats, and the majority of Americans support Israel. With his demand that Israel freeze constuction across the 1949 armistice line, Obama blundered into creating a precondition for talks never made by the Arabs themselves — and the Palestinian Authority then did nothing to begin direct talks until nine of the 10 freeze months expired. The PA’s position is to insist on all of its demands — no compromises — which isn’t anything like negotiation. What pressure has Obama put on the PA? Israel wants to make peace, but it is understandably reluctant to agree to national suicide.

  14. Submitted by Joel Gingery on 11/04/2010 - 09:20 pm.

    Obama and his aids missed one of the first rules of a new CEO: you can’t do everything; you have to pick your battles; you have to prioritize; also he didn’t continually tell everyone his future vision and the moral reason for attaining it; you have to tell the narrative over and over and over.

    I don’t think Obama was fully prepared,recognizing that its unlikely that any one could really be prepared, but it a very tough crowd. There is a steep learning curve for the Presidency.

    You could make a case for him being under the influence of the people that gave him all the campaign funds–wall street.

  15. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/04/2010 - 10:03 pm.

    The Democrats won majorities in Congress by recruiting centrists to run in what had been Republican states. Those centrists won because they were able to run against George Bush, but they also won because they promised not to be traditional bicoastal left wing Democrats. But the people chairing the committees, the senior Democratic leadership, are the same bicoastal socialist liberals who lost in 1994. So the Democrats, by recruiting representatives and senatorial candidates far from their own views, created a party riven with internal dissent. The new recruits had to choose between being the centrists which they had promised to be, or supporting their president and congressional leaders. The leadership made no effort to shift their agenda to protect those new centrist members of congress. And now those congressmen and senators have to face an angry electorate who didn’t get the centrist agenda they were promised.

    The tea party and the actions of the Republicans matter little. This election, like most elections, is a referendum on incumbents. If the Democrats had taken the long view, they would have focused on job creation and financial reform (a good centrist thing to do in a recession), leaving liberal reforms for a second Obama term. Instead they acted like they needed to hurry before it all fell apart, which became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  16. Submitted by Gail Nosek on 11/05/2010 - 02:59 pm.

    Pofessor Schultz is blogging at if you want to share more thoughts on MN politics and news of the day!

  17. Submitted by David Schultz on 11/05/2010 - 03:01 pm.

    Nice comments from all of you. In many ways it was a failure to execute that killed Obama and the Democrats. Don’t promise change unless you deliver.

    Comment to Brad: Yes Senate Rule 22 says 2/3s to repeal filibuster. However, the Senate can use a majority vote to change the rule. This is a variation of the so called nuclear option that Bill Frist proposed in 2005 to address the deadlock with judicial nominations. Variations of this were proposed and used with Nixon and Rockefeller as VP when they presided over the Senate. In fact, when Rockefeller did this,this was how the 2/3s vote for cloture was reduced to the present 60 votes. Thus, I was not wrong.

    Also, to Brad and Ron: Do not be so quick to be so dismissive of others, even if they make a mistake, that is a lot of what is wrong with politics. . .and perhaps of the American political discourse these days.

  18. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/05/2010 - 08:48 pm.

    David Schultz is right on the money. While the right-wing media kept harping on Obama’s allegedly “far left” agenda, in fact, he continued almost all of Bush’s policies, and even his much derided (and lied about) health plan was simply Romneycare taken nationally. Anyone who says otherwise is listening to too much AM radio and not doing enough research.

    I would like to add that while I (and most other Democrats I know) are dissatisfied with Obama’s timidity and lack of horsetrading savvy, the Democrats have consistently had the worst PR and strategy teams on the entire political scene, dating back to the Reagan era.

    In addition, all the “accomplishments” of the Obama administration either affected only a small portion of the population (the stimulus) or were postponed till years later (health care).

    The public legitimately wondered what had happened to all the hope and change, since they themselves felt hopeless, and little or nothing had changed.

    A smart political party, given that kind of majority, would have immediately enacted and publicized legislation that benefited the entire population, or at least most of it, immediately. For example, gradually lowering the age of eligibility for Medicare would have 1) eased the financial burden on people over 50 and their employers and 2) helped Medicare’s finances by bringing in a pool of younger, healthier people.

    But that’s not the only possible idea. Reinstating the usury laws and making interest rollbacks retroactive would have eased the burden on the many Americans who were forced to rely on credit cards to purchase necessities during periods of unemployment or underemployment.

