Your handy guide to Election Day narratives

In order to make it easier to decipher the cacophony of punditry surrounding election results, I’ve put together this quick guide to Election Day narratives:

The 2010 midterms are a referendum on Obama’s presidency.

This is an inescapable thread tying together virtually all commentary on left, right and center. You’ll hear it incessantly. To the degree that a president is the central figure in national politics and the leader of his party, it’s largely accurate.

The 2010 midterms won’t hurt Obama’s reelection chances.

Some will say divided government actually helps Obama, others that the Tea Party will face a similar letdown when campaigning leads to governing, and still others that Obama’s approval ratings aren’t all that bad compared to previous presidents at a similar juncture.

GOP gains are mitigated by the fact that Republicans are widely disliked.

There’s not much solace in this for Democrats, since a win is a win and when your entire strategy centers around the destruction of the opposing party, it’s only marginally problematic that people dislike you.

GOP gains are a backlash against Obama’s excessive liberalism.

This is the dominant refrain from Republicans and conservatives and it will be amplified by ‘neutral’ pundits. Absurd, but it serves the long term goal of undermining liberalism.

GOP gains reflect a center-right electorate.

Whether or not more people self-identify as conservative or liberal, it’s hard to deny that righting framing dominates our national discourse, a result of the devastatingly effective righting message machine constantly churning out misinformation in the form of simplistic, infectious soundbites.

GOP gains are just part of a normal cycle, only more pronounced than usual this year.

History may be cyclical, but there’s nothing normal about Democrats squandering a singular progressive moment in the aftermath of the disastrous Bush presidency and a massive wave of hope and enthusiasm that resulted in the election of the first African-American president.

GOP gains can be summed up in one word: jobs.

This will be repeated on both sides of the aisle, by Democrats defensively trying to explain their drubbing and by Republicans hammering home the accusation that Obama is a failure. There’s some truth to it, but it’s far too simplistic an explanation for America’s dramatic rightward lurch.

GOP gains can be summed up in one mistake: health insurance reform.

Obama supporters and critics will look to the summer of death panels and town halls for clues to the Republican resurgence. Supporters will correctly say that health reform is a historic achievement but will concede that it was a turning point for Democrats, who mishandled the messaging around it. Obama detractors will say that it was a colossal overreach that distracted from the economy and turned off millions of voters.

GOP gains are the result of a powerful grassroots Tea Party movement.

If you get a dollar for every time the words “Tea Party” are uttered on election night, you’ll retire comfortably. If by ‘grassroots’ you mean ‘passions stirred by misinformation fueled by think-tank generated soundbites disseminated by millionaire radio hosts and media moguls and stoked by wealthy conservative interests’ then yes, the Tea Party is a grassroots movement.

GOP gains are the result of a timid Democratic Party, a president enamored with faux-bipartisanship who refused to embrace his role as the anti-Bush and a White House caught dumbfounded and flatfooted in the face of the right’s fury and ruthlessness.

This won’t get much play on big media outlets but you’ll hear it from bloggers and commenters on the left. Of course, it will be ignored by the White House and by ‘serious’ pundits, even though it’s the only narrative that correctly explains the 2010 election fiasco.

Brokaw: debate about war conspicuously absent in midterms

Aside from grumblings on the left about endless war in Afghanistan, Tom Brokaw is right:

Notice anything missing on the campaign landscape?

How about war? The United States is now in its ninth year of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest wars in American history. Almost 5,000 men and women have been killed. More than 30,000 have been wounded, some so gravely they’re returning home to become, effectively, wards of their families and communities.

In those nine years, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion on combat operations and other parts of the war effort, including foreign aid, reconstruction projects, embassy costs and veterans’ health care. And the end is not in sight.

So why aren’t the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes?  The answer is very likely that the vast majority of Americans wake up every day worrying, with good reason, about their economic security, but they can opt out of the call to arms. Unless they are enlisted in the armed services — or have a family member who has stepped forward — nothing much is asked of them in the war effort.

Perhaps the way to bring it front and center is to put it in purely financial terms:

CostOfWar lets you measure the tradeoffs of the trillion+ spent on those two wars. You can spend hours on the site researching the cops, nurses, teachers and infrastructure we could have paid for with the billions spent on Iraq.

