A few observations about this week's elections:
1. Our politics continue to be distorted and corrupted.
In October, 1994, I was in the lounge at Kennedy Airport in New York City waiting to board an Egypt Air flight to Cairo. My fellow passengers, mostly Egyptians, were seated near a television watching a rather engaging program. Being just a few weeks before Election Day, each of the commercial breaks that interrupted the show featured hard-hitting political ads. They were dramatic and graphically compelling as such ads can be, with both the Democratic and Republican candidates' campaigns ferociously attacking each other. One ad raised questions about a candidate's integrity, strongly suggesting that he may have had links to organized crime. This was followed by an ad which flashed headlines claiming that the other candidate hadn't paid taxes and may have been involved in shady financial dealings of one sort or another. These same ads, with slight variants of these themes, played over and over again during each of the TV program's breaks.
An hour or so later, as we boarded the flight, I thought to myself "what must these Egyptians be thinking?" Would it be something like this: "So this is American democracy, where you get to chose between the criminal and the cheat?"
That was the situation two decades ago. Today, it is even worse. Living in the Washington, DC media market, which serves both Maryland and Virginia, both of which featured statewide elections, the attack ads were ugly and mind-numbing. It was even worse in other states. In the hotly contested race for the Senate seat in Iowa, voters were subjected to over 114,000 TV ads. Nationally, over one billion dollars were spent on Senate races alone. The tally for gubernatorial and Congressional races more than matched that amount.
The bottom line is that as pundits and partisans alike are tallying the winners and losers of this year's contests, they should not forget to consider that the real winners were the campaign media consultants and the owners of local television stations, both of whom pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenues. And the real losers were our democracy and the American people, who were turned off by the continuing distortion and corruption of our politics.
2. Did Republicans win the election or did Democrats lose it?
As early as January of 2009, minority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell declared that he was determined to do everything within his power to block the newly elected President's agenda. A year later, he went further saying that he would work to make sure that Obama was "a one-term President". Unlike Democrats who worked, some begrudgingly, with George W. Bush early in his first term to help pass his signature tax-cuts and educational reform legislation, Republicans gave no ground to President Obama. Whatever legislative victories the president won in his first few years in office were won over stiff resistance from the Republican opposition. Contributing to the hyper-partisanship in Washington were the emergence of the Tea Party and the "birther" movement, both of which added to the nation's poisonous political atmosphere.
There are those who raise issue with Obama's aloofness or his "lack of relationships" with Congressional Republicans, ignoring the fact that the increasingly hard-right wing of the GOP never wanted to give relationship-building a chance. They had declared from the outset that they would stymie his efforts and work to defeat him. On too many occasions where compromise might have been possible, the Republican leadership fearing confrontation with their hard-liners, balked at compromise, choosing obstructionism instead.
The problem with too many Democrats was that they cowered in the face of this GOP assault. As my brother, John, noted: in this November's election, while Republicans were busy running against the President, Democrats were running away from him. Instead of campaigning for the real benefits realized by millions of Americans resulting from the Administration's accomplishments: in rescuing the economy which had been in free-fall in 2009; in guaranteeing health insurance coverage for young people and those with pre-existing conditions; in saving college students millions of dollars in student loan fees and in protecting Americans from unscrupulous credit card companies -- too many Democrats sought to deny their connections with these programs, giving Republicans a free ride to attack with no response.
When Democratic candidates wouldn't own their successes and sought to distance themselves from their national agenda -- what choice did they give voters?
This mattered especially as the election came down to the wire and the issue became which party would succeed in the all-important effort to turn out voters. With the President sidelined, his 2008/2012 victorious coalition (African-Americans, Latinos, young people, unmarried professional women, etc.) was not encouraged to turn out in the numbers needed to win. At one point, the President was criticized for saying that while he was not on the ballot, his policies were. He was right and his critics were wrong.
When you lose the struggle to define the stakes in the election, your chances of winning are slim.
3. What happens next?
There was an article this week describing how Republicans, having won control of both houses of Congress, were now working to define their agenda for the next two years. Implied in the piece was the fact that other than their opposition to the President, there is no consensus within the GOP as to how they will govern. The party is deeply divided between: neo-conservatives and isolationists; those who emphasize "social" issues and those who focus on economic policy; and establishment types and the Tea Party. With the 2016 presidential contest looming over the horizon and with many of the protagonists of these competing views seeing themselves as potential candidates, it is unlikely that the Republicans will be able to unify their ranks any time soon.
As they continue their internal struggle, they should consider two facts. In the first place, before getting high-handed about their "mandate", Republicans should remember that while they won the Senate and increased their numbers in the House, a tally of votes, nationally, shows that overall more Americans voted for Democrats than for Republicans. Republicans should also remember that voters will keep them on a short leash, watching how effectively they will govern. While Republicans are fond of noting that President Obama's favorable ratings are a low 42 percent, they should remember that their party's favorable rating is a full 10 points lower and Congress' approval rating is a shockingly low 12 percent.
What we can most likely expect in the next two years are more dysfunction, more rancor, and more gridlock. This will not serve the nation, but it will enhance opportunities for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate in 2016 when the tables will be turned. This year, 2/3's of the contested Senate seats were held by Democrats -- some of whom were swept into office by the Obama coat-tails of 2008. In 2016, it will be Republicans who will be on the defensive since 2/3's of those up for reelection will be from their party.
In the 2016 presidential election year, the Democrats will again have a demographic advantage. African American, Latino, Asian, young, and professional women -- all of whom increasingly vote for Democrats, will all play key roles in the national election. Their participation will also have an impact on Senate contests.
And so it is in this seemingly endless game of politics, one round is over and it's on to the next.
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