Democrats’ avoidance strategies and lack of engagement

An apparent signal that Democrats were shifting to a defensive posture in these midterm elections came most assuredly when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled support from Alison Lundergan Grimes in her Kentucky Senate race against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) following an almost biblical refusal to acknowledge her vote for President Obama in the last election (they have since restored a portion of it). Democrats also pulled ads from the Virginia congressional campaign of John Foust, one of the most closely watched in the country.

{mosads}Blurring the lines between themselves and the Obama administration is de rigueur for many high-profile Democratic candidates across the country, who clumsily vacillate between policy moderation and ignoring — rather than disagreeing with — the party’s de facto leader. The change complements a well-sculpted narrative of substantial Democratic losses this November. Despite some optimism, the soul-searching once ascribed to Republicans is firmly encamped within Democratic politics. Aside from the ideological tussles between progressives and moderates, as 2016 approaches the party will need to reconcile the demands of modern campaigns with voter expectations of governance and engagement.

The avoidance strategies are disheartening considering that only five years ago the president won a Nobel Peace Prize for a campaign many heralded as the healing of racial and political rifts within the U.S. and across continents. That first campaign eschewed party and institutional politics out of necessity, and Obama won the presidency due in part to his proficient adoption of social media that quickly established real and virtual communities of support — the groundwork of which was laid four years earlier by another presidential candidate, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D).

The campaign’s use of social media analytics and algorithms, combined with shrewd campaign tactics and a masterful articulation of ideas during speeches, veiled the President’s disdain for retail and cloakroom politics — the politics of engagement with lawmakers of either party. Despite its frequent derision, hands-on political engagement provides stakeholders of all types comfort in the process of governance and paves the way for successes and failures on Capitol Hill to be translated into the impact on the daily lives of Americans.

These days, we see Bill and Hillary Clinton demonstrating considerable alacrity to stump for candidates displaying an inimitable ability to turn complex policy and the opaqueness of D.C. politics into tangible effects in ways that are both informative and mobilizing. And while the Obama coalition was highly personalized, segmented and hugely successful, it doesn’t seem to translate easily to other candidates, a feature crucial to an older style of politicking.

As is typical in state and national campaigns, the final weeks see a flurry of activity to energize and mobilize black voters — this November, their votes will be crucial in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida — and conspicuously, an African-American president is not on the campaign trail to engage them. Furthermore, investigations earlier this year revealed that the Democratic National Committee has done little to improve minority contracting, which suggests further constricting of lines of communication between Democrats and core voters.

There is good news from researcher David Bositis, who writes that more black candidates are running for statewide office than ever before — possibly outside political machines — owing partly to an Obama coattail effect suggested by Columbia University political science professor Fredrick Harris. Bu it could also be the result of a laissez faire political approach rather than the dynamism of the type Jesse Jackson utilized in the 1980s and 1990s to push for greater minority representation in elected office and governing regimes. Whatever the cause, party-building activities that were once avenues for candidate recruitment, support and surrogate message delivery have atrophied and may contribute heavily to Democrats losses this year.

Despite the vitriol shown President Obama by House and Senate members and independent groups, the White House can tout important policy successes to which midterm candidates can hang their hat. Early missteps notwithstanding, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has helped millions of uninsured Americans, many of them poor and minorities, with coverage options. Even Ohio’s Republican governor and frequent Obama critic, John Kasich, could not refuse his constituents the benefits of expanded Medicaid coverage allowed under the law. Administration policies contracted the deficit and reduced unemployment while simultaneously keeping inflation low and pushing the markets to record highs.

Not only do voters have difficulty enumerating the president’s successes, but the fact that candidates can’t or won’t do so is a disservice to the administration and to voters who deserve to know the truth about how their president has performed in office. As we pivot into the 2016 cycle, Democratic successes should be measured not only in legislative or policy accomplishments but also grounded in the politics of implementation, since both process and outcomes are closely intertwined and equally important.

Smikle is a political analyst and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies.

Tags 2014 Elections Alison Lundergan Grimes Howard Dean John Foust midterms Mitch McConnell

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