Obama’s Shattered Presidency

Townhall Magazine
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Posted: Jan 05, 2015 9:00 AM
Obama’s Shattered Presidency

Once hailed as the deliverer of Democratic dominance, President Obama now must contend with a revived Republican Party. HotAir's Noah Rothman reports for the January issue of Townhall Magazine. 

It is easy to read too much into the results of one election. In the wake of his party’s victories in 2006 and 2008, Democratic strategist James Carville foresaw liberal majorities that would hold for another 40 years. Republicans, too, over-interpreted their party’s victories in 2010 when that supposedly multigenerational majority was decimated not two years after Carville’s prediction. In 2012, the GOP was chastened when Democrats demonstrated the revived strength of the Obama coalition.

It is certainly tempting to overstate the significance of the Republican Party’s victories in 2014. But even a circumspect analysis of President Obama’s sixth year midterm must concede that the damage done to the Democratic Party is staggering.

What’s more, the party in control of the White House has determined that it is appropriate to respond to their drubbing with petulance and wagon circling, making it all the more likely that the injury done to the Democratic brand will be lasting.

Surveying the Damage

One by one on the night of November 4, the convictions of the pundit class were shattered. The first bit of conventional wisdom to be dashed by the voters was the widely shared certainty that Republicans would not wrest control of the Senate from Democrats until runoff races in Louisiana and Georgia were held several weeks hence. It was not even midnight on the East Coast when the networks determined that the 114th Congress would be under Republican control.

A comprehensive survey of the scope of the damage done to Democrats nationwide, however, took several days to ascertain. Democrats lost eight Senate seats to Republicans for a 53-seat majority, with the ninth pick-up in Louisiana coming after the December runoff. In the early hours of November 5, NBC News projected that Republicans would control approximately 250 seats in the House, cementing the largest Republican majorities in Congress since World War II.

On the gubernatorial level, ideologues and data-driven forecasters alike were stunned to see Republicans confound their projections. The commentariat predicted that the GOP, overextended after the tea party-fueled 2010 wave, would lose at least 4 executive mansions. They lost only one and picked up four new executive offices for a total of 31 governorships in 2015.

Further down the ballot, Republican victories rivaled those the party enjoyed in 2010. In 2008, when Obama took office after two consecutive Democratic wave elections, his party controlled 62 of the 99 legislative chambers across America. By the end of the night on November 4, Republicans were in control of 68 of them. The GOP was in full command of both the legislatures and governor's mansions in 23 states, compared to just seven states where Democrats maintained monopoly control of state government. Additionally, 32 lieutenant governors and 29 secretaries of state were aligned with the GOP.

As the fallout from 2014’s Republican tsunami settled, state legislators across the country began abandoning the party with which they had been allied their whole careers. In West Virginia, where Republicans captured control of the House of Delegates for the first time in 83 years, Democratic state Sen. Daniel Hall announced that he would shed his party label and join the ascendant Republican Party. His flip snatched control of an evenly split state Senate from the Mountain State’s Democratic governor and handed the GOP control of their 69th legislative chamber. A similar switch in Missouri by state Rep. Linda Black delivered the GOP a veto-proof majority, rendering the Show Me State’s Democratic governor a mere figurehead.

Over the course of four years, the careers of a whole new generation of emerging Democratic leaders were cut short. The party’s farm team had been razed, but it was not merely Democratic politicians who were wiped out in November. A plethora of liberal shibboleths were also massacred by voters that fateful Tuesday.

The New Republican Party

The old cliché that the Republican Party is one of elderly, white men was perhaps hardest hit. Republicans turned out in droves to give the first black Southern senator since Reconstruction a full term in the upper chamber. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) will be joined by the first Haitian-American to serve in Congress, Rep.-elect Mia Love (R-UT), who took control of a once reliably Democratic district in the Beehive State. The youngest woman ever to serve in Congress, 30-year-old Rep.-elect Elise Stefanik (R-NY), also had the honor of turning her Democrat-represented Empire State district red.

