Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Question for Liberals

OK, liberals, how do you interpret the elections:

1.  Inevitable pendulum swinging: there's only a truly liberal Congress plus presidency once in a blue moon when all the stars align, and it never lasts long.

2.  Inevitable result of Barack Obama coming in at the wrong point of the economic cycle; this is the 1930, not 1933 argument.

3.  The product of very crafty GOP actions.

4.  The produce of lots and lots of GOP money.

5.  The product of Democratic mistakes: too liberal (don't expect too many takers in a question addressed to liberals, but have to include it).

6.  The product of Democratic mistakes: too spineless.

7.  The product of Democratic mistakes: specific policy mistakes on the economy.

8.  The product of Democratic mistakes: poor messaging/campaigning.

9.  What else?


  1. Mostly 2, though some of the others may have mattered on the margins. A majority that big is gonna take a hit when unemployment is 9.6%.

  2. 9. There's a nontrivial number of voters who are just appallingly stupid. I'm talking about people who blame the banks for the economic crisis and BP for the oil spill, then vote for a party that opposes regulation and issues apologies to BP. Or people who believe that health-care reform didn't go far enough, so they vote for the party pledging to repeal it altogether; or who want to protect Medicare, so they vote for the party of Paul Ryan, who wants to end Medicare. I'm not saying the number of such people is necessarily huge, but they were over-represented in this electorate.

    On the other hand, this point is also a variant of #6 and #8, since it's up to Obama and the Democrats to educate the voters about who's on what side in these matters, and they seem just inexplicably reluctant to do that.

    Also, #7 is pretty obviously a big part of the story: the stimulus was too small.

  3. I go with numbers 1, 7, and 8. Most of the seats we lost were Republican leaning seats that came in on the last two waves. Any party is going to lose seats in a midterm when their president is in power and holds a lot of marginal seats after two consecutive waves.

    We could have done a bit better in the recruitment department too, at least in the Senate. If Bayh had stuck around in Indiana, we have still lost that seat, but at least they would have had to fight for it. In Illinois, almost any other Dem (save Blagojevich, perhaps) would have done better than Giannoulias, and they wouldn't have had to do a whole lot better. Lisa Madigan and Beau Biden get the Chickenshit of the Cycle awards.

    Still, we'd have saved a few seats (and not incidentally, a lot of regular people's jobs) if the stimulus had been larger and/or better targetted. A lot of the tax cuts were weak stimulus, and they should have found some other bone to throw to Ben Nelson and Susan Collins rather than stripping state aid. I think the calculation from the White House was that the stimulus would get bigger as it moved through Congress; instead it got smaller. Also, if they hadn't trumpeted it as the solution, and instead treated it as a first step, and warned that they would need to come back for more because it was inadequate, they could have set the table for another stimulus later. They way they played it set the Republicans up to say it failed, and shouldn't be tried again.

    Also, I don't know how you make the argument that "Republicans shouldn't have the keys back" when you rehire Bush's chief economic policy-maker (aka Ben Bernacke)

  4. It occurs to me that there's a #10 that should probably be in this list each time, and while I don't think it changed the overall 2010 outcome, it may have tipped a few marginal races: election fraud, including vote suppression and illegally purged voter rolls. We hear a lot in the weeks before the election about flyers going out in minority neighborhoods warning people that they can't vote if they have unpaid parking tickets and the like. Then, after the election, the subject is just dropped -- unless Republicans lose, in which case they go on for months screaming about fraud, ACORN, etc. Dems, of course, don't follow through like that (see #6 above). But has anyone ever done a study of how effective vote-suppression actually is in close races? It seems pretty clear that in Florida 2000, the fake felon lists alone were enough to cost Democrats the presidential race.

  5. I think in order of importance: 2 (far and away the biggest factor), 1 (lots of marginal seats were held by Dems after 2006 and 2008), 7 (inasmuch as the economy could have actually been better, that would have made a huge difference), 3 (complete Republican obstructionism seems to have been a political success), 5 (I think not doing health care and not passing cap and trade in the house would have probably saved a few seats - although I think health care was worth it), 6 (taking a stronger line on the tax cuts before the election might have helped a bit).

    I'm very skeptical that either 8 or 4 made much of a difference.

  6. In decreasing order of importance:
    2 (economy), 1 (almost inevitable), 6 (spinelessness is so motivating) and 4 (all those ads).

