Barack Obama has now delivered the worst midterm election performances of any two-term president since Harry Truman in 1946 and 1950. Obama led 60 senators and 256 members of Congress into the 2010 election; he leaves the 2014 vote with 45 senators and 192 congressional members. Democrats already stunned and dismayed by the 2014 results—which also put the GOP in control of 32 of 50 statehouses, including those in deep-blue Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts, as well as 69 of the country’s 99 state legislative houses—were thrown further by the president’s “What, Me Worry?” performance at his postelection news conference.
Since the returns came in, MSNBC and, to a lesser extent, CNN, have offered the best TV viewing. On what was formerly and may once again be dubbed the Clinton News Network, the ineffable Gloria Borger insisted by word and raised eyebrow that the real story here was the difficult position Republicans would find themselves in in 2016. Commentators on MSNBC were more imaginative. Brows deeply furrowed, Chris Matthews snarled that blue-state Democrats had paid a high price for disassociating themselves from the president. Matthews, among others, has suggested that had more Democrats allowed Obama to campaign on their behalf, then the president could have reassembled the coalition that had won two presidential elections. That’s one alibi; another, offered by the president himself, holds that the midterm electorate isn’t truly representative of the country, whose silent (Democratic) majority will make its voice heard again in 2016.
Some MSNBC commentators, such as former labor secretary Robert Reich, insisted that big money had brought down the Democrats. Reich wasn’t asked to explain how it was that Democrat Kay Hagan outspent her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, by nearly two-and-a-half to one in the North Carolina Senate race, only to lose. Reich also argued that, in what became a nationalized election, the Democrats lost because Obama had been too moderate—the president’s bland, technocratic style had apparently turned voters off. Not all on the left fell back on the too much/too little Obama analyses. Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast noted that the white working class had all but deserted the Democrats. And Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that Democrats and Obama can’t simply blame defeat on an inevitable falloff in the midterm vote. They failed, he argued, to give the faithful enough reason to cast a ballot.
More conservative commentators offered other substantive explanations. The New York Times and the networks couldn’t save the liberals, wrote Richard Fernandez of the Belmont Club, because “the news has hijacked the news cycle.” Unlike Benghazi, ISIS and Ebola were too big to be ignored. Paying more attention as Election Day approached, the public saw an Obama administration tying itself in knots over foreign policy and unleashing a stream of inanities and non sequiturs on Ebola.
Before we pay too much attention to 2016, we’re likely to witness a tough fight among Democrats. Interviewed on MSNBC, Seattle mayor Ed Murray touted his city’s minimum-wage hike as the path to reclaiming majority support. Four states, he noted, had already passed such hikes. But even leaving aside the dubious economics of a higher minimum wage, the policy is small-bore, focused narrowly on less than 5 percent of the population. Murray, mayor of a tech-rich city of singles; Bill de Blasio, mayor of a city without a middle-class Hispanic neighborhood; and Jerry Brown, governor of a state with the highest percentage of its population in poverty, needn’t worry about Democrats’ loss of white working-class support—where they govern, that population has dwindled dramatically.
The Obama top-and-bottom coalition—well-heeled professionals at one end, low-income government-benefit recipients at the other—can’t be fully recreated, because it was, in large measure, the personal achievement of our first African-American president. No successor can expect to generate such a high turnout from African-Americans, who voted nearly 50-to-1 against Republicans. And with the Obama coalition unlikely to reassemble in 2016 and no other Democrat, including the now wealthy and Goldman Sachs-linked Hillary Clinton, looking like a good bet to win back white working-class voters, the party’s future is up for grabs.
The press speaks of tensions between Democratic centrists and leftists, but the crucial cleavage is as much geographic as ideological. The division that matters now in the Democratic Party is—Minnesota partly excepted—that between littoral cities that have become enclaves of the wealthy and most of the rest of the country. In an earlier era, Keynesian economic policy, with its purportedly class-wide benefits and pork-laden handouts, could knit these disparate groups together. But Keynesianism failed time and again to produce economic growth. And now liberals are so deeply in hock to the no-growth policies of their environmentally oriented money men that they are left without even the lineaments of a broad-based economic policy.
Until we see how the intra-Democratic conflict plays out, speculation about 2016 isn’t worth much. Just as important, intra-liberal tensions may well hang on whether the Republicans’ McConnell-Boehner congressional leadership can attract any of the working-class voters who were so cold to Mitt Romney in 2012. The party that can win over Americans concerned about lost work and stagnant incomes will probably prevail two years from now.