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The Day After the Midterms

By Kevin Robinson in News on Nov 3, 2010 2:00PM

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this election, what to make of it and what it might mean. To say that I've followed it extensively is an understatement: before Labor Day I let myself get so deep into the mechanics of the race that at one point I was reading the comments on Tea Party and right-wing blogs, crack for a political junkie.

For political analysis or a technical run-down of what happened last night in America, you should tune into one of the usual suspects - Politico, Talking Points Memo, the Tribune or the Sun-Times, Breitbart or For me, like many voters that tend to punch the Democratic button in the ballot booth, this election is a shock, even if we saw the train wreck coming months in advance. I remember being in Washington, D.C. on election night 2008, when a spontaneous demonstration of Obama supporters broke out in front of the White House, when I heard people running through the streets of DuPont Circle shrieking and yelling in elation. I remember thinking that, like we still talk about "Reagan Democrats," we might soon be talking about "Obama Republicans." Like some of the president's advisers, I think I underestimated the newly-minted minority party, and overestimated the Democrats in congress.

Looking back over the lead up to this election, two things come to mind. The first is that when Democrats try to run to the center in Washington, they get sent packing by voters. In fact, Politico ran a piece recently discussing the 20/20 vision of hindsight that some Democrats are looking at the last congressional term through. Every attempt that Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leadership made to meet in the middle with the GOP was met with rock-ribbed resistance. Even when Republican moderates tried to meet with the majority party in the middle, they were swiftly ostracized and punished by partisan cadres angered by the loss of power and a Democratic agenda that sought to use the power of government to change the way the nation did business or handled crisis. And every step of the way, as Obama and congressional leadership tried to negotiate a compromise with the loyal opposition, they wound up negotiating against themselves, dialing down the goals of their agenda, watering down their proposals to folded arms and the deafening silence of a resounding "NO".

Meanwhile, right-wing and Republican Party activists used the Obama agenda, both his real legislative agenda and the imagined, as an organizing tool to whip up a combination of panic and outrage at government spending, regulation of mega-corporations and a tax base that has been eroded by 30 years of tax cuts and increased spending. On the fringes of that movement, sadly, a combination of nativist fear and outright racism electrified Tea Party activists who, fueled by funding from opaque and obscure donors, built a message machine that rivaled the discipline and communications of Obama's 2008 campaign. Which brings me to the second thing that I saw early on in this race.

The left is not organized.

There was a time in America when the left was more organized. The traditional members that make up the so-called "big tent" of the Democratic Party includes the urban coalitions of medium and large cities, unions and the working class, the civil rights movement, and women, environmentalists, ethnic minorities and youth groups. And none of those groups are as organized as they were just 20 years ago. And while the big-tent of the Democratic Party created contentious primaries and argumentative majorities both statewide and nationwide, still each group had a seat at the table. And the people that belonged to each of those groups (which were never mutually exclusive of each other) could talk to their own, and communicate across boundaries. They had the power to move a message, to bring an issue front-and-center in a political debate and to force their elected officials to vote for their group. Today, those groups went into this election cycle disappointed with the Democrats they had elected to Washington and rested on their laurels. As a result, Tea Partiers and GOP activists drove the political conversation this election season, telling voters that the president's agenda has failed and that he hasn't done anything but spend us deeper into debt.

And while the Tea Party and GOP leaders and candidates talked extensively about what Obama has done wrong, progressives and liberals have grumbled about the inadequacy of the health care reform and the small size of the recovery package, letting the GOP drive the conversation. Fighting a two-front war of vitriolic criticism on the right and progressive apathy on the left, congressional Democrats, and by proxy Obama, fell under the crushing weight of the perception of failure. Don't believe me? Ask people that you know that don't compulsively follow politics. The message is the same: taxes have gone up, the Recovery Act didn't work, health care reform has resulted in a government take over of Medicare. On a darker turn, the President is a foreigner, illegal aliens are taking our jobs and government bureaucrats are making life or death decisions about health care for seniors. These are all messages that members of the Democratic coalition could have at least challenged, had they been organized.

Earlier this summer, that was some talk among the chattering classes about whether the GOP had merited power in congress. And while polling indicates that voters, broadly speaking, don't feel that Republicans have merited holding power in Washington, they clearly don't feel that Democrats have merited holding power, either. And I'm not convinced that all of the Democrats that lost last night were worthy of holding office either. What last night's election tells us is that the Democratic coalition was prepared to rest on its laurels, leaving Barack Obama, and to a lesser extent Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, to lead the party. Leaving Republican purists and Tea Partiers to step into a leadership vacuum and take advantage of voter discontent. And so voters, who might lean Democratic, or who are independent but unhappy with the direction that the GOP took this country in the last 10 years, don't have something worth voting for, meaning they look to the Republican or they stay home. Democrats will have to give voters a reason to come to the polls in the next two years, or risk a return to minority status.