It was not merely Republican politicians who, to borrow a liberal platitude, looked more like the America they sought to represent. According to national exit polling, Republicans saw their position improve across a number of key demographics from the last midterm cycle. Republicans only lost voters aged 18-29 by 9 points, a 2-point increase over the party’s 2010 standing. Nationally, the Asian-American vote, a reliably Democratic constituency, shifted toward the GOP by an astounding 17 points. In Georgia, where the supposedly ascendant coalition of young, single, and minority voters was hailed by progressives as the instrument of Republicans’ doom, Sen.-elect David Perdue (R-GA) won 7 percent of the African-American vote (a 4-point increase over Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ performance in 2008) and 42 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Another liberal myth put to rest by the voters in November was the notion that Republicans only performed as well as they did because they were competing in reliably red states. Republican gubernatorial victories in the deep blue states of Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois put to rest that notion. These victories also helped to disabuse the Left of another reassuring fable: the idea that 2014 was an indiscriminate backlash against incumbents.

Despite serving in Iraq in the U.S. Army, despite graduating from Harvard, despite Obama’s personal endorsement, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown did not carry Maryland. All the wards in Chicago could not deliver a second term for another Obama favorite, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who now has the dubious distinction of being the only incumbent governor in a sitting president’s home state to lose reelection since 1892. And yet, Maine’s reliably Democratic electorate endorsed Republican Gov. Paul LePage for a second term despite, or perhaps because of, the disdain with which he is held by elite liberals in the Acela corridor.

Culture War Fatigue

Maybe the most painful loss for Democrats was the nationwide reproach voters dealt the intellectually vacuous War on Women. A media once predisposed to be friendly toward the fictitious assault on women’s rights almost universally caricatured candidates who based their campaigns on this tired theme.

Before the voters rejected him, Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) was dubbed “Mark Uterus” in Colorado’s local press and denied the endorsement of the state’s largest paper as a result of his insulting “one-note” focus on women’s issues. The ill-prepared backbencher Wendy Davis, who only managed to secure the gubernatorial nomination after the national press made her into a celebrity following her filibuster in support of the rights of women to abort babies in the middle of the second trimester, not only lost among all Texans by more than 20 points, but she also failed to even get a majority of women. Even Sandra Fluke, who moved to California to begin her political career as a state senator after serving as the face of the War on Women, lost to a fellow Democrat by nearly 22 points despite raising $1 million.

Big Data Fail

The scope of the Democratic Party’s losses was even more stunning in light of the fact that so few political analysts saw them coming. In a fashion, 2014 was a near mirror image of the 2012 election. The Left dismissed surveys conducted by local pollsters that predicted dramatic Republican victories. Democrats took solace in national surveys of the likely electorate, many of which registered only a narrow GOP advantage or even a slight Democratic lead.

More than a few liberal pundits fell victim to a brand of self-delusion to which Republicans succumbed in the last cycle. Many liberals convinced themselves that the polls were dramatically under-sampling or misallocating Democrats. They refused to believe polls that showed Republicans netting large shares of the Hispanic vote and “unskewed” them so as to ensure Democratic victories. Others argued that the Democratic share of the early and absentee vote in key states was not showing up in public polls, creating a distorted picture of the electorate. They were half right. The polls were skewed, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver revealed, but in favor of Democrats by an average of four points.

While political professionals took the party’s losses to heart, with Democratic pollsters like Mark Mellman and Celinda Lake cautioning that the party needed to refine its message in order to appeal to a broader midterm electorate if it hoped to regain its majorities in Congress, liberal voices in the media adopted a siege mentality. Some responded to the mass defenestration of Democrats across the country by assuming an air of comforting condescension.

Democrats in Denial

Bucking herself up amid election night disaster, MSNBC’s flagship host Rachel Maddow assured her viewers that Sen.-elect Cory Gardner had only ousted Sen. Udall because he had somehow run to his left. “Democrats win the argument even if they lose the race,” she assured her disconsolate audience of fellow travelers. Others took comfort in the fact that liberal policy prescriptions, like hiking the minimum wage, had triumphed where they were on the ballot in states like Arkansas. They conveniently forgot to note that the candidate who promised to pursue minimum wage increases at the federal level, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), lost those same voters by more than 17 points.

Liberals consoled themselves further by insisting that Americans—a set of formerly praiseworthy, post-racial, economically literate, forward-thinking figures in 2012—had devolved into brutish philistines in the course of just 24 months.

Just prior to the 2014 vote, The New York Times ran an op-ed insisting that midterm elections were the political equivalent of a vestigial tail; an accident of America’s birth, and one that the country should abandon. But that anticipatory tantrum could easily be deemed sober and prudent compared to the rending of garments in which some liberals engaged in the aftermath of the midterms.