    Instead, we saw an administration that happily bailed out the banksters and let them keep their bonuses “because contracts are sacred,” and then turned around and told the auto workers that their contracts were meaningless.

    Way not to win friends and influence people.

  19. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/06/2010 - 06:01 am.

    It’s easier to do nothing than to do something, and Democrats are the party of something, while the Republicans are the party of nothing. In politics, it’s also easier to attack than defend, because the attacker can always has the initiative in choosing the ground of battle. This is something the new Republican legislative majorities in the Minnesota legislature will quickly learn.

    The record of the first two years of the Obama administration has been imperfect. They simply have not located that sweet spot that pleases everyone. There are those of us who suspect that sweet spot doesn’t exist. As a review David’s long list of criticisms, I note that had the Obama administration gone the other way, they would have been vulnerable to the equal and opposite criticism. For example, the administration wasn’t as heavy handed as it perhaps should have been on health care issues, because that was what the Clinton administration was criticized for. The fact is nothing will please the critics, who after all, are in the business of criticizing. At the end of the day, what we have seen isn’t all that surprising. Despite all the problems, we succeeded in enacting health care reform. We knew that the mid terms would be rocky, and they were, hence the necessity of getting things done in the first two years, especially given the state of the economy which has been devastated by 8 years of Republican missed opportunities and misrule. And the country wanted a breather, which when all is said and done, maybe isn’t such a bad idea.

  20. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/06/2010 - 07:53 am.

    There were also some purely technical problems. The speaker of the house was also a candidate for governor, and that had the effect of diverting energy and resources from house races to the gubernatorial primary. When Margaret, the house political staff never really recovered from their funk to give the support to members they really needed.

    Also, there was the problem of the Dayton candidacy. Something I was fond of saying during the campaign, was that candidates who need fifty percent of the vote shouldn’t link their fortunes to candidates who need only forty percent of the vote to win. Where I lurk, we distanced ourselves from Dayton. The downside of this was that there was no enthusiasm for the top of the ticket spilling over into the other races, as there was two years ago when President Obama was elected.

  21. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/06/2010 - 08:41 am.

    FDR was lucky in that he had a Democratic Congress to help him pass the programs that actually helped people instead corporations, but even he said his supporters had to MAKE him do the right thing.

    It may be time for Dems to flood the White House and Congress with demands to stand up and fight the return to the l890s Gilded Age of McKinley that the Republicans so clearly want.

    It certainly is better to fight and lose a battle now and then than to seek “compromise” with those who have long forgotten the meaning of that term.

    It also would be definitely better to shed the Bush/Wall Street financial advisors and switch to Stiglitz, Reich, Krugman et al.

    And to rid the Administration of holdover neocons and Democratic Blue Dogs. And to make as many hundred recess appointments as necessary to achieve supportive regulatory agencies and fair and impartial judges. (This is, after all, an emergency we are living through.)

  22. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/06/2010 - 08:46 am.

    Mr. Gendler (#14) Please see the web site of J-Street — the new Jewish think tank and lobby that has commissioned polls for several years proving that American Jews are far to the left of the current Israeli government. That’s

    J-Street, and a good majority of American Jews, want a Middle East peace that includes justice and a free and secure homeland for the Palestinian people, not just some walled-off no-water-available-here land scraps without continuity and with no borders except with Israel so that Israel can continue to control them.

  23. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 11/06/2010 - 01:16 pm.

    Bernice (#23 & 24) – Amen to changing financial advisors. They’ve just continued our drive into the ditch the President is so fond of reminding us of.

    And Hear, Hear! to J-Street’s representation of most American Jews!

  24. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/06/2010 - 09:28 pm.

    Great article and great analysis by David Schultz. When Obama was elected, I had hopes that he might be another Lincoln or FDR. I’ve been sorely disappointed. The only campaign promise he seems to have remembered is to try to end the partisanship in D.C. Like that was going to work out well when the Republicans were already announcing their strategy of “No” and “No Second Term” only days or weeks after he was sworn in. The right has paid no political price for this disgusting strategy. That’s Obama’s fault. The public doesn’t care about “bipartisanship” nor do they care about excuses like having a “filibuster proof majority.”

    I hope the President has learned from this experience. I think a skillful President and politician can even get thing passed in a hostile Congress. The Republicans gave us warrantless wiretapping. Blackmail is legal in politics.

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