Election night in America, 2014 – in the other room the folks on CNN and Fox News and MSNBC are chattering about what just happened, but no one knows quite what that was yet. As it approaches midnight back east, the middle of the evening out here, no one knows whether the Republicans will retake the Senate and change the political calculus for the next two years. They probably will. They need to flip six seats to do that and they’ve flipped five of those so far. No, wait, it’s almost midnight back there and the Republicans pulled it off:
Republicans wrested back control of the Senate on Tuesday by adding at least six seats to their ranks, riding discontent and resentment about President Obama and his policies and consolidating Republican power on Capitol Hill.
Republicans picked up the sixth seat they needed with a win in North Carolina, as Thom Tillis, the State House speaker, defeated the incumbent, Kay Hagan, a Democrat, according to projections by The Associated Press. Voters in Arkansas and Colorado also ousted the Democratic incumbents Mark Pryor and Mark Udall, and elected Republicans in West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota.
With several contests still too close to call late Tuesday, unofficial results showed Republicans emerging as winners in enough states to claim victory. The party’s leaders in Washington will now control both chambers in Congress as Mr. Obama struggles to fashion an agenda in the remaining two years in his term.
The remaining Senate races are too close to call, or too early to call, and in Louisiana, a strange place, the Senate race is headed for a runoff – no one got even close to one vote more than fifty percent. That’ll take a few more months, but that doesn’t matter now. Both Houses of Congress will be solidly Republican for the next two years. Democrats will have to deal with their failure. Obama will have to deal with a Congress that hates everything he stands for and wants what it wants, not what he wants, or what the majority of America wants. It won’t be pretty – but the dust hasn’t settled yet. We’re still in the middle of this, as the full damage done to the Democrats isn’t clear yet. They may not be dead as a political party. A postmortem will have to wait. Ask any coroner. You can’t do a postmortem without a dead body.
There isn’t one of those. The Democrats may be only grievously wounded, not fatally wounded, yet, and this is, after all, only a midterm election. Only political junkies get excited by midterm elections. Everyone else sees them as nasty political positioning for the next presidential election in two years, a bunch of inside-baseball stuff where each party makes roster moves and tries out new strategies, when they don’t really matter – Obama can veto anything they pass and they don’t have the votes to override his vetoes – before the big game in 2016, when they will matter.
That leaves only the expected – governors and senators who remain in place. Al Franken remains in the Senate and Rick Scott and John Kasich and Scott Walker and Andrew Cuomo keep their governorships. Wendy Davis didn’t turn Texas blue. There will no longer be a Governor Corbett in Pennsylvania, but the Republican Party walked away from him long ago. He was an embarrassment, and then there’s Scott Brown, who lost his Senate seat in Massachusetts to Elizabeth Warren and moved to New Hampshire to run for the open Senate seat there. He lost again. In 2016 one of the senate seats in Vermont will be up for election. Vermont, you’re next. You’ve been warned. He’ll be there soon. At least some things are clear already.
All else is a bit murky. What does it all mean? Give it a day or two. All the pundits will tell us, but for now it’s a wave, according to the master statistician Nate Silver:
The GOP could finish with as many as 55 seats. Alaska has yet to close its polls. Louisiana will go to a runoff on Dec. 6, and Republicans will be favored there – unless Democrat Mary Landrieu’s campaign benefits from the fact that control of the Senate is no longer at stake. Virginia Democrat Mark Warner still looks more likely than not to hold his seat, but the fact that his race was so close speaks to how awful a night it has been for Democrats. Jeanne Shaheen’s win in New Hampshire looks like a minor miracle now.
As for Rick Scott holding onto his governorship in Florida, there’s Ben Jacobs’ analysis:
Scott, a former hospital CEO whose company was fined over $1.7 billion by the federal government over a massive Medicare fraud scheme, had eked out a victory in 2010 in a Republican wave, relying heavily on his own personal wealth. His good will with Floridians evaporated quickly with his support for strict voter ID regulation and his opposition to Medicaid expansion. Scott made matters worse when he pushed back against environmental protections to the Everglades supported by Jeb Bush; his record in office was labeled an environmental disaster by the Tampa Bay Tribune’s editorial board.
Crist, for his part, was viewed even by many supporters as an amoral professional politician, uninterested in any ideology or political party save his own personal advancement. Butterflies emerging from cocoons underwent metamorphoses far less dramatic than the political one Crist underwent in the past four years. Crist, who was once a pro-life and anti-gay marriage Republican, now claims to be a socially liberal Democrat who supported a woman’s right to choose and same-sex unions.
Stuck trying to choose between the lesser of two evils, Florida voters narrowly backed the socially distant Republican who bore a resemblance to Skeletor than warm, sociable orange-colored Democrat of convenience.
There was no one anyone wanted to vote for down there, or anywhere else for that matter. More than a few red states voted for a mandated higher minimum wage, some states voted for legal pot and for actual abortion access of all things – and also voted in Republican senators and congressmen and governors, who have consistently vowed to fight all those things. Go figure.
Something else was going on here. This was clearly not about all these woefully absurd candidates. This was an election about Obama, and Politico chronicled that:
The president was the theme that ran through all the races. Obamacare, ISIL, Ebola, the economy – for Republicans, these all were different ways of talking about how terrible the president is, not making the country or the world work for Americans. And that talk only hardened in the final days of this year’s races.
Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Republican hoping to knock out Sen. Mary Landrieu, said plainly to reporters Saturday in New Orleans what the GOP’s been thinking all across the country.
“The issues are on our side. Every week the president does something to help us. Folks here are wondering why in the heck she would support the fellow when he’s against what they see as the right thing to do,” Cassidy said. “So, it works for us.”
Democrats, meanwhile, spent months figuring out new ways to distance themselves from the president and say they disagreed with his positions.
There were specifics:
Joni Ernst, the Republican nominee who headed into the final days appearing to have an edge over Rep. Bruce Braley, told POLITICO on Sunday that the president is the reason she believes she’s headed to a win in the state where Obama’s march to the White House began.
“Iowans are rejecting President Obama and his policies, which Congressman Braley has supported over the past six years of his time in Congress,” Ernst said while standing at a train depot in Osceola. “We are seeing that Iowans want a different direction, and they are choosing to go with me.”
North Carolina GOP Senate nominee Thom Tillis used the specter of Obama’s last two years in office to propel his cause. “Can you imagine if we don’t get a Senate majority what this president will do in the remaining two years of his term?” he asked 300 supporters in a high school cafeteria in Catawba, North Carolina.
Speaking a day earlier at a rally for Sen. Kay Hagan in Raleigh, Bill Clinton said Tillis’ strategy was clear.
“He’s trying take to her off the ballot and put the president on it,” Clinton said. “Isn’t that what’s going on? He knows the president’s having a hard time.”
Even with Obama’s job approval ticking slightly up in recent weeks, according to Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling released Sunday, the overall number of people who say they want “a great deal of change” is higher than in 2010 – 87 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats.
Some Democrats tried to counter this, but that was futile:
“If they don’t like Obama, that’s fine,” said former Sen. John Breaux during an interview at a pro-Landrieu rally in Lafayette, Louisiana, on Friday. “But he’s not on the ballot in Louisiana.”
But at a rally Saturday, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the senator’s brother, acknowledged that is indeed where Republican feelings are in one of the races that could end up deciding control of the Senate.
“Bill Cassidy has told everybody who he hates and this is really clear,” he said. “If you want to elect somebody who will spend every day hating every breath that Obama makes and tearing down everything that Congress tries to do, you know who to vote for.”
They knew who to vote for, and the Washington Post ran a long item analyzing where Obama went wrong:
Obama’s journey from triumphant, validated Democratic hero to a political millstone weighing on his party’s chances is a tale of a second-term president quickly and repeatedly sidetracked by a series of crises — some self-inflicted — and the widely held perception that the White House has not managed them well.
The fallout has led to questions about the president’s effectiveness, his resolve and his general ability to lead, at home and abroad.
“This is an administration that is very good at articulating some of its plans and responses and has delivered good speeches, but translating that into action has been a problem for the past six years,” said David Rothkopf, the author of “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear.” “Right now, the vast preponderance of evidence is that management is not one of the strong suits of this administration.”
This is the evidence:
Obama’s list of second-term leadership crises is a formidable one: the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov; long waits at Veterans Affairs hospitals; Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s secrets; a pileup of foreign children along the southern border; Islamist terrorists marauding across Syria and Iraq and beheading foreigners, including Americans; and the arrival of the Ebola virus in the United States.
“These are legitimate crises in their own right that have to be dealt with by the president. That’s his job,” said AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer, a White House ally who blames the GOP for blocking Obama’s economic agenda. “But that has dampened his ability to speak out on other issues.”
Maybe the man was in over his head, but would President Palin or President Romney have done any better? Would Hillary Clinton have done any better, or Donald Trump? Andrew Sullivan is willing to cut Obama some slack:
For me, the most persuasive answer to the question was the botched roll-out of healthcare.gov. No one else can be blamed for this, and it hit the president’s ratings like a ten-ton truck, as well it might. October 2013 is when his disapproval rating first clearly topped the approval rating with some daylight and stayed there. And the fall of 2013 was also when he pivoted away from striking Syria – which brought a chorus of disapproval from the Washington bigwigs and, of course, the GOP.
