US Elections

Newt Gingrich got his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination off to a bold, if perplexing, start by attacking Paul Ryan’s budget plan as “right-wing social engineering” and affirming his support for the individual mandate in health care reform. In subsequent clarifications, he said he was opposed to the Obama mandate on constitutional grounds–the same rationale Mitt Romney offers in defence of his Massachusetts plan–and said he was not in a fight with Paul Ryan even though they disagree about how to reform Medicare. Ryan said, “With allies like that, who needs the left?”

Gingrich has backed some form of mandate in health care for years. Give him some credit for sticking to this line (which also happens to be correct). But still one wonders how he expects to get the nomination from a party so bitterly opposed to that view. Republicans in Congress and on the airwaves queued up to stamp on him. It’s not good to be entirely occupied with damage control on day one of your campaign.

It was a close-to-impossible assignment: explain why the Massachusetts health care reform was good policy and President Obama’s health care reform, so strikingly similar, wasn’t. In his speech at Ann Arbor last week, Romney did advance the only principled defence of this position–which is that states can properly do things that the federal government cannot. Let the states experiment; don’t impose one top-down solution. Moreover, you can argue, the Constitution denies the federal government power to make people buy health insurance; nobody, so far as I know, denies that this power is available to the states.

At this rate, the US presidential election of 2012 promises to be a titanic struggle between a failed incumbent and an unelectable challenger. With the election bearing down – less than two years to go – Barack Obama hit the campaign trail last week, ostensibly talking about the budget but in reality market-testing his anti-Republican message. Republicans have been slower off the mark and will need to get a move on, but the delay is understandable. They have so many weak candidates to choose from.

Bill Galston cautions Obama against a re-election strategy that concentrates too narrowly on minorities and the college-educated. That focus has worked well in some states–notably in Colorado, a case which Obama’s team has studied closely. (On this, Galston cites a Ron Brownstein interview with David Axelrod: White Flight.) The trouble is, America is more like Ohio than Colorado. Obama could be in serious trouble unless he improves his standing with the white working-class.

[Ruy Teixeira] argued [in 2009] that the confluence of demographic, geographic, and attitudinal changes underway for decades heralded a “new progressive majority.” Not only was the political salience of social issues in decline, but also majorities of Americans had endorsed a stronger role for government, guaranteed health coverage, and clean energy. A principal driver of these shifts was the declining share of white working-class voters and the rising tide of minorities and highly educated professionals.

In a less noticed portion of his analysis, Teixeira offered a cautionary note. The white working class “is still an enormous group of voters—still larger than white college graduate voters—and there are good reasons to suspect that the exit polls may significantly underestimate the size of this group.” He went on to observe that “Progressives ignore that large a group at their peril … [their] already large deficit among the white working class—clearly their biggest political vulnerability—could easily become larger. If that happens, any fall-offs in support among their core and emerging constituencies could put the progressive majority at risk, despite continuing demographic trends in their favor.” This is a pretty good description of what transpired during Obama’s first two years…

The seductiveness of the Colorado model is obvious. But the consequences of succumbing to it could be dire. The last Democrat to win the presidency without prevailing in Ohio was John F. Kennedy. The electoral college math worked only because he won South Carolina, Georgia, half of Alabama’s electoral votes, and even Texas, thanks to LBJ’s presence on the ticket. None of these states is remotely within Democratic reach today. Ohio is more than a rich pool of votes; it is the closest state we have to a microcosm of the nation.

Barack Obama’s path to reelection runs through Ohio and the Midwest, not around them. And that means taking seriously the concerns of the voters throughout the region who deserted Democrats in droves last year—Americans unlikely to be moved by an agenda of high-speed rail, cleaner energy, and educational reforms that rarely seem to yield good jobs for themselves or their children

With House Democrats preparing to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as their leader–on the face of it, an act of electoral self-wounding that calls for psychiatric intervention–the question arises, what are they thinking? Jonathan Allen and John Harris set out five reasons in Politico: standing up to Obama (he’ll tack to the middle, and the House will have to push back); loyalty; fear; “she’s got game”; pride; and there’s nobody else. (I know that’s six reasons: take it up with them.)

These reasons all makes sense, but I think give too little weight to the fact that most House Democrats simply think Pelosi is right on the issues. You could argue this factor is folded into “standing up to [a more triangulating] Obama”, and maybe into “pride” as well; but I’d say it deserves explicit recognition. When you’re right, you’re right. There’s something admirable about voting for a leader who’s ideas are (in your view) just correct.

The problem is, too many voters disagree that her ideas are correct–or at least, this would be the straightforward interpretation of the mid-terms. Many Democrats challenge that interpretation, of course. The psychiatrically interesting dimension of support in the House for Pelosi is not “she’s right, so I’m supporting her” (which make sense) but “she’s right, and most voters agree with her, which would have been obvious at the polls if only the White House hadn’t kept caving in to the GOP” (which calls into question the sanity of the people saying it). I hear many Democrats arguing this, and I am curious to know how many of them actually believe it.

Quite possibly, all of them. It reminds me very much of the British Labour party in the 1980s. Pre-Blair, a steady though diminishing majority of party stalwarts said that the Tories kept winning elections because Labour wasn’t socialist enough. The height of this folly (as it was subsequently shown to be) was the vote in 1980 to make Michael Foot rather than Denis Healey party leader after Jim Callaghan. Foot’s election split the party, which went down to a landslide defeat in 1983, having campaigned on a hard-left election manifesto deemed (by a Labour moderate) “the longest suicide note in history.” Undaunted, true believers in the party put this and subsequent defeats down to a failure to be socialist enough. I think they believed it.

The indispensable Charlie Cook, one of the country’s most astute (and probably most quoted) polling analysts, reflects on things that surprised him about the midterms, and subsequent developments.

It became clear the weekend before the general election that a separation was occurring between the fight for the House and the fight for the Senate. In the House, we saw a fully nationalized, parliamentary-style battle between the parties. In the Senate, we saw more of a collection of individual candidates and races that took on lives of their own. The separation took what was a plausible but uphill shot at the majority in the Senate and instead gave Republicans a very good night with a six-seat net gain.

Analysts are taking away from last week’s election results mostly the same theories they arrived with. Interesting that so much new information has changed nobody’s mind. I am no exception.

Everybody agrees that the economy was a huge part of the Democrats’ problem: fairly or unfairly, the party in power got the blame. Beyond this, for progressives, the key thing was lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base–for which liberals blame Obama’s appeasement of Republicans. For conservatives, it was almost the opposite: the vitality of the tea party in reaction to Obama’s overreaching. For people in the middle, it was that swing voters were battered by the economy and agreed with conservatives more than with liberals about whether Obama had overreached or underreached. In short, a disappointed Democratic base, an energised GOP base, and the migration of independents from Obama.

Hard to judge the relative importance of these forces, and beyond a certain point, why try? The main thing (which a lot of analysts are strangely reluctant to admit) is that it was all of the above. Once you understand that, you see Obama’s difficulty between now and 2012.

Obama cannot be guilty of both overreaching and underreaching, but he can be at fault for arousing those contradictory impressions in different segments of the electorate. This, as I have been arguing these past weeks and months, is exactly what he has done, so consistently it might almost have been by design. Again and again, he staked out a position to the left of the one he eventually settled for. The staking-out alarmed the centre and right; the settling-for-less disappointed the left; and, crucially, the mostly defensible positions he eventually retreated to lacked a champion. Instead of infuriating one extreme or the other, which was unavoidable, he infuriated both, all the while failing to talk to the middle. Nothing in the campaign of 2008 suggested this degree of political incompetence.

And the man is still doing it. Apparently, he is getting ready to let the Bush tax cuts be extended for those on high incomes as well as for everybody else. If he does go along with this, progressives will rightly say that he has caved again. (They will be inconsolable, too, because if you are an American progressive you wish, in every state of the world, regardless of all other considerations, to tax the rich more heavily.) Yet extending all the tax cuts, supposing Obama does go along, will get him no credit with the centre and right, because he started out opposing and is being made to recant. The worst thing is that there is no authoritative voice to make the principled case for extending all the cuts, a policy which makes pretty good sense so long as the extension is not permanent.

