It did not take long for a mainstream newspaper—The New York Times, no less—to rush into print an analysis with the headline that Tuesday’s Republican election victories “Suggest Wider Appeal of Tea Party.”
Yes, a number of “tea party” candidates were helpful in the Republican Party’s success in taking control of the House of Representatives and narrowing the Democratic Party’s majority in the Senate. But there’s a difference between wide Tea Party “appeal” and wide disaffection with Democratic Party accomplishments. The former implies that these conservative extremists are winning the hearts and minds of voters, when what may actually be happening is that they are merely benefiting from a vacuum left by an ineffective, disunited Democratic Party.
The results raise questions about how different this election might have been if the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress had fought for and won more tangible accomplishments in the areas of jobs, health care and financial reform — and then aggressively defended their accomplishments and the ideology behind them on the campaign trail.
Exit polling done by major news organizations Tuesday night support a portrait of a country solidly united in its dire assessment of the economy but bitterly divided on how to repair the damage. Here are some key observations, drawn from CNN’s reporting of the poll data:
Sixty-two percent of voters name the economy as their most important issue this year. Health care ranks a distant second, at 19 percent. In Ohio, exit polls found that 66 percent of voters had a negative view of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan. But of those who were negative, half believed it made no difference. This is not surprising: That stimulus that was falsely derided by Republican candidates as “$800 billion in wasteful spending” was actually too weak: at the insistence of conservatives more than $300 billion of it was in tax cuts, much of which was imperceptible to taxpayers, leaving about $500 billion in spending to trickle into an economic hole that more than $1 trillion deep. (Even so, it created at least 1.4 million jobs and prevented the economy from falling into a full-fledged depression.)
Two out of three Democrats say government isn’t doing enough to address the nation’s problems, while four in five Republicans say it’s doing too much. That pattern reflects itself in a poll question about health care reform: six in 10 Democrats said the health care law needed to be expanded; eight in 10 Republicans said the law should be repealed. Other recent polls fill out a picture of a conflicted and frustrated electorate. Ask voters if they support government action to bolster the economy and at least slim majorities will say yes. But they will also say they don’t trust government to do the right thing. Perhaps one reason is the public’s low esteem of both political parties: Tuesday’s exit poll showed both parties getting a 53 percent disapproval rating.
You also have to consider who did not show up at the polls. Early exit polls indicated that the youth vote was half what it was in 2008, and African-American turnout was down as well. Not motivating what Stan Greenberg calls the “rising American electorate” was a significant missed opportunity for Democrats, one we saw coming in the past few weeks as we surveyed the websites of Democrats in contested races. We found scant evidence of Democrats touting their party’s stands on the kitchen-table concerns that would have grabbed the allegiance of voting groups most anxious to hear a message of aggressive action to boost the economy, make education affordable and protect health care reform.
It is true that in this election some progressive stalwarts lost their seats, and a few others barely survived their re-election bids. But let’s not call this an embrace of Tea Party politics—whatever that means—and a rejection of progressive ideology. It is more a rejection of a politics of moneyed interests and right-wing obstructionists colluding to make government ineffective in addressing the nation’s problems. Ironically, it will be harder to fight that unholy combination, but there is no reason to stop trying.