It has become a commonplace that what we are facing in November is a "referendum" election. As I wrote the other day, Democrats were put in power in Washington to "fix it." They didn't. The economic situation for most people got worse. Democrats will be punished.
It's no good to say we did a lot of things you didn't notice and it was really hard. Even when that is true. And even if there were terrible obstacles (like the entire Republican party). In a nutshell --
Since elections present a binary choice -- yes, we are stuck with Republicans or Democrats; other "choices" are fantasies -- the standard countermove to finding your party on the wrong end of a referendum on genuninely bad times is make the election a repulsion election. In a repulsion election, you win by tearing down the other side. Hey, we may be disappointing -- but the other guys are worse, much worse.
In these circumstances, this is true. Democrats are, by a lot, what I once heard a five year old called "the least worst" to have in government. They need to make this a repulsion election. But they aren't doing much of a job at it. What's in the way?
- Obama: He just did a little of this in a Labor Day speech, but it is profoundly not his style to resolutely demonize the other guys. I stopped bothering to wonder a long time ago whether he really believes his "bipartisanism" schtick, but he sure has stuck to it through conditions that seemed to cry out for drawing sharp contrasts, so I don't expect him to change markedly now.
- Jarring atmospherics: Having just won a national election on hope and change, it's hard to pivot to "I'm your only hope of suffering just a little less ..." Inspriation is so much more pleasant to dispense than raw self-preservation.
- The future Democratic coalition: The Millenials, the younger voters who came out in droves to elect Obama but are disinclined to vote in midterm and are the future of the Democratic party, detest the kind of politics that makes for and wins a repulsion election. Here's a respresentative snippet from the progressive blog Future Majority:
- Victories in repulsion campaigns are weak. That may seem counterintuitive in our winner-take-all system -- if you win, what's weak about that? After all you are in office. But the reality is more complex. Here in California we have lived a very clear example. The Democratic politician Gray Davis rose in state politics the old fashioned way, starting in lower offices and gradually working his way up to state Controller, then Lieutenant Governor, then Governor. He never seemed charismatic; the joke among California Democrats was that "Gray is gray." In 2002, he helped conservative Republicans run off moderate Republican challengers in their primary, then successfully demonized the resulting very conservative Republican candidate. He was back in as Governor! And in 2003, less than a year later, Gray was gone, easily recalled and replaced by the Governator. A lifetime of campaigns in which Davis had sold himself as less bad than the alternative left him with no friends when push came to shove.
I think they'll try and the results will be mixed. The Republicans have given them the gift of nominating quite a few candidates, Tea Baggers, who should be vulnerable to being portrayed as repulsive. Senator Harry Reid may pull through against Sharron Angle -- a candidate who declares there are "doemstic enemies" in Congress and advocates "Second Amendment remedies" -- because Republican primary voters really did display their extremism by nominating her. He's a fighter when it comes to elections (in the Senate not so much) and I wouldn't bet against him.
Other Democrats will have a harder time of running that kind of hard contrast campaign, some because it doesn't fit with their self understanding or because they care about the contrary factors enumerated above.
They might all be well-advised to listen to this from the American Prospect blog: