Where the Democrats Went Wrong

Why did Democrats fall flat on their faces in last week's election? In my pre-election blog (and yes, I, too, fell flat on my face prognostication wise— to borrow from Tom Brokaw, I don't have egg on my face. I have an entire omelet), I explained the difficulties posed by this year's Senate map under the best of circumstances. But there were also several other key factors at work. 

1. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid foolishly decided to prioritize preventing votes on any controversial amendments over legislating. The result was a Senate that accomplished little, and at risk incumbents who avoided the kinds of votes on hot button issues bound to infuriate half the electorate regardless of which way they voted. Yet, this strategy had a significant downside— it gave the same at risk incumbents little chance to distance themselves from an unpopular president. All those ominous Senator X voted with President Obama 98% of the time ads? Only possible because of Reid's strategy. 

He would have been better off putting legislation on the floor to achieve some Republican priorities (say approval of the Keystone Pipeline) while also achieving Democratic priorities, such as dramatically increased highway spending, an increase in the minimum wage, or lower student loan rates (especially since it seems like now, in a blatantly transparent move to attempt to help Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) in a runoff election, Reid will allow legislation forcing the president to approve the pipeline).

Allowing such votes would have given senators from red states cover, and given them an opportunity to distinguish themselves from President Obama, while also energizing left leaning voters who saw the senators as champions for causes they valued. 

It also might have produced legislation that the Republican led House of Representatives might have accepted in the name of governing (there is a long history of Congress trying to build a record of governing before facing the voters). If not, Republicans could have been painted as standing in the way of progress. Had Obama vetoed these bills because he disliked some of their provisions, all the better for senators trying to distinguish themselves from the president. 

Not only would this strategy have been preferable from a good governance standpoint, but it would have been politically beneficial. 

2. Democrats have done a terrible job of developing and selling their vision for the country and their agenda to the American people. In fact, I really couldn't tell you what their agenda is outside of smaller issues like increasing the minimum wage and social issues like immigration and gay rights (oh and delusional opposition to any entitlement reforms). They need to offer an explanation as to how government can be part of the solution to public problems, and why their party offers Americans a better option for the future—how can government contribute to a society in which Americans are better able to prosper? Instead, their ideas often seem tired and stale.

Republicans offer a coherent philosophy. I don't agree with a lot of it, but I know what it is. (To be fair, as Jon Stewart recently explained, they have an easier job. They can make it hard for government to function and then attack how poorly it works). Thus, they can sell Americans on this vision. 

But until Democrats have some innovative and fresh policy proposals to run on, and an explanation of how those proposals help every type of voter, it becomes very hard to motivate people to come out and vote. As Tuesday's blog demonstrates, I firmly believe that there is a positive case to be made for a lean, smart, well run government that helps to advance our society in the right direction. But Democrats certainly have not presented such a case to the voters. 

Running on gee you might hate me, but the other guy is worse really isn't a good strategy for party building. If you look at some of our most successful politicians (FDR, JFK, Reagan, Clinton, etc) throughout modern history, they offered a clear, coherent, positive vision. 

Especially as people become more reluctant to split their tickets, overall party vision becomes critical. 

3. The press narrative matters. I'd offer a detailed explanation, but Norm Ornstein already did it as well as I could. Essentially, the press reports information differently depending on its general perception of the campaign cycle and the dominant narrative. These choices affect what voters know about the candidates, and how they perceive them. Did this press narrative change the election results? It did not.

Nonetheless, I think that it might have played some role in 2 key Senate races—Iowa and Colorado. Ornstein laid out the case for how the press narrative about the Iowa Senate race might have been different.

In Colorado, Representative Corey Gardner had amassed a very conservative voting record in the House (in 2012, National Journal rated him the 10th most conservative House Republican).Gardner's campaign rhetoric, by contrast, promised problem solving and working together, which made sense given that he was running in a state in which Republicans hadn't won major statewide office in 10 years.

Now to be fair to Gardner, this rhetoric might have been truthful. Many members of Congress pivot ideologically when representing new constituencies with different views (Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) comes to mind). In fact, one conception of representation argues that the votes taken by members of Congress should reflect their constituents' views. 

Yet, the press should have pushed Gardner to explain why voters should have believed that he would be a voice for sensible moderation given his very conservative voting record. Instead, the Denver Post endorsed him, asserted that he would be such a voice, and essentially validated his rhetoric, making it harder for Senator Mark Udall to credibly attack on Gardner's record. 

