Democrats are like Republicans in one way. One party or the other suffers devastating losses at least every eight years and then engages in a noisy search for blame and atonement.
Whether the politicians and commentariat are Democrats or Republicans, they always detect a vain drift by the party that, unless corrected, will make it increasingly irrelevant. They are always wrong because they see momentary vexations in a large part of the electorate as great philosophical shifts. That has been true from Barry Goldwater to Barack Obama.
This time, the popular analysis is that Democrats lost because they didn’t connect to their base, working middle-class voters, either because they did not emphasize the right lunch-bucket issues or failed to stand up for President Obama and demolish Republican claims about how terrible things were under the president.
They happen to be right about the president’s record — there is hardly an economic or social measurement by which the country is not better off than it was under either of the past two Republican presidents, but the 2014 elections were far too late for Democrats, including the president, to be trying to fix public impressions. Even during the bitter 2014 campaign, Democrats never entered the real propaganda game, which was about the national well being.
Voters went to the polls Nov. 4 to show their displeasure with Obama, whom they were told had foisted policies on the nation that were leading it to ruin — immigrant hordes, spiraling budget deficits, unemployment, a health-insurance law that was destroying medicine and depriving people of health care, careless security that invited Muslim terrorists and a deadly virus into the country, and an aimless foreign policy that was letting the bad guys run roughshod over United States interests everywhere in the world.
Never mind that the facts in every case were close to the opposite. Voters in the South and Plains states voted against men and women they were told were aligned, even theoretically, with the dastardly black man. Democrats may not have had a united strategy to counter the message this summer and fall, but it would have made little difference if they had.
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate and unofficial head of the party’s Wall Street caucus, offered himself as the man to lead the Democrats out of the wilderness. Although the most ballyhooed, his was the most inane of all the Democratic critiques.
He was on the mark only if you acknowledge that the best political strategy of Democrats is to try to do nothing important when they are in power. Big achievements drive the opposition to extremes and often are messy in the short run.
Schumer said Democrats blew the opportunity Americans gave them in 2009 by focusing on “the wrong problem — health care reform.” Most people suffering from the faulty U.S. health care system were just the poorest, only about 5 percent of the electorate, who either don’t vote or don’t vote intelligently for their own interests. Democrats, Schumer said, should instead have just emphasized things that excited the big middle class, which votes. Sure, he said, health care costs keep skyrocketing and some lose their insurance, but most people don’t care because they are insured either by government — Medicare, Medicaid, VA — or through their employers.
Instead, Democrats should have shown the middle class that they cared about good-paying jobs, Schumer said. If he checked the Senate calendar he would be reminded that those initiatives were sidetracked either by the controlling Senate Republican minority and Southern Democrats or the later Republican majority in the House of Representatives. But if Schumer meant the president’s and Democratic leadership’s failure to push for a higher national minimum wage until 2014, he might have a point.
But he offered no suggestions about how the Democrats could have addressed jobs and wages, and Republicans certainly never offered anything that should have appealed to that economic class, unless it were more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Polls show that most voters favor higher taxes on the rich and lower taxes on themselves.
It is the crassness of Schumer’s vision that is troubling for a man who seeks to lead his party: The best thing for America is what lead his party: The best thing for America is what is most likely to get Democrats re-elected, even if it is doing nothing.
The same arguments were made in 1994, when Democrats suffered a landslide defeat in the midterm elections. The analysts said President Clinton caused the disaster by trying to pass a national health care law when he should have tried instead to pass a tough campaign-finance law, which would have helped Democrats win future elections by de-escalating the big-money surge.
In 2008 as in 1992, every Democratic candidate for president promised to overhaul the health-insurance system, which polls consistently showed was a priority with voters. It had been a goal of most presidents of both parties since Franklin Roosevelt.
And far from affecting only the very poorest Americans and despite imperfections in drafting the Senate bill that became law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is proving to be good for nearly everyone, nowhere in better multiples than in Arkansas, where people had lower access to medical care and worse outcomes than anywhere in the nation.
In spite of efforts by Republicans in Congress, statehouses and the U.S. Supreme Court to render it ineffective, the law in its earliest stages has given access to medical care to 10 million Americans, protected everyone’s coverage for life and helped hold medical spending growth to the lowest level in 54 years. That was one of the objectives of all the Republican presidents who talked about health-care reform and now we have it, if we can keep it.
That may not be good politics for Democrats in 2014 but history will credit them.