WASHINGTON -- Call it a thumping. Call it a shellacking. However you want to describe the 2014 midterm elections, the point remains the same. Democrats took it on the chin Tuesday night, losing the Senate, getting crushed in winnable governors' races, solidifying their minority status in the House for years to come, and stemming the party's ability to continue putting its stamp on the judiciary.
The question is whether it was all avoidable. Democratic strategists will say that the party was dealt a terrible hand, forced to defend too many vulnerable Democrats in red states against too much money. It was, to be sure, a lousy hand. But Democrats never tried to play it.
Candidates across the country shunned the president, with one famously refusing even to say whether she voted for him; they ran from the party's signature accomplishment, national health care reform; and they panicked when the White House considered doing broad-based immigration reform by executive action. Instead, a robust get out the vote operation was supposed to save the party, which rested its hopes in shifting demographic trends and fear of GOP extremists. But when you don't give your voters much to "get out" for, what's left?
"We gave Dems no reason to run," said an adviser to President Barack Obama. "We ran as Dems-lite."
The decision not to take action on immigration was, perhaps, the best example of a Democratic strategy that was too cute by half. The delay was intended to protect vulnerable red state Democrats, as if the only thing stopping anti-immigrant voters from backing Democrats was a potential executive action. Despite the delay, Democrats in Arkansas, North Carolina and Iowa lost, while Sen. Mary Landrieu was forced into a runoff in Louisiana she is expected to lose.
Making the bold move, meanwhile, was expected to boost enthusiasm among Latino voters to the benefit of Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, a purple state with a sizable Hispanic population. Instead, he lost to Republican Cory Gardner.
There was evidence that voters were willing to support progressive positions. Voters in Arkansas and Nebraska voted heavily in favor of a minimum wage increase, while those same voters in Arkansas defeated Democrat Mark Pryor, who had voted against a federal wage hike in line with the interests of the state's dominant company, Walmart. Candidates in both parties turned progressive in their rhetoric in the final weeks, on everything from renewable energy to reproductive freedom.
With control of the Senate now resting in Republican hands, the White House is left to recalibrate its ambitions. An administration official told The Huffington Post Tuesday evening, before all of the results had come in, that the president would keep pushing for his core priorities -- including the continued implementation of Obamacare.
But he also recognizes the demands of a new Congress. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough "has been running a process to prepare for the lame duck session," the aide said. After that, the White House hopes to find some middle ground with congressional Republicans on matters like corporate tax reform to help pay for infrastructure repairs, funding for the Ebola epidemic and cybersecurity preparedness.
Meanwhile, the action will continue to shift away from the legislature, as power gathers in the judiciary, the executive branch and in the statehouses. Beyond the coming executive action on immigration, the administration is finalizing major rules on greenhouse gas emissions and still has an outstanding decision to make on the Keystone XL pipeline.
In the absence of a Democratic agenda to vote for, voters found something to vote against, registering their anger with the direction and structure of the economy. Attitudes measured in exit polls were negative in the extreme, with eight in 10 saying they were dissatisfied by the performance of Congress and 54 percent giving the thumbs down to Obama. A potent majority was unhappy with the U.S. economic system itself, with nearly two-thirds of voters saying it's unfair and favors the wealthy and only 32 percent saying it's fair to most people, a shift even since 2012. (One percent deemed the economy "excellent.")
Insecurity and fear, leading motivators of voters, have been in abundant supply over the past several years, exacerbated over the summer by the sudden rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and an Ebola outbreak that has captivated world attention.
On Tuesday evening, some top officials argued that there simply was no way to turn those rotten lemons into drinkable lemonade. How, after all, were Democrats supposed to trumpet a president who remained intensely unpopular, or embrace a health care law that's consistently polled poorly, or make a coherent argument that they deserve power when a string of events has caused voters to question their competence?
"In the end, they had to do what they did to [try to] get re-elected," said Jim Manley, former top spokesman to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the soon to be former senate majority leader. "There will be plenty of time for second-guessing later on. But I’m of the belief they tried to make the best decision they could."
Manley now works for Quinn Gillespie & Associates -- the lobby shop that had been home to Republican Ed Gillespie before he nearly unseated Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on Tuesday. Warner, the epitome of centrism in Washington, offered little contrast to his opponent.
Having only cracked open the bottle of wine as the clock struck midnight, Manley studiously avoided playing the blame game. Plenty of others were willing to do it for him.
"There was no alternative as far as campaign strategy goes. In a blowout like this that runs across governors races too it's clear this wasn't about senate campaign strategy," said one Senate Democratic aide. "The only alternative was for the White House to not fuck up the rollout of Obamacare, which set us back immeasurably at a time when we had Rs on the ropes by keeping Democrats unified during the shutdown."
The aide has a point. While the Republican Party remains more unpopular, its image has recovered since the worst days of the government shutdown, as Democrats' favorability ratings continue to sink.
Democrats and the president are in a difficult political spot, getting blamed for a sagging economy that they have little power to improve without control of Congress. But it is also a problem partly of their own making. As early as May 2010, more than six months before Democrats lost control of Congress for the rest of Obama's term, the party turned its focus away from jobs and stimulus and toward deficit reduction and belt tightening. The resulting fiscal pullback slowed the economic recovery and contributed to anger at Washington, which typically gets directed at the party that controls the White House. While pundits spent the last six years warning that voters cared first and foremost about the deficit, the news that it has plummeted under Obama was nevertheless met with a rebuke from voters.
Democrats also suffered from a flood of big money that entered the system as a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. At the same time, the collapse of the traditional media has allowed candidates with bizarre conspiracy theories to broadcast themselves as middle-of-the-road folks.
If there is one silver lining for Democrats in a night filled with misery, it's that the Republican hold on the Senate is likely tenuous. The field was tilted heavily against Democrats in 2014, with Senate races held in red states where Obama was even more unpopular than he was nationally.
But in 2016, the GOP's tea party wave will be up, with Republicans defending 26 seats while Democrats are on the line in just 10 races. Republicans will be forced to defend seats in New Hampshire, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and several other states that are likely to go Democratic in the presidential election.
Between now and then, little governing involving Congress and the White House will take place. The president will implement some form of executive action that allows undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally, while he explores other ways to implement an agenda absent congressional approval. The flow of judicial and executive confirmations will slow, the budget will run on autopilot absent another shutdown threat, and a series of standoffs will give way to the 2016 elections.
Beyond that, said one high-level Republican congressional aide, the American people should expect little. "The congressional agenda does not match up with normal people's lives," he observed.