4. The lack of a Democratic bench has gotten a lot of attention (see, for example, Alexander Burns' excellent Politico piece) in the last week, but it is worth reiterating how significant this problem is, because it will have a major effect on the 2016 elections and beyond. Especially after last Tuesday's results, Democrats essentially have no bench in lots of states. This manifests itself in weaker candidates who are not battle tested, and have a greater chance of turning out to be duds when placed into the crucible that is a senate or gubernatorial campaign. 

Example A of this problem is Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA), who turned out to be a hideous Senate candidate. Initially, Democrats touted Braley as a high end recruit. Yet, Braley represented a fairly Democratic district (The Cook Political Report rated it a D+5 district meaning that it was 5 points more Democratic than the average district). He won election in an open seat race in the Democratic wave of 2006, got reelected comfortably in the Democratic years of 2008 and 2012, and barely survived in the Republican year of 2010 against a 31 year old opponent who spent a mere $519,479 to Braley's $2.085 million. 

In short, Braley had not faced anywhere near the level of electoral competition that would have indicated that he was a top notch candidate. By contrast, now Senator-Elect Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) had represented a swing congressional district for over a decade, and won many tough races before embarking on her Senate campaign. Thus, it was not surprising that Capito ran one of the cycle's best campaigns

So why did the DSCC recruit Braley? Because the Democratic bench in Iowa (a state won by the Democratic presidential nominee in 6 of the last 7 elections) is incredibly thin. Republicans control the governorship, the last Democratic governor lost his bid for reelection in 2010, and the two statewide elected Democrats are veteran office holders who seem not to have any ambition to seek higher office at this point.  

Going beyond Iowa, if you look at the open seat Senate races in South Dakota and Montana, states where Democrats have historically done well in Senate races (especially in Montana), you see even worse recruiting failures. In both states, once Democrats' dream recruit declined to run, the party had very few good options left. 

Now given the national environment, the Democrats might well have recruited candidates with Jon Stewart's sense of humor, Giselle's looks, a nobel laureate's brain, Jennifer Lawrence's charisma/likability, and Bill Clinton's political skill, and still lost. But weaker candidates certainly did not help them. 

This problem will again be in the spotlight in 2016 when, for example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), may vacate his seat to run for president. Even if Rubio runs for reelection, he captured a mere 48.9% of the vote in 2010 (only winning because the Democrat and the independent in the race split the left leaning vote) in the purple state. He should have a tough race in a presidential election year. 

Yet, Democrats have almost no bench in Florida. Outside of Senator Bill Nelson, they haven't won a statewide race since 2006, and they have, amazingly, only won 1 statewide race since 1998. Alex Sink, their only statewide officeholder since 2002 (outside of Nelson) couldn't even win a congressional special election as a massive favorite. Additionally, the party only holds ten of the state's twenty-seven congressional seats. Compounding problems, Florida is a huge state, making it difficult to run for statewide office as a congressman without a massive war chest with which to introduce oneself to voters. 

Overall, I'd say that the lack of vision and an agenda did the most damage to Democratic hopes last Tuesday. It's awful hard to be enthusiastic about voting for a party that stands for very little. Nonetheless, the party's political failings also contributed to its defeat, and Democrats don't appear to have reevaluated their tactics in the week since the election.

The stupefying decision to allow a vote on the Keystone Pipeline raises the question of why they didn't allow such a vote months ago when it would not have looked quite so transparently political, and why they didn't extract a policy concession for it (to be clear, my objection isn't to allowing such a vote, it's to the ham handed manner in which Democrats have handled the issue). 

Further, it seems unlikely that President Obama is going to handle the difficult issue of immigration in the best and politically savvy way. Make no mistake, he is in a tough position— issue an executive order on immigration and risk a government shutdown, impeachment, and voters thinking that he misunderstood their very clear message of dissatisfaction with his performance. Such an order would also make it unlikely that he and the Republican Congress could come together on other issues. But, failure to issue such an order risks alienating Hispanic voters, for whom immigration is a priority issue, and to whom Obama promised action months ago. 

A great politician (and one concerned about the continual expansion of executive power) would issue an executive order to go into effect in 6 months unless Congress acted, and give a major address explaining why he very much preferred for Congress to act legislatively in a bipartisan manner, but that too much was at stake morally to go more than another six months without taking action. That way, the public would be less likely to see an executive order, if it came to that, as a gross overreach. 

Democrats must develop this sort of political dexterity and a new, positive, forward thinking agenda or 2016 may be as bleak as 2014 was.