Victorious Republican candidates were dubbed “dimwitted” and “Goober-esque” by Times columnist Charles Blow. Paul Krugman insisted that the electorate understands neither “policy details” nor the “political process,” which he had determined explained their endorsement of the “intellectual debacle” that are the GOP’s policy prescriptions.

“Let’s face it: The American political system is broken,” declared yet a third Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof. His is a familiar lament that seems to bubble up on the Left whenever Democrats lose elections.

“Once again, the American people went to the polls and elected a group of people who, in aggregate, only vaguely resemble the American people,” The Daily Beast’s Michael Schulson scoffed. His remedy: Select legislators at random by lottery. “You may feel that this is an incredibly stupid idea,” he kindly posited, giving his readers permission to abandon the slog through this self-absorbed exercise in solipsism.

Huffington Post contributor Bob Burnett penned perhaps the most entertaining spasm masquerading as political analysis. “Republicans don't care if they scuttle our democracy along with the fragile economy, to them winning is all that matters,” his frothing screed read. “Let's begin the 2016 campaign season by calling Republican politicians by their true name: traitors. Enemies of the United States of America.”

Ignoring the Voters

These are not marginal voices. This is the mainstream liberal response to Republican victories, and they are catered to by no less a figure than the President of the United States. Obama gave license to these deeply wounded notables to project recklessly when he responded to his party’s repudiation by refusing to acknowledge its legitimacy.

“To everyone that voted, I want you to know that I heard you,” Obama opened a post-shellacking press conference in the White House. “To two-thirds of voters that chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”

The president twice made note of how few Americans turned out to ratify what his allies had insisted repeatedly was the Republican Party’s mindless obstructionism. “I’m the guy who is elected by everybody and not just from a particular state or a particular district,” Obama later added for those who missed the subtleties in his dismissal of the popular will.

Obama’s intransigent response to his party’s rebuke was previewed ahead of the midterms in a Politico report which assured dispirited progressives that a “big counterattack” was in the works if Republicans took control of the Senate. Vice President Joe Biden, too, preemptively labeled the coming upbraiding the result of a messaging failure. “We have to be more direct and clear about exactly what it is we’re looking to do,” he said hours before the historic vote.

The administration’s disdain for the voting public’s admonishment of the president and his party was made perfectly clear in White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s galling response to a reporter who asked how the midterm thrashing will change Obama’s approach to governance. McDonough replied that it wouldn’t. “They’re going to see Washington working better if this president has his way,” he tossed off with a smirk.

Conflict Ahead

The president proved this was no mere show of bravado in his first post-midterm meeting with congressional leadership. To his credit, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) displayed magnanimity in a press conference following his party’s victories. The incoming majority leader promised to find areas where the Republican Congress could work with the president and also to restore some of the minority rights that had been stripped away by a shortsighted Democratic Senate leadership. The Kentucky senator added, however, that any unilateral action on immigration on Obama’s part would “poison the well.” According to a report in the Associated Press relating the events of that auspicious meeting, Obama, consumed with acrimony, doubled down on antagonism toward the Republican leadership.

“The meeting was tense at times, according to a senior House Republican aide,” the AP reported. “The aide said at one point as House Speaker John Boehner was making an argument on immigration, Obama responded that his patience was running out and Vice President Joe Biden interrupted to ask how long Republicans needed. Obama angrily cut Biden off, the aide said.”

Obama and his incautious allies overreached after 2008, and today the Republican Party is restored to a position of power they have not enjoyed since Herbert Hoover’s administration. Republicans are well-advised to avoid repeating the Democrats’ mistakes; that means exercising caution, avoiding brinkmanship like threatening government shutdowns or impeachment, and taking a pass on show votes designed to placate only the conservative base. Republicans played a good hand well in 2014, and they will have to display all that year’s acumen and more in the next two years. But the Republicans will also benefit from a Democratic Party that is imploding along with their repudiated, hubristic leader.

In 2008, Obama was unanimously hailed as a Democratic savior who would deliver America into a new progressive era. He would be another FDR, his giddy admirers claimed. Today, many would quietly concede, assumptions about his presidency in tatters, Obama is more likely to be remembered by his fellow Democrats as another Woodrow Wilson.  

Noah Rothman is associate editor of HotAir.com.