I’d like to focus on one particularly stunning number put forth by Arlen Specter. Granted, he wasn’t doing it in the context of the cost of war, but it’s a perfect example of why we need to be dubious about the growing consensus that Iraq was a success:

It is my opinion that it is scandalous in this country that we haven’t done more by way of combating these illnesses. I requested an estimate from the cancer community of what it would take to make a major attack to virtually cure cancer. We can’t talk about curing cancer, but the kind of a major attack which would reduce cancer vary materially. We got back a figure of $335 billion over 15 years. Well, those are big numbers, but they would pay off in very substantial rewards when you consider the cost of cancer is over $200 billion a year. The cost of heart disease is almost $450 billion a year. There are ways and economies within the Federal budget to deal with those issues.

Specter asked a fundamental question: what would it cost to cure cancer? The number he was given was less than half the cost of the Iraq war. To launch a frontal assault on cancer and save innumerable lives.

It is an unspeakable travesty that we can afford to go to war based on lies and deceptions, causing the death and injury of hundreds of thousands, but we can’t spend the money it takes to embark on an assault against a scourge like cancer.

Over-confidence is a central factor in the Democratic train wreck

Whether or not Democrats hold on to their majorities, the 2010 midterms are shaping up as a classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, a Democratic specialty.

You know things are bad when Democrats are message-hopping faster then John McCain in 2008 and when Democratic leaders and pundits take comfort in comparing President Obama’s approval ratings to the low points of previous presidents.

We shouldn’t find much solace knowing that Reagan also experienced a trough and climbed out of it. History and politics may be cyclical, but life is not. Our trajectory on global warming, for instance, is linear: the longer we allow the forces of denial to hold sway, the more likely we are to hit the point of irreversibility.

Moreover, the election of Barack Obama was a singular moment: the first African-American president elected to replace the most reactionary and radical administration in our history, following a campaign where a woman nearly shattered the ultimate glass ceiling. The force and momentum of those factors and the unprecedented engagement and hope it generated should never have dissipated so rapidly. This is not some mundane political cycle, this is a travesty.

It didn’t have to be this way.

There was a telling paragraph in Peter Baker’s recent Education of a President:

“We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me. The easy answer is to blame the Republicans, and White House aides do that with exuberance. But they are also looking at their own misjudgments, the hubris that led them to think they really could defy the laws of politics. “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. “ ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.”

It’s easy to cross the line from confidence, an essential component of success, to over-confidence, an ingredient of failure. Thinking back to the (justified) euphoria around President Obama’s inauguration, it’s easy to understand why many Democrats crossed that line. But that’s not to say there weren’t warning signs of the disaster to come. The flaps over Donnie McClurkin and Rick Warren were portents, signaling to Obama and Democratic lawmakers that the transition from hope to action was beginning.

I warned about over-confidence as far back as March of 2009, when I argued against bickering with Rush Limbaugh from the White House podium:

I know it’s hard for Democrats to appreciate how quickly political fortunes turn — the glow of victory, the high of electoral success gives a sense of inevitability and invincibility, of permanence. But there’s nothing permanent about power. The tide will turn again, and the engine that will drive it is the fury stirred by the likes of Limbaugh. Feeding that machine, expanding and enhancing it is a mistake. A serious one.

It’s a truism that victory makes every decision seem genius, defeat, the reverse. Democrats, now in power, have a sense of triumph that makes every decision feel smart, every chess move a checkmate. Thus the “Rush strategy” foisted on those of us who have spent the past decade trying to point out how noxious and pernicious Limbaugh and his ilk have been (and continue to be), and how detrimental the anger they’ve stoked.

Empowering Limbaugh in the hopes of a bank-shot against Republicans will yield the opposite result: Limbaugh will become more powerful, Republicans will relish his increased influence and allow him to do their dirty work.

It’s easy to feel like the old era is gone, the old demons slain, that we WON, that nobody’s afraid of the once-vaunted Republican attack machine. … but the seeds of Democratic defeat are planted not by Republican elected officials, who, like McCain, will carry the Bush albatross for years to come, but by those who can freely fan the flames of outrage, who can fight dirty, who can bend and break the rules with impunity, who can tear down their opponents’ integrity and character, and whose apparent reward (as in the case of Ann Coulter) is to be given yet a larger platform. No thanks.

