Midterm Exam

Democrats need to hold Republicans accountable next month.

President Obama is back on the attack, aiming criticisms at Republicans and their Tea Party sidekicks. He also has bluntly admonished Democrats. He knows if Democrats come out and vote, his congressional cohort will do OK; if they don’t turn out, the Republicans win big.

His frustration is understandable. Two reliable pollsters, Gallup and Nate Silver, continue to report the president’s job approval rating is holding in the 46 percent range. The Democratic Party members, meanwhile, are down to 33 percent, with the Republican Party even lower, at 31 percent. It’s even worse for the Congress: that creaky institution is hovering in the 10 percent approval range.

So what’s going on here? How is it that the Democrats are predicted to lose the midterms to a less popular party, that polls dramatically lower then the president?

Circumstances explain some of problem:

1. Unemployment remains high. Obama and his party aren’t responsible for the numbers; they inherited a terrible mess. However, the recovery hasn’t accelerated as quickly as predicted. It is tough to run behind the line “but things would have been worse,” even though they would have (and will again if Republicans even get to enact their socalled “Pledge to America”).

2. Excepting two recent elections, the majority party has always lost in the midterm elections, and Democrats, in 2006 and 2008, won seats they hadn’t held in years.

3. The relentless drumbeat of the radical right has taken a toll. And race is a part of it, especially from anyone who has ever muttered, “Me, racist? Not so, I just disagree with Barack HUSSEIN Obama’s politics.”

So, yes, Democrats were going to lose seats no matter what. But lose the House and maybe the Senate?

Policy differences don’t explain much. Most voters, and all IRA owners, go to bed at night relieved Obama did what he had to do to stabilize the economy — implementing TARP and the stimulus package. (Republicans, including our homegrown John Boehner clone, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, denounce both, even while seeking to take credit at home for the resulting market stability and jobs created.) Most think it’s good the U.S. still has an automobile industry, and most agree the financial sector needed to be more tightly regulated. Most agree Obama showed courage and tenacity in taking on the bloated health insurance companies. In fact, he succeeded where Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, Carter and Clinton had all failed, and did so with no help from the “loyal” opposition.

Not surprisingly, the Republicans are now front and center trying to make a case for the care and feeding of private health insurance companies, pausing just long enough to lambast Obama for stepping on the toes of Wall Street, while also denouncing him for “bailing out the bankers.” And down the rabbit hole we go.

To explain the predictions, Democrats should focus more on self-inflicted wounds. Two come to mind:

First, immediately following Obama’s inspirational inauguration, the White House took the 18-to-30 age bracket entirely for granted the very constituency that, having been so inspired, had played a critical role in deciding the 2008 election. Young people voted in record numbers in 2008, and Obama won them over by a whopping 66 percent to 34 percent. Today, these voters feel ignored. If I could ask Barack Obama one question, it would be, “Mr. President, can you remember the exact moment that you decided to stop communicating with the 30-and-under voters?” If I got back a policy-wonk answer — “Hey, we fixed student loans, and don’t forget what the health bill does for twenty-somethings” — I’d follow with, “and is there a reason you stopped talking like John Kennedy and began to sound like Mike Dukakis?” To minimize losses, these voters must be remobilized.

Second, Democrats are taking the brunt of the 10 percent job approval voters give the Congress. Apparently, they don’t understand every time Republicans wage a successful filibuster or make a public display of a “hold,” the Congress is blamed — and most of the blame is directed at the Democrats, because they control the Congress. In eyes of the public, the congressional Democrats (and the president, too) come off looking like a tied-down Gulliver.

Having won overwhelming majorities, Democrats were expected to deliver on Obama’s promise of “change we can believe in.” To accomplish this, they needed to reform their own house. Simple procedural changes directed at the Senate would have had a huge impact — filibusterers could again be required to hold the floor, no more phoning it in. As for “unanimous consent,” the legitimacy of this custom assumes collegiality, which has gone extinct. This custom should be tossed into the proverbial dustbin. No more “holds.” But the Democrats? They mistakenly continued doing business as usual.

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued the Constitution gives us the best chance of controlling “the violence of faction,” which he defined as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Watching Mitch McConnell’s irresponsible minority faction of Merry Lilliputians drive holes in Madison’s analysis while the majority Democrats do nothing but whine, I am reminded of the old Will Rogers line: “You’ve got to be [an] optimist to be a Democrat, and you’ve got to be a humorist to stay one.”

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.