Clear Lessons from Tuesday’s Election Muddle

Robert Borosage

Even on election eve, campaign 2014 is too close to call. Control of the U.S. Senate may not be determined until run-offs are held in January. Conservative Republican governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker are in frenzied, pitched battles to survive. Millions in last-minute “dark money” is flooding contested races, as much designed to drive voters away as to rouse them to vote.

The key races are so close and turnout patterns so uncertain that predictions reflect assumptions as much as data. The growing chorus suggesting that Republicans will gain control of the Senate comes not from sweeping changes in the polls but from hardening of conventional wisdom: Late-deciding voters generally break against incumbents; the older, whiter, more male voters in an off-year favor Republicans; the president’s approval is in the pits, etc. All true, but the races still are up for grabs. Seldom has it made more sense to vote and to devote time getting friends and relatives to vote, particularly in contested states. Spend today and Tuesday mobilizing, not agonizing.

Yet, even before the final votes are cast and counted, some lessons are clear in the muddle of 2014.

There is no swing to the right.

If Republicans manage to win majority control in the Senate. add seats in the House, and save endangered governors, they’ll claim a mandate for conservative principles. Nonsense. What is striking about this election is not how well but how poorly Republicans have fared. Everything was in line for Republicans – a discontented electorate, a red-state playing field, a bi-election in a president’s sixth year, a chaotic world, the Democratic base struggling in this economy, a flood of dark money, electoral suppression reforms in place.

But despite this and more, Republicans couldn’t close the deal. They sought no mandate other than to be “not Obama,” but the Republican Party and Republican Congress are less popular than the president. People ready to vote the bums out were unconvinced that Republican challengers were better bums.

And, of course, conservative governors found themselves at risk from Florida to Kansas to Alaska, as voters revolted against tax cuts that didn’t produce jobs, but forced cutbacks in schools. Voters don’t trust government to do much of anything, but that doesn’t translate into support for the conservative gospel.

Social issues are now a liberal wedge.

Thirty years ago, the New Democrats warned that Democrats had to distance themselves from liberal social movements like choice, gay rights and civil rights. Now the movements represent the emerging majority. The Republican assault on women, immigrants, voting rights and gay rights benefits Democrats – even in purple states like Colorado and Iowa. Republicans now must scramble to distance themselves from the hard-line views of their base.

Money and technique talk but don’t decide.

Win or lose, Democratic political operatives will boast about their sophisticated targeting and turnout techniques, and the need to consolidate their edge. Republican political operatives will call for catching up with Democrats. The money spent will exceed any previous bi-election. This will fuel the arms race for more money and better targeting next time.

In fact, vision, agenda, passion and movement matter. Better technique and more money can make a difference, but they don’t substitute for a passionate and mobilized base, a compelling message and an inspiring candidate.

Republican obstruction offers at most Pyrrhic victory.

Republicans voted in virtual lock-step to obstruct everything the President sought. The economic recovery is weaker and its benefits less widely spread as a result. Voters grew sensibly disgusted with gridlocked, corrupted Washington that produced a “recovery” in which only the richest few capture all the rewards of growth. They tend to blame the party that holds the White House. Opponents of the president are emboldened; supporters discouraged.

But Republican obstruction offends more than it attracts. Republicans blocked a hike in the minimum wage, paid family leave, fairer taxes on the rich and corporations. They stopped funds to rebuild America and put people to work. They torpedoed investment in universal pre-kindergarten. They scorned immigration reform. Their policies in the world would have us even more enmeshed in conflicts from Afghanistan to Syria to Libya to the Ukraine. Voting for them is like protesting the spread of forest fires by embracing those lighting the matches. Obstruction helped them this time in red states against weak Democratic incumbents. It is likely to be costly in the future.

Both parties lack the courage of their convictions, or lack the convictions to be courageous.

Republicans repeat, but no longer believe, their own gospel. They rail against Obamacare, but end the campaign no longer promising its repeal. They believe in tax breaks for the rich and corporations, but find them ever harder to defend when the 1 percent and corporate profits pocket record percentages of national income, and the middle class still sinks. They believe in markets, but don’t want to break up or police too-big-to-fail banks. They condemn big government, but are afraid to tell us what they would cut. They deny the reality of climate change, even as billions are needed to keep the Naval Academy from sinking beneath the waves. They continue the war on workers, even as the middle class continues to sink. They are fevered patriots who defend turncoat global corporations, outsourcing and trade policies that rack up record deficits with China. They rail against crony capitalism, while defending subsidies to Big Oil, the wealthiest corporations in history.

Democrats are better fit for the times, but can’t quite believe it. Americans strongly want the rich and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, but Democrats are reluctant to call for tax hikes. Democrats get that Americans want a better deal – a higher minimum wage, guaranteed paid vacations, paid sick days and paid family leave, affordable college, good schools, a secure retirement – but they worry about supporting big government.

Americans now are increasingly skeptical about our corrupted government being able to do anything well. So Democrats hesitate to make the necessary argument for putting people to work by rebuilding the country’s aged infrastructure and investing in the green industrial revolution that will sweep the world. Their timidity leads them to single out issues rather than offer Americans a clear vision of the way forward. Speaking the truth risks offending their donors.

The Elizabethan Era

Senator Elizabeth Warren will do her country and party a great service by teaching Democrats how to argue the case. She knows the threat: working families that cannot afford even the basics of middle-class life. She names the enemy: the entrenched interests and big money that rig the rules. She lays out a common-sense agenda, grounded on basic values. And she forces the choice: This can’t be done unless you fight to take back government from the interests that corrupt it.

Whether she chooses to run for president in 2016 or not, we live in an Elizabethan era. To get a hearing, Democrats will have to be populist enough to describe why this economy doesn’t work for most people. Pollsters and pundits will conclude that this election shows voters are looking for competence. But even Hillary Clinton, a potential candidate with the most extensive resume in memory, will be unconvincing running on “competence.” She’ll perfect a more populist voice or face a more perilous path.

Occupy the Stacked Deck

Election 2014 has been remarkably tawdry. Dark money flooded the airwaves with negative ads. Candidates assailed their opponents, detailing what they opposed without saying much about what they were for. Fears were thundered; hopes whispered. The ersatz vied with the timorous.

This isn’t likely to change without a popular mobilization that forces politicians to respond. Occupy Wall Street was scorned for lacking leadership or agenda. But its critique was clear, its passion and commitment stunning. And politicians scrambled to adjust.

The next Occupy may well focus less on the crimes of the 1 percent and more on the outrage of working people. More than one-half of Americans earn less than $30,000 a year. More and more can’t afford the basics of a decent life – dentists, vacations, retirement, college and more. More and more work in short-term, part-time, contract or other forms of contingent employment where they aren’t even told their schedules from week to week.

The next Occupy may well be driven by working women struggling to work and raise a child. It may come from the eruption of people of color locked in despair, sparked by the Ferguson outrages that occur across the country. Surely the young, their futures blighted by debt, lousy jobs and a catastrophic climate changes, will be at its center. The target may well be more focused on government inaction and corruption, rather than Wall Street abuses. It may well get in the face of politicians rather than in the face of banks.

All that is mere speculation. But the need for Occupy II is clear. This election won’t solve gridlock, and it won’t create a government remotely able to address the challenges we face. Change won’t be forged by politicians spending hours each day raising dough for negative ads to win elections. In this populist era, change will wait on the people to mobilize, protest the stacked deck, and force politicians to respond.

Get updates in your inbox

Comments