Amidst the scramble to interpret the results of this week’s elections, a few themes emerge. The Obama administration over-reached. The Republicans’ abiding concern for the deficit resonated. The health-care bill was a political liability. The Tea Party was hugely successful. The only way Democrats can survive is to move to the center. These claims have two principal things in common: 1). they are uttered breathlessly and virtually unanimously by the drones who make up what purports to be the journalistic class in the corporate media, and 2). they’re crap.
The Obama administration, in fact, tried valiantly to deal with the myriad burgeoning disasters left on its plate by Bush the Lesser. But, despite real successes, they utterly failed to accomplish much of the agenda that appeals to the Democratic base, creating the enthusiasm gap we heard so much about this cycle. DADT is still on the books. Guantanamo is still open for business. More troops were sent into Afghanistan than were pulled out of Iraq. Key provisions of the PATRIOT Act were just extended. Executives at bailed-out businesses thanked us for our collective, if involuntary, generosity by pocketing billions of dollars in bonuses: a decent percentage of which found its way back into Republican coffers to help defeat any politician who might even contemplate regulating those industries so that the recent near-calamitous economic mess doesn’t repeat itself. Democrats in general have equivocated on such obvious issues as the Park51 project because otherwise they’d be criticized by the Moron Tabernacle Choir of Beck, Gingrich and Palin. Really?
Republicans’ utter hypocrisy on matters budgetary is manifest. Pick your argument, they’re all true, and any one of them ought to be sufficient to make the point. 1). The only President in a half century to make significant reductions in the national debt as a function of GDP was Bill Clinton; the worst offenders at exploding the deficit: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. 2). The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the net cost of the Bush administration’s Medicare prescription drug plan will exceed that of the health care bill, the stimulus package, and the bailouts combined. 3). I have yet to see a single Republican willing to say, “Here’s what we need to cut.” Don’t give me “across the board cuts in discretionary spending,” especially if you’re blithely claiming the military budget isn’t at least largely discretionary. 4). And don’t tell me that allowing a slight increase, to the level of a decade ago, in the taxes of the people who can afford it most, decreasing the deficit by nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars ($700,000,000,000), is some kind of socialist plot.
The health care bill was actually pretty popular until wild misrepresentations of it went unchallenged. Indeed, a plurality of the citizenry weren’t concerned about over-reach; rather, they thought it didn’t go far enough. Journalistic laziness (or worse) went a long way towards allowing right-wing spin to somehow be regarded as the unquestioned narrative line, but the corporate media were abetted by the Democrats. First, they repeatedly capitulated to the minority, getting literally nothing in return, further watering down what had already been a compromise bill. A single-payer plan was never even on the table, for example, although such a system would be the cheapest, most efficient, and generally best possible structure. I say this, by the way, as someone who actually has some experience with such a plan, unlike those who purport to believe fairy tales because doing so is the only way to repay insurance companies and predatory employers for their continued electoral largess. Then, of course, the Dems, with rare exceptions, ran away from, or apologized for, what should have been their signature achievement.
The Tea Party? Give me a damned break. Really, where did a Tea Party candidate pick up a seat for the Republicans? (Because, let’s face it, they may pretend to be separate entities, but the TPers are a wing of the GOP reserved for those who think the likes of Mitch McConnell and David Vitter are too sane.) There was a legitimate chance of the GOP picking up a Senate seat in Delaware until Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell got the nomination. Harry Reid richly deserved to be defeated, and taking him down would have been a significant symbolic victory for the GOP, but they nominated about the only Nevada Republican who couldn’t beat Reid. Tea Party candidate Ken Buck lost in Colorado (his unguarded description of the TP faithful as “dumbasses” may have been about the only honest statement of his campaign… and it may have lost him the election). Joe Miller may well lose to Lisa Murkowski… whichever way it goes, the seat stays Republican.
Yes, Rand Paul won. But a pompous racist douchebag who skates along the border between idiocy and insanity is different from outgoing Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning exactly how? Kentucky didn’t elect Rand Paul despite his racist frat boy persona; they elected him because of it. (Perhaps you will recall that Hillary Clinton’s virtually last gasp in the primary season two years ago was a huge win in Kentucky, where she campaigned basically as, well, a racist frat boy.)
Ultimately, the sigh of relief you heard on Thursday was from the mainstream GOP (to the extent that’s not a contradiction in terms). Democrat Patty Murray was finally declared re-elected in Washington, making the next Senate Democratic by a 53-47 margin: in other words, nominating Tea Party morons Angle, Buck and O’Donnell didn’t cost the GOP the Senate. The best they could have done was a tie, with Vice President Biden as the deciding vote. Whereas the Senate has devolved to a place where you need 60 votes to order a cup of coffee, that 50th vote does matter in determining committee chairmanships, for example. There may have been a Tea Party candidate who defeated an incumbent Democrat, or even who flipped a seat in a gubernatorial or senatorial race, but I honestly can’t think of one. The four big Tea Party winners, Paul, Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley and Mike Lee, all replaced Republicans. Lee, who defeated incumbent Bob Bennett in a primary for senator from Utah, is hardly an outsider: he’s a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Alito and the son of a Reagan Solicitor General.
Much was made of people who voted for Obama and for Republicans this time around. This claim, unlike those above, at least has some validity. After all, someone had to change a party affiliation somewhere, right? Well, sort of. There are a few real trends in midterm elections: the party in the White House gets punished, pretty much whether the country is in good shape at the time or not; there’s a lower voter turnout, especially among certain demographics: minorities, young people… precisely those groups that tend to trend to the left; and there was an abnormally high number of Democratic retirements—it’s much easier to win an open seat than to depose an incumbent. Indeed, only two incumbent Democratic Senators lost. One, who will be missed, was Russ Feingold. The other, who won’t be, is Blanche Lincoln.
And yet we get the drivel spewed forth by the likes of Evan Bayh, who is in a close race with Lincoln for the coveted title of Democrat I’m Least Unhappy to See Out of Office. Bayh, whose highly-respected father actually stood for something, got his gig through the quasi-nepotistic system of party politics, and hasn’t had anything intelligent to say about literally anything in years. Yet he presumes to tell Democrats how to regain the political momentum: by acting like Republicans, of course. You know, like Blanche Lincoln did. For the record, I said in May, when Arkansas Democrats had an opportunity to nominate an actual Democrat, Bill Halter, “I don’t see Lincoln standing a chance against [John] Boozman; Halter would also be an underdog, but he could at least balance the corporate backing Boozman will receive with labor support.”) Lincoln lost by 21 points (!). Show me another incumbent in the last generation to lose by that much without some kind of personal scandal.
Indeed, the numbers don’t support Bayh’s analysis in the slightest. Of the 34 Democrats who voted against health care reform, for example, only 12 were re-elected: barely one in three. And this is why the best comparison for this election isn’t 1994, when the Republicans swept into power in Congress on the promises of the “Contract with America.” This time, there’s another document, a rather flabby screed called the “Pledge to America.” But literally no one really believes the American people like the Republicans this time around, or even think the Republicans have any ideas: they just don’t like where we are, and the Dems are in charge. The fact that they haven’t been for very long, and that the hole dug by President Bush and his minions was very deep and very wide didn’t really matter. T’row da bums out.
The better analogy would be 2004. The Democrats had a chance to nominate a candidate with ideas—a Howard Dean, for example—but they hated George W. Bush so much they were convinced to go with the “more electable” John Kerry. Kerry proceeded to run one of the most gutless and passionless campaigns in history, offering little in the way of real policy and allowing the slanderous Swift Boat ads to go unanswered. That same kind of intellectual lethargy and unwillingness to actually fight in the political trenches characterized the 2010 campaign, as well.
This year’s election was decided by three things: 1). the daft Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court last January (next time you’re contemplating a vote for President, consider whether your candidate would be stupid enough to nominate a Justice who really thinks unlimited and anonymous corporate—or union—spending on political campaigns is a good idea), 2). Democratic cravenness, 3). branding.
