By now everybody knows what happened in the 2014 midterms. The challenge is to keep the results—a great victory for Republicans—in perspective.
In particular, now that the 2014 midterms have passed into history, we can ask: What implications can we draw about the 2016 election?
The first point to be made is that the voters—God bless ‘em!—are fickle. One can see an electoral roller coaster ride in just about every decade of American history. We might take note, for instance, of the Roaring Twenties. They began with the 1920 Warren G. Harding Republican landslide, a 26-point margin, which crushed even a young Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Democratic ticket. Then in, 1922 came the Democratic comeback in Congress; Democrats won 76 House seats that year.
Yet 1924 saw yet another Republican presidential landslide, as Calvin Coolidge led the top of the GOP ticket.
And so it goes, on and on, lots of reversal of fortune, lots of comebacks.
More recently, we can think back to the electoral zigzags of 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2012, and 2014 and be reminded, yet again, that yes, the voters are fickle.
But suppose we drill down specifically on the“second midterm” phenomenon, sometimes called “the six year itch.” That is, let’s examine the second midterm election for the party in the White House—such as 2014 for the Democrats. Here, the general rule is that the incumbent party suffers big losses, although that doesn’t always happen; it didn’t happen, for instance, to the Democrats in 1998.
But most of the time, the second midterm election brings heavy punishment to the “in” party, and 2014 was no exception. The typical pattern is that a presidency is mostly played out by its sixth year, and the voters signal their desire for a change in the second midterm. Indeed, the midterm-election victories of the “out” party in 1918, 1950, 1958, and 1974 all prefigured a win for that same party in the next presidential election two years later—in 1920, 1952, 1960, and 1976.
Yet not always: In the midterm elections of 1926, 1938, and 1986, we find three instances that are very similar to 2014—that is, the party in possession of the WH suffered a stinging midterm defeat in the second midterm—and yet even so, the “in” party managed to win a third term in the White House two years later.
It wasn’t that long ago—in the wake of the 2012 elections, to be precise—that the Republican National Committee felt compelled to conduct an “autopsy” on itself. And then, in November 2013, the GOP lost the governorship of Virginia. That was a landmark victory for Democrats; it was the first time that the Old Dominion had elected a governor of the same party as the White house in nearly half a century. Thus began a chorus of punditical speculation about a demographic “Coalition of the Ascendant” that would supposedly carry the Democrats to victory in perpetuity.
Yet the good news for the Donkey Party didn’t last long—as we know, in 2014, the Elephants came charging back.
Now, over at the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz just announced that the Democrats will be doing a “top-to-bottom assessment” of their party. In other words, it’s their turn now for the post-mortem.
So the voice of historical wisdom should be telling us only one thing: “Whatever is happening now is not necessarily going to keep on happening.”
However, even amidst the predictable tumult, an increased volatility—perhaps based on dissatisfaction with both parties—is evident. National Journal’s Ron Fournier recently wrote that the volatility we have seen in the past 15 years, as measured by changing partisan control of Congress, is the greatest since the 19th century.
So if we’re thinking historically, we might come to a second point: the importance of interpretation, and how a greater understanding of the past might guide us in the future. Yet even here we must be careful, because one event—one historical fact—can give rise to multiple interpretations.
It’s been said that all political struggles occur in three time phases: the past, the present, and the future.
That is, implicit in any political argument is that the favored policy agenda is a great idea because it worked so well in the past. Or, conversely, one says of the other party that its policy agenda would be terrible because it worked so badly in the past. In other words, to make a point about the present-day, to win a fight in the here-and-now, it helps to excavate some history.
Yes, the past has its grip: After the US Civil War, the political slogan for both the North and South was, “Vote as you shot.” That is, Northerners were supposed to vote for the Republicans, the Party of the Union, while Southerners were supposed to vote for the Democrats, the Party of The Lost Cause.
Another good way to make a point about the present-day is to excavate, as it were, the future: The argument goes: If we follow our party’s policy, the future will be bright, but if we follow our opponent’s policy, the future will be blighted.
Indeed, sometimes an idea, or a name, is so potent that it works to define both the past and the future. And in doing so, of course, it also defines the present moment.
For example, long after he was banished forever from electoral politics after the 1932 election, the name of the 31st President, Republican Herbert Hoover, kept popping up in Democratic campaign rhetoric as the ultimate political boogeyman. In using the word “Hoover,” Democrats were simultaneously summoning up the ghost of the Depression and suggesting that it could happen again—if the Republicans were to regain power.
We might note that “Hoover” proved to be an effective epithet until the late 1970s, when it was replaced by “Carter.”
So let’s look at each of the three time phases a bit more closely:
We can start with the past, and with explanations as to what happened. We all know the results of the 2014 elections, but why did they happen? The explanation is still up for grabs. Not surprisingly, the two parties have divergent explanations, and within the respective parties, those divergent explanations further diverge.
Republicans have two schools of thought: which might be called the Establishment school and the Populist school.
The Establishment school credits the GOP victory to a laser-like focus on the economy and Obamacare: The standard Establishment line was, “Incumbent Democrat X voted with Obama 97—or 96, or 98—percent of the time.”
The Populist school, including the Tea Party, was hardly a fan of Obama and his works, but nonetheless, it chose to put the focus, especially toward the end of the campaign season, on the national issues of border security, immigration, and so on—with a late burst on Ebola as a sort of October Surprise.
Yet these Populist issues, of the border and US sovereignty, were for the most part ignored by the Establishment GOP, perhaps because many Establishmentarians have supported “Gang of Eight”-type “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”
So as we think about the 2014 results, we can ask: Who was more correct—the Establishmentarians or the Populists? Who had the better theory of the case?
Stipulating that there was a fair amount of overlap between the two sides, it’s still possible to conclude that the Populists did a better job of catching the 2014 Zeitgeist.
The Establishment critique—Democrat X voted with Obama 98 percent of the time!—seems potent at first glance, but the problem for Republicans was that it led to the localization of each race. And if, as master Democrat Tip O’Neill liked to say, “all politics is local,” then the Democrats had a better chance. That is, a local Democrat who knows the local terrain, and can adapt to local conditions, is more likely to survive in a red state than a “national” Democrat. As Alan Ehrenhalt argued 30 years ago in his smart book, The United States of Ambition, the Democrats, as the more naturally political party, are better than the Republicans at pure politics.
A case in point is the Arkansas Senate race: Republican Rep. Tom Cotton challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. For the most part, for most of the campaign, Cotton followed the Establishment playbook and hit Pryor for being an Obama clone. Yet every time that Cotton cited Pryor’s voting record, Pryor would hit back citing some vote that Cotton had cast against farmers, or against Social Security, or against disaster relief. That is, if Cotton accused Pryor of being too liberal for Arkansas, Pryor came right back and accused Cotton of being too conservative for Razorbacks.
Thus the two candidates went at it, back and forth, with no clear winner. If anything, Pryor seemed to have the advantage; in May, the esteemed election analyst Charlie Cook even suggested that based on Cotton’s vote against the farm bill, Pryor might be the slight favorite in the race.
But then along came the border issue: Cotton jumped on it, and so the GOP challenger ended up benefitting from a blistering national issue. In other words, Cotton “nationalized” what had been a local election; he ended up riding the Red Wave, defeating Pryor by a whopping 18 points.
Another ’14 candidate who won by riding the Red Wave was Thom Tillis of North Carolina. He was definitely a candidate of the Establishment; before winning the Tarheel Senate seat, he was Speaker of the North Carolina House.
Running as an Establishmentarian, Tillis was mostly a steady four or five points down; he kept incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan below 50 percent in her re-elect number, but he himself was mired in the low 40s.
