If present trends continue and Republicans retake the House, blame should rest squarely on the shoulders of Democrats who followed Tip O’Neill’s famous advice that “all politics is local.” It isn’t any more. The only way for the Obama White House to have limited the damage would have been to nationalize the midterms. It’s too late for that now.
Parties always face the “local-national” dilemma in midterms when turnout is light and the president isn’t on the ballot. Usually it’s the party out of power that nationalizes the contest, as Republicans did when they took control in 1994 with their “Contract With America” and Democrats did in 2006 when they regained Congress with a coherent message attacking President Bush and congressional ethics.
But there are precedents for the party controlling the White House using a national message to limit the usual losses that come with midterms. Democrats used President Kennedy’s successful handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to reduce losses that year, and Republicans actually gained eight House seats in the 2002 midterms after 9/11.
President Obama had no such national-security issue with which to nationalize the contest, but he could have taken a leaf from Ronald Reagan, who used a “Stay the Course” message to prevent big Democratic gains amid a recession in 1982. Reagan’s approval rating of 42 percent then was three points lower than Obama’s this year, but his party came through that year with only a few scratches.
The reason Democrats went local this year was that Blue Dog moderates wanted it that way. Since it’s their careers that are most on the line, they got a big say when it came to planning for this fall. The White House and the Democratic National Committee deferred to their judgment that the best way for them to survive in more-conservative districts was to run away from Obama and tack to the right. Any national message—especially a populist-sounding one—would, by this analysis, only get in the way.
This localized approach to the midterms is understandable, defensible—and wrong. The best way to keep control would have been a national message targeted at independents. According to a recent Gallup poll, they are breaking Republican 53-33 percent. This is a huge turnaround from 2008, when exit polls showed Obama beating John McCain 52-44 percent among independents, who make up a little less than a third of the electorate in presidential years. They are frequently “low-information voters” who stay home in midterms.
Independents tend to care a lot about the deficit and to be moderate on social issues. A national campaign targeted to them would have harshly blamed Republicans for turning Bill Clinton’s surplus into a deficit and represented the Democrats as the party of small business and innovation. With eight tax cuts for small business passed and signed since Obama took office, this would have had the benefit of actually being true. And nobody seems to remember that by voting unanimously against the Recovery Act, Republicans were also voting against $300 billion in tax cuts for the middle class.
Democrats could have easily run a “We’re for the Many, They’re for the Few” campaign. Infrastructure (though calling it “infrastructure” is politically useless) could have been the centerpiece. A “Rebuilding America vs. Tax Cuts for the Wealthy” theme might have worked nicely with all voters.
To drive home the message, the president should have challenged Rep. John Boehner to join a “National Conversation on America’s Future.” That unprecedented debate would have been exciting (the campaign needs some pizzazz a little more substantive than witches and masturbation) and offered Obama a chance to change the narrative. He could have made quick work of Boehner’s “Pledge to America,” which, by calling for a balanced budget while protecting defense and entitlements from any cuts, would mean closing every other part of the federal government. Voters might not be happy to learn that food stamps (41 million Americans receive them), all federal aid to education, and even keeping the Washington Monument open would be impossible under Boehner’s plan.
Amid their banter, Obama might even have been able to tease Boehner for once passing out checks from the tobacco industry on the floor of the House, an astonishing (though entirely characteristic) act that has been barely mentioned this year. Is that what independents want in the next speaker of the House?
The idea of a debate was explored in the White House and rejected because the Democratic high command decided to go local. In making that calculation, they ignored something elemental about politics that’s changed since O’Neill’s day.
All the way back to the dawn of the republic, congressmen got reelected by bringing home the bacon for their district. Pork, in its various guises, is the main reason incumbents have had such an advantage over the years. But nothing lasts forever. Today’s voters despise earmarks and don’t seem to care if their neighbors have some improvement in their lives courtesy of the federal government. Rep. Jerry McNerney, for instance, won federal money for a new veterans hospital in California’s 11th District. He will likely lose anyway. The same is true in more than three dozen other districts represented by Democrats.
Senate races draw enough attention that they can be successfully localized. National arguments have never mattered as much in the upper chamber, where anomalous elections abound. That’s one reason that the chances of the Senate going Republican this year are so much lower than in the House.
With 40 percent of the ballots now cast through early voting, it’s too late for the president to seize control of the national argument. His allergy to soundbites, talking points, framing devices, and the other artificial but inevitable building blocks of modern politics will likely cost him the House. He’ll nationalize in 2012 and, if he wins, nationalize again in 2014.
Locavore is for food, not politics. Not anymore.