My narrow point was that the dirty work of battling Limbaugh should not rise to the level of the White House. It would only empower him and his blathering cohorts. Surrogates could do that. My larger point was that the lesson from campaign 2008 should not be that there was now an indomitable, web-fueled Democratic force that would sweep away all rightwing resistance. If anything, the right would now fight harder and uglier. Decades in the making, the well-oiled rightwing attack machine wasn’t about to sputter out and die.

So who exactly was the White House official referring to when he/she told Peter Baker “we were overconfident”? I doubt it’s President Obama, since he is too disciplined, introspective and self-aware to lapse into over-confidence. I don’t really think it’s a single individual (though Rahm Emanuel’s famous bluster is emblematic of it) but it’s more a mindset that took over the White House and Democratic leadership, a mindset that denigrated the left’s concerns, that toyed with Limbaugh, that embraced faux-bipartisanship, that began taking measurements for Mount Rushmore, that scoffed at the Tea Party, that relied on an ephemeral email list and the myth of online dominance to convince itself that the GOP was permanently marginalized.

The problem with over-confidence as opposed to mere confidence is that the former makes you insular, the latter motivates you to solicit – and appreciate – external advice. The former leads Democratic insiders to slap down the ‘petulant’ left, the latter compels them to crowdsource strategy rather than rely on the “wisdom” of the same old Beltway strategists, pundits and pollsters.

The big question now is whether the impending electoral train wreck will convert Democratic over-confidence to defeatism or whether the White House can find confidence where they should have sought it all these months, in core progressive principles and values.

The circus of Election 2010 summed up in one story

It’s hard to imagine an election season filled with more sideshows, motley characters and bizarre statements. This story (courtesy of Greg Sargent) combines just enough outlandish elements to sum it all up:

Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle told a crowd of Tea Party rally-goers last week that two cities — Dearborn, Michigan and Frankford, Texas — are under Sharia law, the sacred law of Islam. “We’re talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn’t a widespread thing, but it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it,” Angle said according to audio of the rally obtained by the Washington post. “My thoughts are these. First of all, Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don’t know how that happened in the United States.” The problem? Well, Frankford, Texas doesn’t really exist.

This is Frankford, TX:

The strangest part of this story is that Angle may actually win.

UPDATE: Angle Campaign Reports Raising $14 Million in Third Quarter

Age of Denial: win or lose chambers in November, it’s soul searching time for Democrats

Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Delaware Republican Senate primary had Democrats exuberant – cheering victory by the ‘crazy Tea Party candidate.’ But when your electoral strategy is “let’s hope the lunatic wins cause we can’t beat a sane Republican,” it’s time for some serious soul-searching.

Nate Silver injects a dose of realism into overblown prognostications about a GOP landslide:

There’s the possibility that Republicans end up with a lot of half-loaves: independent voters get them almost close enough in some states and districts, base voters in some others, but they come up a few points short in a lot of key races and wind up winning “only” 30 House seats and 4 or 5 Senate seats. Or, just the opposite could be true. Independent voters rally them to surprising wins in some blue-leaning states, while base voters shore up the home front, and allow them to roll back the gains that Democrat made into Republican territory in 2006 and 2008.

He’s absolutely right – anything can happen on Election Day and expectations are beginning to get out of hand for Republicans. Unfortunately, if Democrats lose badly but retain the House and Senate, it will be hailed by the White House and pundits as a victory, perhaps a great victory, dampening the urge for introspection, the self-awareness needed to battle a dangerous radical rightwing resurgence.

Of course, it will be anything but a victory. The whiplash-inducing right turn America has taken since 2008, the deflation of hope, compel a sober and serious look at what Democrats have done wrong. We can take solace all we want in previous presidential poll numbers, we can say this is a normal cyclical dip, but that doesn’t explain or excuse this:

  • George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
  • Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
  • Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
  • In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
  • From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
  • Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
  • Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
  • Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
  • The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
  • We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
  • An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
  • Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
  • The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
  • Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.