Yet Tillis ended up winning by two points. And here’s how: He nationalized the election. On the Saturday before Election Day, Tillis wan’t talking about Kay Hagan, he was talking about the national context:
“Can you imagine if we don’t get a Senate majority what this president will do in the remaining two years of his term? He will pack the federal courts with the most liberal activist judges you’ve ever seen. He will sign an executive order granting amnesty, threatening American workers and threatening our safety and security….That’s why I’m running for Senate.”
Powerful. And so Tillis came from behind and won.
By contrast, running in the state next door, Virginia, Republican challenger Ed Gillespie campaigned on “economic growth,” and never mentioned the border—at least not that anybody ever knew. And he lost. It was a close election, to be sure, but he lost.
Another Populist issue was guns. And that issue heated up spontaneously, from the grassroots, in the wake of the August shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
The Establishment—both Democrats and Republicans, joined by various others—had its initial read on the incident: The big issue, they said, was “the militarization of the police,” as well as an implicit condemnation of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
The Populists had a different take on Ferguson: Buy more guns. Indeed, gun sales in the whole St. Louis area spiked. And every time the media showed footage of either the late Michael Brown in that convenience store, or the protestors on the street, the Populist argument grew stronger.
And the national ’14 election results speak for themselves: The 114th Congress will likely be the most pro-gun Congress in decades.
A.W.R. Hawkins of Breitbart News summed up the politics of guns: Echoing the famous quote from James Carville, “Its the economy, stupid,” Hawkins added a quip: “It’s the Second Amendment, Stupid.” That even makes for a snappy acronym: ITSAS.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake augmented Hawkins’ point. Citing a wealth of polling data— including a survey that showed that the number of Americans who think that having a gun helps improve home security has doubled in the past 15 years—Blake observed:
“The vast majority of Americans believe in guns, not just in general, but for protecting their own homes. [NRA leader Wayne] LaPierre’s position on guns and self-defense is embraced by broad swaths of the American public.”
If the Republicans are divided, Establishment vs. Populist, in their interpretation of the ’14 midterms, the Democrats, meanwhile, are also divided amongst themselves. On the Democratic side, the split might be called “Stand Pat” vs. “Change,” or, to put it more bluntly, Pro-Obama vs. Anti-Obama.
The leading pro-Obama voice is, not surprisingly, Barack Obama himself.
In his White House press conference on Wednesday, November 5, the day after the election, Obama suggested that since two-thirds of the electorate hadn’t voted, the election results didn’t matter all that much. As far as he was concerned, he still had his mandate left over from 2012.
The President is not alone in this dismissive view of the results. On the November 11 edition of NBC Nightly News, anchorman Brian Williams made a point of announcing that voter turnout in 2014 was the lowest since 1942; some might say that he was thus doing his part to minimize, even delegitimize, the midterm election results.
Other top Democrats, too, sought comfort in the Stand Pat view. Here’s House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi telling Politico:
I do not believe what happened the other night is a wave . . . There was no wave of approval for the Republicans. There was an ebbing, an ebb tide, for us.
Got that? It wasn’t the Republican wave, it was the Democratic ebb. And of course, Pelosi, having decided that she wanted another term as Minority Leader, immediately labeled her critics as “sexist,” which will likely shut down criticism, at least from Democrats.
Still, not every Democrat agrees with the cheerful assessment of Obama, Pelosi, and their record in office.
We can start with a basic question: Is the economy in good shape or not? We might even adapt Ronald Reagan’s question—“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”—and ask, “Are you better off than you were two years ago?”
Obama’s answer was “Yes.” After all, the unemployment rate is down, and the stock market is up. Yet Middle America wasn’t buying the happy-days-are-here-again schtick, and in the wake of the elections, even the MSM had to notice the despairing reality of many ordinary Americans.
As Greg Sargent wrote in The Washington Post:
The exit polls show that candidates like Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, Bruce Braley and Mark Udall lost by anywhere from large to truly massive margins among non-college whites and older voters.
