The Drum Unleashed (ABC Online)
By Tom Switzer
This is shaping up as a terrible mid-term election for Democrats in the United States. Republicans are scheduled to pick up at least 50 seats, more than enough seats to win control of the House of Representatives. And although Democrats will hold the Senate, they have conceded at least six seats. Bear in mind that the average mid-term loss by a president's party since World War II is 24 House seats and four Senate seats. No amount of sugar coating can change perceptions of this mid-term election result: it is a forceful repudiation of the legislative agenda of both president Barack Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
So it was inevitable that Democrats and their left-liberal supporters would come up with all sorts of excuses. Some attribute the backlash against Obama and congressional Democrats to the bad state of the economy. Others blame the "timid" White House for failing to embrace a true left-liberal agenda that the electorate is really panting for. Some satirists attribute Republican success to stupid voters who have been duped by Republicans, the Fox blonds and right-wing shock jocks.
So, what are we to make of these explanations?
Start with the economy. It is certainly true Americans are feeling the pinch of a steep recession. Since Obama became president in early 2009, unemployment has increased 2 per cent to near-double-digit levels, debt and deficits are escalating and home closures are swelling. When times are tough, the argument goes, the president's party cops a big backlash.
But if a recession automatically leads to a poor electoral outcome for a president's party, why did Republicans escape the same type of electoral rebuke during Ronald Reagan's first mid-term election? As Fred Barnes points out in the Wall Street Journal today, the blame-the-economy argument lacks validity.
In 1982, despite a deep recession and double-digit unemployment, Republicans lost only 26 House seats and none in the Senate. Besides, if a prosperous economy guarantees mid-term success for a president's party, why did Bill Clinton's Democrats do so poorly in 1994? Despite a bullish economy, the opposition Republicans picked up huge swings to win the House and Senate. In any case, a CBS/New York Times poll shows that only 8 per cent blame Obama for the economy and more than two-thirds see the slump as temporary. Clearly the economy fails to explain the Democrats' doldrums.
What about another left-liberal excuse: blame Barack Obama and the Democrats on Capitol Hill for either compromising too much with Republicans or failing to prosecute a truly progressive agenda. The litany of left-wing complaints goes like this: The health care bill failed to provide fully universal coverage. The government did not spend enough tax dollars on its stimulus spending package. The administration has more than doubled troops to an unwinnable and deeply unpopular war in Afghanistan. It has failed to close down the Gitmo detention centres or release those torture memos. It has gone cold in the fight against man-made global warming. And so it goes.
But however much liberal activists may wish otherwise, the fact is America remains a centre-right nation. Two years ago, Gallup showed 40 per cent of Americans identifying themselves as conservatives, with only 20 per cent liberals. Since then, that disparity has widened: 54 per cent are self-described conservatives whereas only 18 per cent wear the liberal label. In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that an activist government agenda will generate resistance and a backlash – even among Democrats!
Indeed, several Democrat legislators tried to save their seats by repudiating the Obama agenda. Other Democrat candidates ran away from the White House. Take for instance Joe Manchin, who won the Senate seat of West Virginia today. In one television commercial, he loads up a hunting rifle and says: "I'll take on Washington and this administration, and get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets. I'll cut federal spending and repeal the bad parts of Obamacare... I'll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill, because it's bad for West Virginia." With that, he fires a round of bullets into a copy of the legislation, which was as good as dead in the Senate anyway. He is, remember, a Democrat! So much for the liberal argument that a liberal agenda would have helped Democrats.
Finally, some left-wing activists now conclude, "It's the voters, stupid," or, to be more precise, "It's the stupid voters." How else to account for the insulting and contemptuous attitudes of liberal satirists Stephen Colbert and John Stewart? Pity the poor know-nothing American who's been conned by right-wing shock jocks and Rupert Murdoch's 24-hour conservative cable news channel.
If these liberals are right, then why bother with having elections at all? Why go through this democratic charade if the will of the people only counts when it matches the will of liberal elites? In 2008, these same liberals hailed voters as astute judges of performance who wanted "change". But now that voters are rejecting the change the Democrats offered, the same voters are said to be idiots. Or they are now "mean-spirited" and "simpletons" who are seduced by the Fox blonds!
In 1953, after Communists crushed a worker's revolt in East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht accused the regime of wanting to "dissolve the people and elect another one". Sadly, that's the attitude of many American Democrats and left-liberal backers. Perhaps that sneering alone was a good enough reason for so many voters to kick so many of them out of office and reshape the political environment in Washington.
But perhaps the most obvious explanation for the Democratic debacle that has escaped the attention of Democrats and liberals on the left as well as Republicans and conservatives on the right is this: that he US is in a seriously bad way. Americans are in an increasingly foul mood. They are suffering a crisis of confidence. And they overwhelmingly believe their nation is going in the wrong direction. Bad as the foreign policy scene has been, the most serious weaknesses are internal and, in the broader sense, cultural. America's famous capacity to rebound from adversity is going to be put to a severe test. Liberals and Democrats clearly do not have any sound answers. Do Republicans?
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia.