Democrats have no one to blame but themselves

Call it a Republican wave or landslide. The Republicans smashed Democrats at every level of government in the midterm elections of 2014.

The GOP gained a clear majority in the U.S. Senate and expanded its majority in the House. It also won virtually every contested race for governor, even in such ordinarily blue Democratic states as Illinois — the president’s home state — and Massachusetts – the home of the Kennedys. Republican governors now control most governorships in the United States.

In perhaps the most stunning upset of the evening, Republican Larry Hogan thumped African-American Democrat Anthony Brown by about 9 percentage points in Maryland, my home state. Maryland is arguably the second-bluest state in America after Hawaii. Before this year, it had elected precisely one Republican governor since Spiro Agnew’s victory in 1966.

{mosads}Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for their defeat. All midterm elections are a referendum on the sitting president and Barack Obama’s low approval ratings hurt his party. According to exit poll results, 58 percent of those casting ballots in the midterms were either dissatisfied with or angry at the White House, while just 41 percent said they were enthusiastic or satisfied with the administration.

Ironically, Obama is polling below what would be expected from the objective situation in the United States. The economy is growing briskly, unemployment is at a seven-year low, gas prices are below $3.00 per gallon for the first time in recent memory. There have been no terrorist attacks on the United States under Obama’s watch. The Ebola virus is no serious threat to the American people. It remains unknown how the confrontation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will end.

The presidential failure largely results from a deficit of leadership. The magical Barack Obama of the 2008 campaign has rarely emerged during a tenure in which the president has failed to take control over national debates, and allowed himself to be defined by others. Perhaps Obama has become the victim of the notorious Washington bubble, surrounded by ad men, pollsters, consultants and hucksters. He would be best advised to give every one of them a long vacation starting now and ending in January 2017.

Obama was not the only problem for Democrats. Most Democratic losers ran vapid, uninspiring campaigns without messages that appealed to their base electorate or turned independents in their favor. As one African-American voter in Maryland said of Brown, “You don’t get my vote because you look like me; I need a concrete message. Sorry, Brown, I didn’t get that from you!”

Democratic candidates also failed to learn one of the most basic lessons of politics: You can’t run away from the president of your own party. Attempts by candidates to distance themselves from Obama simply left them looking weak and empty, with no positive results. Running away from a sitting president did not help Republicans in 2006 or 2008. It did not help Democrats in 2010 or this year.

Exit polls show that more Americans view the GOP than the Democrats unfavorably. The few Democrats who won in tight races, such as Sen. Jean Shaheen in New Hampshire and Sen-elect. Gary Peters in Michigan, defended progressive policies on the economy, healthcare and climate change. Several groups devoted to combatting climate change targeted Shaheen and Peters for support, including NextGen Climate and Vote Climate U.S. PAC.

It is further worth noting that four solidly red states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — had minimum wage referenda on the ballot. The voters in all of these states by margins ranging from 53 percent to 68 percent voted to raise their state’s minimum wage. Nationally, nearly 60 percent of poll respondents favored raising the minimum wage.

The lesson for Democrats is clear. You cannot win by turning tail and running away from your president. You cannot win by being like Republicans. You can only win by advancing the same progressive policies that have powered victories for Democrats from FDR to Obama.

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.

Tags 2014 Elections 2014 midterms Anthony Brown Barack Obama Gary Peters Jeanne Shaheen midterms

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