In fact, many economic indicators, such as the labor force participation rate and real wages and incomes, are bleak. Thus the veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told The Los Angeles Times that Obama was “tone deaf” in his economic pitch. Such happy talk turned the voters off, Greenberg continued; it made regular folks think that Democrats didn’t get it.
Another prominent Democratic pollster, Celinda Lake, added:
We have a huge problem: People do not think the recovery has affected them, and this is particularly true of blue collar white voters.
So the struggle—Stand Pat vs. Change—to interpret the ’14 election results will continue. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean says that Democrats should move left, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren makes the same point. And Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only avowed socialist in the Congress, now says that he wants to run for president in 2016, as a Democrat.
These are the contours of the struggle to interpret the past: Inside the GOP, Establishmentarians vie with Populists, although neither side can complain much about the results. And on the Democratic side, the Stand Patters are arrayed against the Changers, in an intra-party feud that’s made more bitter by the embittering results.
So now we can shift our time frame, from the past to the present. And we can ask: How will the various political players, guided by their understanding of the past, choose to act in the very near term—like tomorrow?
One immediate flashpoint is the White House staff. Before all the ’14 votes were even counted, longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod was heard saying that the President needed to make changes in his White House team.
And when critics think of needed changes at the White House, the name that comes up most often is Valerie Jarrett, the object of much criticism. But Jarrett, seemingly secure in he relationship with POTUS and FLOTUS, seems to be planning on staying. Meanwhile, Donna Brazile was writing for CNN that criticism of Jarrett was “sexist.” Once again, uttering that word, “sexist,” will probably put the kibosh on criticism, at least for Democrats.
Moreover, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post reports that Obama thinks he’s right about the issues, and so has no plans to make any staff changes.
Still some issues might lend themselves to relatively easy compromise: One such issue is tax reform.
But for the most part, it seems likely that the 114th Congress will be just as contentious as the 113th, and the 112th, and so on.
Just on Monday, the President laid out his position on the “net neutrality,” which appeared to be to the left of even his own handpicked choice to run the Federal Communications Commission.
Then on Wednesday came the President’s agreement with China on carbon dioxide emissions; some of us are old enough to remember when they were called “greenhouse gases,” with the assumption being that they were causing “global warming.” As one observer said of this new deal, it’s easy to strike a deal when all the concessions come from your side. Indeed, the Americans will bear all of the burden through 2030. In other words, even after Obama leaves office, the next two or three presidents will supposedly be reducing US carbon dioxide while China continues to emit more—all on the promise that Beijing will start to reduce its emission sixteen years hence.
In the wake of the announcement, both John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have called the China deal an anti-growth “job-killer” and will presumably be taking steps to thwart it.
In the meantime, Newt Gingrich, who has a PhD in history, makes the provocative comparison between Obama, the 44th President, and Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President:
There are a lot of parallels between the two presidents. Both were college professors. Both liked to hide on a golf course (Wilson holds the record having played more than 1,000 rounds as President). Both were powerful orators. Both had deeply held convictions. Both disliked the Congress.
Indeed, as Gingrich notes, the parallels go further than that: After Republicans won control of Congress in the 1918 midterms, Wilson defiantly continued on his course, handling the post-war negotiations over the Versailles Treaty—including US membership in League of Nations—without Congressional consultation. Gingrich continues:
Wilson did not seem to realize how powerful that Senate control was . . . He also did not realize how deeply senators feel about their prerogatives and constitutional authority.
And so, of course, the US Senate ultimately rejected Wilson’s cherished treaty—and broke not only Wilson’s presidency, but also his own personal health.
Gingrich makes a great historical analogy, except for one thing: Obama’s deal with China can’t even be called a treaty, since the Obama administration has no plans to submit it to the Senate for ratification. In other words, Obama plans to do it all on his own; that’s a course of action that Gingrich labels as “suicidal.”
Indeed, it appears that one side of the CO2 deal with China is going to be proven very wrong. If, in fact, as The New York Times has reported, this deal is an effort by senior White House aide John Podesta, as part of the Hillary Clinton for President effort, well, that could make things even more complicated—for Hillary.
