Where Do We Go from Here?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images
Barack Obama leaving the briefing room of the White House as Bill Clinton 
discusses the economy, December 10, 2010


President Obama, a master of understatement, did it again when he described the Democratic midterm losses as a “shellacking.” No, it was a massacre. The party lost support from virtually every demographic group. Even Michigan auto workers whose jobs were saved by the bailout of GM voted Republican. While Democrats got some comic relief from Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Carl Paladino in New York, in reality it is hard to see how things could have been much worse.

Jonathan Martin at Politico has observed that the impressive expansion of the electoral map that Democrats enjoyed in 2008 has evaporated. Conservative-leaning states won by Obama in 2008—Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana—swung back to the Republican column. Critical swing states that Obama won in 2008—Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida—abandoned the Democrats. What’s left is an electoral map that looks a lot like the 2004 presidential election between George Bush and John Kerry, characterized by district-by-district trench warfare. As Paul Begala succinctly noted, “If Obama holds the Kerry states and carries only the states in which Democrats prevailed in 2010, he loses.” In the present environment, even holding onto the Kerry states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey looks challenging.

Was this disaster caused by reactions to the awful economy—an economy that Obama believes he saved, but not sufficiently to please voters? Or was it, as the Republicans believe, a repudiation of Obama and all that he and Nancy Pelosi stand for?

There’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that the results were mainly attributable to the economy. Well before the actual midterm vote, the political scientist Douglas Hibbs, the father of quantitative election analysis, predicted a huge loss for Democrats on the basis of nothing but the economy’s poor performance and the fact that the Democrats, having picked up so many seats in the previous election, were electorally overextended. In 2008, voters who were concerned about the economy clearly broke for Obama. Now, according to a CBS poll, 65 percent of voters believe that the Obama stimulus package has hurt the economy.

But even if it was the economy, there’s no guarantee that 2012 will be any better. The economy may not improve—in part because the new Republican House majority will oppose any policy that might make things better. And the Obama administration has consistently made the worst politically of a bad economy, overpromising, underdelivering, and seemingly going out of its way to alienate those who should be its supporters.

If Democrats are to have any hope of turning things around, this has to change, fast.


Despite what optimists within the White House may believe, the odds are not good for a repeat of 1996, when Bill Clinton made a startling political comeback after…

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