There are the obvious recriminations swirling about after the US Midterm elections, which saw the Republicans win back the House of Representatives and come very close to winning the Senate. As of writing, Republicans had won 239 House seats, and are leading in 5 more, which will give them a gain of 65 seats on where they were yesterday. Democrats had won 183 and are leading in another 8. In the Senate, Democrats have won 51 to the Republicans’ 46, with Washington and Colorado too tight to call and Alaska looking like it is staying in the nominal Republican camp by virtue of Lisa Murkowski’s probable victory.
The numbers are one thing. The reality of what happens next is an entirely different thing. Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin write a simple but stunning truth in their Politico piece that “Obama now faces a stark, and immediate, choice between a novel effort to rebuild the 2008 coalition and an acceptance of the divisive political scene that he sought to move beyond.” Back in 2008, President Obama was elected on the promise of change and “Yes, We Can!” Of course the expectations were too high and of course he was never going to be able to meet them. That the Democrats were going to do badly in these elections may have been a foregone conclusion after their successes in 2006 and 2008. Yet, for this, they have compounded built-in losses by failing to capitalise on the coalition that they had built in 2008.
Ezra Klein wrote yesterday that in political terms, the 111th Congress was one of the most active in US history (which is, of course, part of the problem that the Tea Party has with it). “[I]f you see the point of politics as actually getting things done, the last two years, for Democrats, have been a stunning, historic success. Whatever else you can say about the 111th Congress, it got things done.” He went on to list health care reform, financial regulation, the stimulus package, and other less well-known pieces of legislation. US voters have been crying out for health care reform for decades; the economy crashed in 2008 partly because of the lack of financial regulation; and the stimulus did play a role in shoring up particular sectors of the economy. Yet, for all this success, the coalition that Obama and the Democrats built to such success in 2008 crumbled around their ears.
Perhaps scarily of all are these two maps – one of the counties that Democrats won in Senate races in 2010 and the other of the counties that Obama won in 2008. Fully accepting of the fact that it is not a direct comparison and that there are different dynamics in Senate vs Presidential races, they are at least instructive of what Democrats have failed to do.
My reading of those maps – as unscientific as it is – indicates that Democratic support has plunged in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. There are also strong signs from House races that Virginia has tilted back strongly to being a red state, as well as problems for the Democrats in Colorado, New Mexico and Michigan. Every one of those states (with the possible exception of Wisconsin) is a classic swing state…
So, does Obama take the path of least resistance to compromise and seek to work with the Republican House, or does he dig deep and push through resistance to battle for Democratic ambitions? In reality, the best bet is something that he promised in 2008 but didn’t tell us how he was going to do it. It is actually one of the main reasons he won so convincingly back in ’08 and it was actually the basis of his ability to build that infamous coalition of young and old, poor and rich, black and white, Democrat, Republican and Independent. It’s the hope thing – but delivery of hope not just talk of hope.
The promise of hope being able to deliver change was what captured the imagination of so many American voters in 2008, especially young people and others who had felt disenfranchised by the existing political reality. Obama and the Democrats promised that those people would be engaged and would become a part of the approach to governing. The expectations of this group soared to unreasonable proportions, but returning to this approach it is Obama’s best bet of getting anything done. The world is in a period of huge economic transformation as we move from the industrial era to the information era and people are frightened because their reality has been upended. A visionary political leader with Obama’s talents needs to capitalise on this transformation to rewire the political, social and economic system – it is not something that can be done easily, nor without resistance. It is what Obama’s talk of hope and “Yes, We Can!” hinted at two years ago. It is also what the Democrats efforts in Congress over the last two years have been about. But they have failed to communicate to the very people who are going to be building the 21st economy that the effort will require a huge attitude change and it will require them to be engaged in the political process, not outside of it.
Transforming the reality of a situation is not easy work, and there will be constant hurdles, obstacles and set backs. To give up that effort after losing the House of Representatives would be an abandonment of Obama’s beginnings as a community organiser. It’s not about accepting the divisive political scene that went before, but about recalibrating your efforts to deal with the changes as they come along. It’s about being entrepreneurial in your approaches and about demonstrating to people that set backs will come and go, but how you deal with the set backs is what really defines whether or not your efforts will be transformative in the long run.