These two events dented his image of competence. Both seemed amateurish to most people. And when an image is altered like that with clearly understandable and very public fuck-ups, it’s hard to regain momentum. Both also followed another nightmarish confrontation with the GOP over the debt limit and a very public failure to pass any gun control legislation even after Sandy Hook.
But what this superficial version of events misses is what happened next. The truth is that the Obama team subsequently achieved a near-miraculous rescue of Obamacare, achieved real success in enrollment, and we have seen core healthcare costs slow down, in such a way that could yet shift our long-term fiscal liabilities for the better. Obamacare is almost certainly here to stay – surviving one pitched battle after the next. As for Syria, Obama turned that crisis into opportunity, by seizing a compromise brokered by Russia which managed to locate, transport and destroy all but a few traces of Assad’s chemical stockpile. This remains a huge, and hugely under-appreciated achievement – and if you think I’m exaggerating, imagine what the stakes would now be in that region (and the world) if ISIS had a chance to get its hands on that stuff.
That’s not all:
The same can be said of the economy. No other developed country has achieved the growth that the US has after the stimulus – including austerity-bound Germany. No other administration has presided over a steeper fall in the deficit. The brutal facts of the twenty-first century global economy has meant this has not been felt very much among the beleaguered middle class. But who is offering on either side a real solution to that by-product of globalization, trade and technology? Again, on the actual substance, Obama has a strong record – dented by the avalanche of hostility from the right and disgruntlement from everyone but the very rich.
And then there’s the matter of crisis management:
Well, what would the GOP have done with respect to Russia? As it is, that country is more isolated internationally than ever and is being punished economically by sanctions and a tumbling oil price. Ebola? Tell me when we have an outbreak in this country. IS? Again, I dispute the idea that this could have been avoided if the US had entered the Syrian civil war earlier – by funneling arms to rebels who have recently folded or joined al Qaeda. And Obama’s pragmatic response has been a form of containment at IS’ borders – again the least-worst option available.
Sullivan would rather pin these messes we’re in, again and again, on the Republicans:
They judged early on that the real promise of Obama – his ambition to transcend the old politics in favor of pragmatic reform – could be killed if they simply refused to play along. That they denied an incoming president any support for a stimulus package in the middle of a spiraling economy was eloquent enough – but we now know of course that this was the strategy hatched privately before Obama even took office.
And then there are the folks on the other side:
There is the disillusionment of some on the left who regard any use of surveillance against Jihadist terrorism as outrageous (even as they also oppose all other means of fighting the menace), who see Obamacare as a sell-out to the insurance lobby, who wanted much more populism against Wall Street, and who loathe drone warfare and the new campaign against IS. They have the right to object on all these grounds, and I’m sympathetic to some. But they have too often missed the tough reality of protecting American security in the age of global jihad, and no one gives him credit for the remarkable absence of major terror attacks on his watch. They also tend to miss substantive shifts Obama has made in other areas – the toughest emissions standards ever imposed by the federal government, for example, or the astonishing acceptance of marriage equality or openly gay service members – and underestimated the difficulty of governing in such a deeply polarized electorate.
Sullivan just doesn’t get it:
I cannot see any substantive reason why Obama has lost altitude. And this – rather than endless accounts of how his popularity has fallen – is what should matter. And I say that particularly to those who supported him with such fervor in 2008 and grit in 2012. If you have real substantive disagreements with his policies, fine. But if this presidency was worth fighting for six years ago, it is worth fighting for again today. He never promised us perfection – merely endurance and persistence in substantively changing the nation and the world for the better. He has easily demonstrated that persistence against truly vitriolic demonization. The easy cynicism and cheap piling on are not, in my view, what he deserves. What he deserves is our support – while we are still lucky to have him in the White House. And that support should not end as the GOP wins tonight and as the Clintons hover in the wings.
Good luck with that, but late, the Associated Press reported this:
Most of the Americans voting Tuesday say they are dissatisfied or angry with the Obama administration. But they’re not so fond of the opposition, either.
Exit polls find just 1 in 5 voters say they trust the government to do what is right most or all of the time.
About a quarter say they are dissatisfied or angry with both Obama and the GOP leadership in Congress. Another six in ten are unhappy with one or the other of them.
Perhaps the midterms weren’t about Obama after all. Both sides were fatally wounded here, but this is curious:
The surveys show voters taking positions that align more with Democrats on many issues. Majorities favor a way for those in the country illegally to stay, for example.
At the same time, most think the government is trying to do too many things – an opinion more aligned with Republicans.
The American people are confused, but very angry, at something, or someone. They don’t know who or what. They simply don’t like things as they are, and they vote. No one knows why. That makes an election postmortem impossible. Something happened. Something always does.