O’Donnell’s shock victory is part of this larger picture. Granted, it may imperil GOP chances to grab one more senate seat, but if you see it as a loss leader, as one more huge step to the right, it’s cold comfort to those who have fought the radical right’s takeover of our national discourse.

Yesterday I posted what I believe is the photo that defines our age of denial, a Biblical image of dead sea life:

When things like this are happening before our eyes and we can’t muster the will to do something dramatic to fix it, when Democrats seek comfort in radicals winning primaries, when a great nation abruptly reverses course and barrels headlong toward the 19th century, we have no choice but to dig deep and ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong.

Die-hard Obama supporters demand incessant cheerleading, but their blinders are part of the problem not the solution. As citizens, we’re tasked with making sure elected officials do their jobs. If Democrats and progressives are satisfied with the direction we’re heading, it’s their prerogative. Some of us are not in denial and we’ll keep speaking out until there’s a legitimate reason to believe that we’re righting our ship, reclaiming the moral high ground and making actual – not imagined – progress.

Democrats hit rock bottom with desperate “Boehner Strategy”

You know a political party has lost its bearings when it hinges an entire electoral strategy on raising the name recognition and negatives of an Ohio congressman whose name most people can neither spell nor pronounce, whose most notable trait is his perma-tan, and who is unknown even to voters in his home state:

42% of Ohio voters say they don’t know enough about Boehner to rate him one way or the other. Among those who do 27% see him positively and 31% have an unfavorable view. Democrats (53%) dislike him more than Republicans (51%) like him and independents go against him by a 22/27 margin as well.

I leave it to the indispensable Glenn Greenwald to sketch the contours of Democratic desperation:

I personally find it hard to believe that large numbers of voters will be motivated by a fear-mongering campaign centered around people who do not currently wield power, do not occupy any positions, and are not even running for office.  But the more significant point is what this tactic says about the Democratic Party.  They have controlled both houses of Congress for almost four years and the White House for almost two.  Yet rather than run primarily on affirmative accomplishments (some Democrats are even running against them), they’re reduced to this not-very-inspiring or hope-laden message:  at least we’re not as bad as Sarah Palin.

It’s not hard to see why Democrats are relying on what Maddow called this “soul-sucking” tactic.  With no end in sight to the unemployment crisis, almost no real benefits yet in effect on their central legislative achievement (health care), a high likelihood of Social Security cuts following the election, few of the promises kept on the issues most important to their core base, and even hardcore Democratic pundit-partisans now finally — and angrily — acknowledging that Obama has continued the vast bulk of Bush/Cheney civil liberties/executive power abuses (ones which drove many progressives to remove the GOP from power), what else can they do to motivate people to vote for them besides try to scare people into thinking about the Sarah Palin menace?

…That the Right has become an even more twisted, malicious and primitive version of what they were during the Bush years is unquestionably true.  And it’s perfectly legitimate to point out the flaws and excesses of one’s political adversaries.  But the expectations which large numbers of Obama voters had — based on the promises made — are not going to be forgotten with these distracting, divisive strategies.

From the day President Obama took office, progressive critics have feared – and predicted – this day would come. The day when the right would return in full glory, when Republicans would rise again, when the promise of hope would fade. It was the inexorable consequence of the pathological unwillingness to present (and act upon) a grand unified Democratic/progressive vision, to frame Obama’s laudable legislative accomplishments rather than allow the right to frame them for him.

In March of 2009, I wrote:

I know it’s hard for Democrats to appreciate how quickly political fortunes turn — the glow of victory, the high of electoral success gives a sense of inevitability and invincibility, of permanence. But there’s nothing permanent about power. The tide will turn again, and the engine that will drive it is the fury stirred by the likes of Limbaugh.

In a recent post, I repeated the theme I’ve focused on for almost two years, that it’s the moral authority, stupid:

What is moral authority? Broadly speaking, it is the respect and power of suasion conferred on a person who is true to inviolable ethical principles. It is the ability to influence by setting an example of virtue and good character rather than through coercion.