I think many of the policy outcomes under Obama have been good. But instead of owning the policies from the start, he was backed into them. Not just sometimes, but every time.

To recover in 2012 Obama will need a stronger economy, which should happen. He will need the GOP to discredit itself in Congress, which seems likely. It would also help if the Tea Party learned nothing from Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado, and kept harming its own prospects, which looks plausible too. But the hardest thing is that from now on Obama must lead with more conviction, and choose to disappoint either the left or the centre, not both.

Obama’s unconstrained policy preferences (unlike mine) are evidently more progressive than centrist. For the sake of argument, suppose those preferences are correct. Suppose his uncompromised agenda would be good for the country. As a practical matter, he would still need to judge how far the country is willing to be moved. A good leader has to anticipate those limits, not blunder into them every time, as he has. From a tactical point of view, he should also bear two other things in mind. One is that the left despises compromise, making it much harder to please than the centre. The other is that the left, even if you let it down, is not going to vote Republican.

To pass legislation during the next two years, Barack Obama and the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives will have to work together. In a similar situation after the midterm elections of 1994, Bill Clinton and the Grand Old Party joined forces, after a fashion, and got some big things done. Similarly far-reaching co-operation will be harder this time. However, it is not impossible – and, paradoxically, the prospects might be brightest on the issue that most deeply divides the two sides.

Here is my first take on the mid-terms. I’ll have more to say later.

On Tuesday, the US electorate spoke pretty clearly about what it does not want. It does not want slow economic growth, continuing financial distress, and persistently high unemployment. A sufficient number of voters also said that they do not want a transformative policy agenda of the kind that Barack Obama has lately dangled in front of the most committed Democrats in an effort to get them to the polls. What voters have yet to decide is what they do want – and therein lies a large problem for their country.

See also Bill Galston

Much depends on the strategy President Barack Obama himself adopts, and then announces in his 2011 state of the union address next January. Like Bill Clinton after his November 1994 mid-term defeat, Mr Obama must decide what balance to strike between conciliation and confrontation. He will have to give some ground he would rather not; if he resists everything the new Congress enacts, he risks a negative public reaction. He will have to pick his fights carefully, and with a tactical flexibility and attentiveness to the public mood that has not been his strong suit up to now.

…and Chris Caldwell.

[F]or Republican candidates there is no longer any such thing as being too close to the Tea Party. (Although Tea Party activists have presumably learnt a lesson about getting too close to candidates such as O’Donnell.)

A pessimistic Republican, however, might say that the organisational limits of the Tea Party have been revealed. The group’s strength is its leaderlessness, its informality, its lack of hierarchy, which makes it a powerful engine of grassroots organising. Possibly it is of less electoral use in situations that require co-ordinated action and complicated logistics, like a Senate race in a populous and varied state like Pennsylvania. For that sort of operation, a big corporate operation of the sort Republicans perfected under Karl Rove may still do the trick better. This could as easily be an argument for scaling the Tea Party up as for accepting its limitations.

By Emiliya Mychasuk, FT.com’s US news editor, and Alan Rappeport, FT reporter, in New York. All times are eastern standard.

8:56pm - Losing West Virginia makes it virtually impossible for Republicans to win the Senate, notes Ms Fifield. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Robert Menendez offered this congratulations for Mr Manchin:

“Congratulations to Senator-elect Joe Manchin for his victory tonight in West Virginia.  Although nobody can ever take the place of former Senator Robert Byrd, Joe has been a tireless fighter for the people of his state for close to three decades.  Despite the best efforts of National Republicans, who poured millions of dollars into the Mountain State, West Virginians cast aside the misleading attacks ads because they know Joe has always been there for them.  I look forward to serving with Senator-elect Manchin, as he continues to put the people of West Virginia above all else.”

8:47pm – Mr Beattie, our International Economy Editor, looks for a silver lining for Mr Obama, and notes that signs of a Republican takeover of the House will make it easier for the president to push his free trade agreement as he heads to South Korea next week for the G20 meeting.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

Clive Crook’s blog: A guide

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