Yet the biggest and most explosive issue of all, potentially, is an Executive Order legalizing illegal immigrants. And once again, context matters. As Politico has reported, the Obamans see this Executive Order in not only historical terms, but also, starkly political terms:
“This is the long-term play,” a senior administration official said. “This is something that may be difficult in the short term, but for legacy reasons, for 2016 electoral reasons, it may be the most important thing we do.”
Those words from the unnamed official—“for legacy reasons, for 2016 electoral reasons”—are worth pausing over; no doubt Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the leading Congressional champion of American Sovereignty, has already paused over them.
Thus it seems likely that the confirmation battle over Loretta Lynch, Obama’s choice for Attorney General, will be divisive—and the key fight is coming up soon. In particular, one wonders: Will her confirmation be conducted in the “lame duck” Senate session of the 113th Congress, which the Democrats control, or the new 114th Congress, to be controlled by the Republicans?
Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, joined by others, have staked a firm position. They want Lynch to express an opinion on the legality of the Executive Order in advance of her confirmation. And they will be in a better position to press Lynch on this point if Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley controls the Judiciary Committee gavel.
Meanwhile, Republicans are exploring their options in the 114th Congress. If history is a guide, further investigations will be effective: the Democrats mercilessly flyspecked the Ford administration in the 95th Congress, and that set the stage for the Democratic presidential victory of 1976. (Although, of course, the president they elected that year, Jimmy Carter, proved to be not quite what the Democrats had in mind; not only was Carter tossed out in 1980, but so were a dozen Senate Democrats, giving Republicans control.)
By contrast, when the Republicans went further than investigation, all the way to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, they were were much less successful—in response to the perceived Republican overreach, the Democrats actually made gains in the 1998 midterms; that was six-year midterm, when precedent suggested that they should have suffered big losses. So the historical lesson seems to be: Yes to vigorous investigation, No to any talk of impeachment—the ’16 election comes soon enough!
So now we come to the third phase in our temporal triptych: the future of national politics.
We might begin by noting that only once since the 1940s has a party won a third consecutive term in the White House—and that, of course, was in 1988.
So that suggests that Hillary’s row might be harder to hoe than many currently suspect. Yes, we should begin with a close look at the former Secretary of State: Does she really intend to run, as The New York Times reports, as the candidate of climate change in ’16?
If not, what is her message going to be?
Here we might note the perverse “contribution” made by David Brock, the now-liberal activist who has gone from being Hillary’s biggest detractor in the 90s to her biggest supporter—one of them, anyway—in the 10s. As Brock put it recently,
“President Obama’s legacy is now entirely dependent on the election of a Democratic successor as president who will protect and extend it.”
Does that really help Hillary’s cause, to put the matter like that? Will swing voters really rally to Hillary on the idea that she’s the key to defending the Obama legacy?
Brock’s words would seem to turn conservative pundit George F. Will’s jibe—that a victory or Hillary would be a third term for Obama—into a campaign pledge. Once again, it’s hard to see how that linkage to the 44th President will help Hillary become the 45th President.
Meanwhile, we might put three big concerns that fall in the category of what Fox pundit Bill O’Reilly might call an “unresolved problem.”
The first unresolved problem is “Whither Obamacare?” It’s easy for conservatives to say, “Repeal Obamacare,” and, in fact, that’s probably the most popular view on the right—and maybe the country as a whole. And the “smoking gun” comments of Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber add further fuel to the fire.
Yet, as they say, the devil is in the details: In particular, are Republicans going to seek to repeal the health-insurance protections for those under 26? Or the protections for those with pre-existing conditions? And what of Medicaid expansion—where important Republican governors can be found on both sides of the issue? No doubt many libertarian-leaning thinkers are up for the challenge of threading all these needles in a politically satisfactory way, but it might prove harder to persuade the voters.
The second unresolved issue is the Middle East. By now, just about everyone—even Obama!—opposes ISIS, and most Americans support a vigorous campaign to roll back ISIS—provided, of course, that it doesn’t cost many American lives. Bombs and cruise missiles are one thing, boots on the ground are quite another. It’s not an issue right now, since Obama is president, but Republicans might recall that foreign-war quagmire cratered the Bush administration in the second-midterm elections of 2006, just as the Vietnam quagmire cratered the Johnson administration way back in the second-midterm election of 1966.
If Obamacare and the Middle East are concerns of unresolved problem, we might add a third concern, which is an unresolved political problem: The GOP must show that it can crack the “Blue Wall.” David Gergen is only the latest pundit to note the 18 states plus the District of Columbia, possessing 242 electoral votes, that have gone Democratic in six straight presidential elections. That’s a formidable electoral fortress for Democrats.
We might note that 242 is short of 270, and so, in theory, the GOP can lose all the Blue Wall states and still win the White House, but it gets a lot harder.
Still, as the ’14 midterms remind us, blowouts are still possible. And as they look to the future, Democrats should beware of an ominous trend: the hijacking of their policy agenda by well-funded but exotic fringe forces.
As Lloyd Green, a veteran of the Bush 41 administration and many Republican campaigns, observed after the election for The Daily Beast:
The Democrats have paid a high price for making the unholy trinity of Lena Dunham, Al Sharpton, and billionaire climate-change crusader Tom Steyer the face of their party.
Well put. So let’s take a closer look at this new kind of “unholy trinity”:
The first part of the trinity is the lifestyle libertarians: Yes, Lena Dunham, joined by Sandra Fluke and all the other “war on women” warriors. These hardcore feminists have not helped the Democrats—and even some Democrats have noticed. Here’s how Politico summed up Democratic concern in a post-election article:
Nearly a dozen senior aides and Democratic insiders said there is a desire for a broader election message from party leaders. There are complaints about Pelosi focusing so strongly on women without a broader message that could play to other groups, such as older voters and men.
Of course, nothing seems to have come of this discontent—and once again, Nancy Pelosi will be House Democrats’ leader in the 114th Congress.
The second part of the trinity is the Al Sharpton-type racialists and multiculturalists. Here we might include all those who are not only anti-police, but also pro-open borders and pro-amnesty.
In 2014, these views were a losing message with voters: At the local level, “law and order” was a winner, and at the larger level, American nationalism was also a winner.
The third part of the trinity is the Malthusians—the Green Aristocrats who have their money, and now want everyone else to stay poor. Exhibit A for this group is Bay Area billionaire Tom Steyer, who made much of his money in coal, and now wants to share his guilt with the world. Steyer poured a reported $70 million into his effort to help likeminded—or should we say, subservient—Democrats. And yet for all his trouble, Steyer will be remembered as a kind of Green Pied Piper—leading Democrats to jump off a cliff. (More precisely, Steyer enticed Democrats off a cliff; he’s fine, it’s they who went into the abyss.)
In the angry words of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, speaking for Coal Country, “It doesn’t make sense that we have to fight so hard against our own government and our own administration.”
Manchin added that West Virginians have “the perception of the government attacking them, which basically is what’s happening.”
Manchin’s sentiment might seem to bode poorly for Steyer and his extreme-Green ideological ism. Yet we might note that there are now few elected Democrats left who agree with Manchin; most of their seats are now held by Republicans. Today, there are fewer voices to rise up, within the Democratic Party, against Steyer. He still has billions left, and who is there, now, to oppose him? Only a few surviving Democratic office-holders—and a few million folks desperate to save their jobs and livelihoods.
So as we look to the Future, we see that while Republicans face challenges, Democrats face even more.
But as we have seen, the voters are fickle. Inconstancy is the one constant.
Indeed, the only thing more malleable than voter-intentions is the interpretation of past events. And that interpretation, as we have seen, is malleable indeed. In 2015 and beyond, the players, pundits, and people will still be arguing about the meaning of 2014.