Most politicians campaign using the language of right and wrong, tapping into the power of morality to persuade and sway voters. Once in office, the rhetoric is toned down as grand promises meet the reality of legislating and deal-making. That doesn’t mean that right and wrong cease to matter.

The astounding collapse of Democrats and the rightwing resurgence of 2009 and 2010 is a direct result of the squandered moral authority of Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. I say “squandered” because it is something Obama possessed during the campaign and something Democrats prioritized as the antidote to Bush and Cheney’s radicalism.

Pundits put forth myriad reasons to explain the GOP wave (jobs and the economy topping the list), but they invariably overlook the biggest one: that Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policies.

Everything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values.

Cheney and Bush knew one thing: from a strictly political – and cynical – perspective, pretend moral conviction is better than none at all. At the very least, it telegraphs to voters that you care deeply about something, anything. Enough to take a stand for it, to portray your opponent as unethical for opposing it.

In the best of worlds, Democrats would believe in something good and fight tooth and nail for it. Their moral compass would be true, pointing in the direction of justice, fairness, equality. Progressive ideals would guide them and they’d present America with a consistent, cohesive, powerful and inspiring worldview. Candidate Obama tapped into the force of that combination. President Obama can’t seem to do it.

Democratic weakness, real or perceived, is a self-inflicted function of the inability to project moral authority, even in cases where they possess the unequivocal high ground. Religious liberty. Torture. A war based on lies.

The image of Obama railing against “Boehner, Boehner, Boehner” is one I wish we’d never seen. It’s beneath him. It’s a gift to conservatives, who are literally flabbergasted at their good fortune:

It must have been a sad, desultory meeting of White House strategists when they settled on an anti-Boehner campaign … According to a Fox News poll earlier this year, 55 percent of people nationally had never heard of him. The White House figures people will hate Boehner with an unbridled passion — if only they could remember his name.

This is the very definition of sliding-off-a-cliff, grasping-at-saplings desperation. Obama traveled to Cleveland last week to give a speech responding to an economic address by Boehner there a couple of weeks prior. Boehner’s speech had mostly been ignored by the press at the time, since it hadn’t occurred to anyone that he was the pivot upon which the future of the nation would turn.

The Republicanism of John Boehner is not particularly inspiring, but neither is it threatening. You’re likelier to see him at an outing at a fancy golf resort than leading a fanciful, ideological crusade. .. The White House doesn’t seem to care that in sending Obama out after Boehner in attack-dog mode, it is diminishing the president.

Why are we giving the likes of Rich Lowry this kind of ammunition?

And does anyone really think this will turn back the GOP wave:

The silver lining is that it can’t get much worse and it’s fair to assume that there will be some sort of a dead cat bounce off this low.

The “nutcase defense” — The DNC creates the RNC’s November ad campaign

Progressive activists have been raising the red flag for almost two years. The message to Democrats has been simple: if you don’t present a grand unified vision of what Democrats stand for, the rightwing noise machine will step into the vacuum and frame everything you do as part of a liberal conspiracy to destroy America.

The progressive message has not gotten through. The result is now a wave election, with Democrats scrambling to avoid a total wipeout. In this state of chaos and confusion, Democrats are now resorting to the “nutcase defense” — trying to tell voters that they are ‘crazy to vote for crazy people.’ But this is a gross misreading of the rise of the Tea Party, the age of Palinmania and America’s sudden rightward shift. Case in point: this DNC ad could easily be released by the RNC and would be an effective GOTV tool:

UPDATE: Sarah Posner expresses a similar view:

I covered 9/12/09. It was pretty “crazy” looking, but at the same time, I talked to plenty of people who weren’t carrying Obama-is-the-Antichrist signs and were, it seemed to me, looking for someone to give them some easy answers about why the economy was in the crapper. (See here and here for my perspective on the events.) They were looking in the wrong place, obviously, but the Democrats won’t win by telling these people they’re crazy or cavort with crazy people. But that always seems like the easiest way to go.

That’s not to say that nativism, racism, and other ugliness shouldn’t be reported and reviled. But Democrats shouldn’t be “gleefully noting to reporters” anything about Beck. Until they have their own brilliant plan to rally the faithful, glee shouldn’t be part of their vocabulary or their talking points.