Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Advice for the Democrats

President Barack Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech at McCormick Place on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / SF

Election night in Chicago, after Obama's victory speech. Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / SF.

My colleagues Yohanes Sulaiman and JD Hamel have offered their thoughts on the recent U.S. elections, focusing in particular on the plight of the political right. Here, in this post, I focus on the elections and America's left, including the Democratic Party. Viewed properly, our three pieces complement each other. Regardless of your political persuasion, I hope our pieces give you a sense of what has just happened and where the future is headed in American politics.

Let's begin with the obvious: it's been more than a week since America's elections, and the Democrats and their liberal supporters are still rejoicing in the results. The democrats retained the presidency and picked up seats in the Senate. They pulled out a win despite the sluggish economy, a torrent of negative ads from the right, and a never ending slush fund, from Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and network of shady conservative Super PACs, that backed right-wing candidates and causes. As I see it, the odds should have been stacked against the Democrats, and Obama especially, on November 6.

Barack Obama's bid for reelection probably should have gone the way of George H. W. Bush. Both men struck major foreign policy successes--the low-cost defense of Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War for Bush, and the death of Osama bin Laden for Obama--yet found their administrations overtaken by economic stagnation and difficulties. In fact, so successful was the first Persian Gulf War that Bush's approval rating soared over 90 percent, much higher than Obama's ever was in his first term. Yet Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992, in the "it's the economy, stupid" vote, while Obama avoided avoided Bush's fate as a one-term president. Why?

It was a combination of what the Democrats did right and what the Republicans did wrong. On the one hand, Obama supported policies more in line with American policy preferences. Americans trusted Obama to pursue and execute these policies. Further, his campaign did a good job of identifying and targeting voters--using a variety of tools--possibly inclined to vote for Democratic candidates, including Obama himself.

As for the republicans, they endured a host of self-inflicted difficulties and setbacks. Here are several to consider.

1. Mitt Romney was a mediocre at best candidate. He really didn't offer a good reason for centrist democrats and independents to vote for him. In particular, he presented few specifics on his domestic, foreign, and economic policies, and didn't set forth any new ideas. He campaigned much like John Kerry did in 2004. Both believed that the American electorate was so fed up with the incumbent president that it was sufficient to pound the message that they were against Bush and Obama rather than clearly highlight what they stood for.

2. The Romney campaign waged an ineffective ground game, investing little effort in knocking on doors and other forms of person-to-person outreach.

3. There was way too much talk about abortion and rape, not only from Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock but also from Romney and Paul Ryan.

4. Yes, the demographics shift, which tells us that the U.S. has a slowly shrinking Caucasian population relative to Asian and Latino and African Americans, also mattered. Election results show that Obama handily won all three ethnicities, which more than offset his declining vote total among white citizens.

5. The final straw, and arguably the most humorous part of the entire campaign season, was the polling fiasco. In the run-up to the elections, the conservatives deluded themselves into thinking the polling data from a host of organizations--data which predicted an Obama victory--were biased and that Romney would win. Dick Morris, George Will, Sean Hannity, and Charles Krauthammer were among an army of conservatives who fit this description. Indeed, some conservatives took the initiative to create a web site called "unskewed polls," which, as the name suggests, aimed to unskew the so-called liberal polls. The problem is that these polls weren't skewed; they reflected the demographic and party ID realities in 2012 America.

It wasn't just conservative pundits and conservative citizens who believed in a Romney victory, Romney himself was ultra-confident that victory was his. Reports indicate that Romney was "shellshocked" at his electoral defeat. In retrospect, it's clear he really did believe that. It's why he played it very, very conservatively down the stretch. If you recall, he canceled all media appearances, did not field questions from the media while on the road, and gave an odd performance in the third presidential debate, in which he essentially rubber stamped many of Obama's policies. Romney believed the election was his to lose, and so he didn't want to risk making any gaffes in the campaign's final weeks. Of course, he was wrong; Obama held the lead in the last few weeks. What Romney did, in effect, was create an out-of-sight out-of-mind campaign at a crucial moment. Conservatives argue that it was Hurricane Sandy that contributed to this. And while I agree that Sandy did the Romney campaign no favors, Romney's play-it-safe approach was well in motion before Sandy made national headlines.

As you might expect, the left is relishing in these factors and events. They are enjoying the soul searching and teeth gnashing on the right, which is in the very nascent stages of trying to hash out where the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally should go in the future. Certainly, it was a big win for the left, and there's some justification for a little celebration.

That said, though, the liberals and Democrats ought not rest on their laurels. Despite the big win and the right's major screw-ups, and despite the apparent demographic trends, the left is by no means guaranteed future political success at the polls. Here are a few reasons for some caution:

1. Barack Obama was a very unique candidate. His race, age, and oratory skills make him an inspiring figure unlike any other in the Democratic Party right now. I suspect many Americans primarily casted their vote for him, Barack Obama, rather than for his policies or for the Democratic Party. If that's the case, what happens when Obama leaves office? Will that negatively impact the election chances for the 2016 Democratic nominee for president? And in the absence of Obama on the ballot, will House and Senate democrats in 2016 struggle to capture and hold seats in Congress

2. Gerrymandering might nullify the putative pro-left demographic changes in some house races.

3. In 2014 (and 2018, 2022, and so on), when the youth fail to vote in the same numbers as they did in 2008 and 2012, as usually happens in so-called off-year elections, the Republicans will gain a distinct advantage.
Hence, the Democrats shouldn't get complacent. First, they need to fix the economy by working to ensure continued growth and reduced unemployment. Without progress on these fronts, the Democrats will feel the heat at the polls in 2014 and beyond. At a certain point, and that point is approaching, the Democrats will be the party that takes the brunt of the criticism--from the right, left, and centrist voters--for the state of the American economy.
Second, the Democrats ought to find issues that naturally fit with the party platform and also speak to a wide range of people. I suggest climate change. This is an issue, if articulated better, can be sold to young people for sure, but also centrists and those who lean to the right. For example, I would think a wide swath of people agree that it's a good idea for the U.S. to wean itself off of fossil fuels so as to reduce the leverage that strongmen and theocrats, in Russia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, have over the world. Moreover, the neocons and liberal internationalists, who heartily support democracy promotion, should realize that high gas prices allow the world's bad guys to insulate themselves from internal pressure for reform.

There is also a moral dimension here, one that should be highlighted. Namely, we have a moral responsibility to protect and conserve all of the wonderful natural wonders and resources that mother nature or God has granted to America. There is no good reason to be greedy, to wastefully use up the precious raw materials and resources, and there is no reason to despoil the earth.

Plus, given the recent spate of devastating storms and disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, which respected scientists have linked in various ways to changes in the climate, it might be a good time for Democrats to push climate change toward the top of their policy agenda. In a practical sense, it is an awfully good idea to begin the process of putting in place a comprehensive climate/energy/infrastructure plan that keeps people and cities safe and secure. And in a political sense, with climate change an increasingly topical and resonant issue for Americans across the political spectrum, Democratic politicians might find that they finally have enough support to get something done.

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