Citizens United, of course, opened the floodgates on tens of millions of dollars spent on attack ads which were seldom as much as accurate, often funded either anonymously or by a handful of ridiculously rich folks who see it in their best interest to invest a few million dollars to buy a politician here or there: much cheaper than actually having to, say, pay for the clean-up of the debacle they caused in the Gulf of Mexico, or make their mines safer, or actually provide benefits for their employees.
It looked for a brief moment that the Democrats might actually figure out that the anonymity of donors to all those cobbled-together consortia of hate speech might be a campaign issue for them, especially when it became clear that the Chamber of Commerce was accepting contributions from foreign sources. The CofC leadership was righteously indignant, of course, that anyone would suspect them of wrong-doing: it would be illegal, they screamed, to do what they were accused of doing… as if that made them innocent. Yes, assholes, it would be illegal. That’s the point. You would be committing multiple felonies if your fancy accountants can’t paper over the fact that you are accepting money from foreign corporations and attempting to influence American elections. Does it really matter if you put it into different budget lines? To me, it makes no practical (as opposed, possibly, to legal) difference if you get a $1 million contribution, and use that money to buy attack ads or if you use it to cover your overhead, freeing up $1 million of money that would have had to be spent on overhead to pay for… wait for it… attack ads. But the corporate media didn’t think there was a story there, and Democrats were obediently silent.
Indeed, the Democrats in general were unwilling to engage in the fray. Sure, there were Republicans—Rick Perry, for example—who cravenly ducked out of debating their opponents. But how many Democrats pointed out that the stimulus plan included the largest middle-class tax cut in history? Or that the allegedly budget-busting health care bill is projected by the CBO to reduce the deficit by over $100 billion over the next decade? How many talked about credit card reform? Or reminded the electorate that much-despised (but necessary) bank bailout happened during the Bush administration? How many pointed out that, despite the shrillness of the right, the allegedly “failed” stimulus is credited by every non-partisan analyst with having prevented a far worse disaster? How many, in other words, ran as Democrats? Instead, the best they could muster was “those guys are even worse than we are.”
But tied in with this failure is the notion of branding. Again, the blame is shared by a listless Democratic party and a slothful and compliant corporate media. How many times did we hear about the “Bush tax cuts,” when the only dispute is whether to extend them to people who make over a quarter of a million dollars a year in taxable income: or, rather, on income over that level (Democrats would extend the Bush tax cuts for the first $250,000 of income). By comparison, how many times did we hear about the Bush bank bailout? Or the Obama tax cut? Now, the bailout may have been necessary and the tax cuts bad policy, but there’s no question that most folks like lower taxes (as long as there are no concomitant cuts in services). [For a brilliant rebuttal to this simplistic position, read this.] And the bank bailout was intensely unpopular. The Republicans knew it was something that had to be done. But, because they knew it was going to pass, anyway, they could cynically vote against it, earning them faux populist points.
Of course, the likes of Rachel Maddow have been pointing most of this out for some time. But she never brought, say, NBC’s Chuck Todd onto her show to ask why he was propagating beltway corporate media conventional wisdom as if it had the slightest bit of legitimacy. Because she has too much loyalty to the organization to expose the news director as an utter idiot, perhaps?
Ultimately, the Democrats deserved, based on what they accomplished in Washington, to remain in power. Based on what they did the campaign trail, however, they richly deserved to be defeated… unless, of course, they were running against Republicans.
The reality is that if voters want Republicans, the GOP are better at providing them than the Democrats are. Gazillions of dollars of sleazy campaign money notwithstanding, the Democrats would have done just fine if they’d stood for something. They didn’t, and while the “hurricane” touted by the right didn’t exactly materialize, it was pretty ugly Tuesday night. So, what are the chances the Dems will take precisely the wrong lesson from Tuesday’s results? About the same as that the sun will come up tomorrow.