    The big swing was in independents who are relatively unengaged in politics, so those ads did hurt.

  7. Lot's of good points in comments, and they all played some part.

    Still, #2 dominates - it's the economy, all the time, everywhere.

    I'll add that #5 is absurd. Obama is no kind of liberal. In fact, I wish he would move as far to the left of Eisenhower.

    #9 To Jeff's point, very largely promoted by Murdoch's machines, Limbaugh, and other right wing liars. Propaganda is powerful poison.

    #9B Old age - to a large extent this election was conceded to the senile, since the under 40 crowd mainly stayed home.

    Thanks, kids.


  8. A lot of the analysis I see, and the way you seem to be framing the question, commits the Blind Men and the Elephant fallacy. There isn't one singular reason for the midterm losses, but a whole combination of reasons.

    It should be obvious that the Dems weren't going to have a good time with 9.5% unemployment. That alone probably cost them the House. But it doesn't fully explain why the Repubs picked up 64 seats, the biggest sweep since 1948. Here, the fact that the polls were off by at least 10 seats indicates the engagement of conservative voters.

    The Tea Party was of course a mixed blessing in this race. The fact that the polls underestimated GOP success in the House but overestimated it in the Senate bears this out. The GOP really screwed up by nominating crazies like Angle and O'Donnell, in what should have been easy races. Even Paul's success was shakier than it would have been with a more mainstream candidate.

    Angle's defeat was one of the big surprises of the night. The reason is not yet fully known, but there are signs that Latino voters had something to do with it. Given Reid's unpopularity with Nevadans, the fact that voters defied the polls to reelect him is a striking indication of how toxic a candidate Angle was. And I think that will have implications for 2012. Even though Palin never endorsed Angle, at least some in the GOP establishment will take note of it.

    The flip side of all this is the relative lack of engagement of liberals. A sizable amount of liberals are disappointed with Obama and the Democrats. The reasons seem to put them on a different planet than the Tea Party. Instead of rampant socialism and government tyranny, Obama's fault is compromising too much: the stimulus was too small, HCR too feeble. (I happen to agree to some extent with both those statements, but I think what Obama managed to do was pretty impressive given what he faced from this Congress, which would never realistically have passed a Krugman-level stimulus or single-payer health care.)

    And I think a lot of independents who had voted for Obama voted Republican this time. That makes sense, given the tendency toward divided government, and the absurdity of the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008, which made even many hard-core conservatives at the time wince. Some of us liberals hoped that the craziness of the Tea Party candidates would scare off these independents just as Palin scared them off in '08. That may have been the case in some races, such as the Reid-Angle one, but some of the Tea Party candidates such as Rubio or Nikki Haley avoided bad media exposure and didn't strike most people as too outlandish.

    For that matter, PPP released a poll a couple of months ago indicating that self-described moderates overwhelmingly preferred Democrats. If that poll is accurate, it should have important implications for 2012. A lot of people think "independents" are practically synonymous with "moderates" or "centrists." But that isn't the case. Indies can be anywhere on the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right, and most have fairly predictable voting patterns, despite their refusal to identify officially with one party.

    One final point: As I hinted at before, I'm seriously beginning to wonder about Palin's future. I've maintained for a long time that she has a good chance of getting the Republican nomination in 2012. But a lot of Republicans are going to notice that she weakened the GOP chances of a Senate takeover, particularly in Delaware, and the Joe Miller fiasco will undoubtedly hurt her no matter what the outcome. I suspect there will be an anti-Palin backlash in the coming months, after the glow of their House victories begin to fade and they become aware of how the Democratic Senate is standing in their way.

  9. All of the above. A bad situation, badly played in every way, out of hubris and stupidity.

    A too-small, timid stimulus, despite every credible warning, that was never going to get the economy up and running within two years, they chose the politically easy thing to do even while they had almost unprecedented good will in the Congress and the press.

    Spectacularly failed "strategy" on HCR that squandered the honeymoon phase even while they went out of their way to alienate their most loyal supporters.

    Terrible appointments in key staff positions. A failed Chief of Staff, the worst PressSec in the history of the office, horrible, horrible Treasury and Fed selections, ineffective HHS Sec, failure to purge hostile bushies from key positions.

    Underestimating their enemy at every step of the way, leaving them flat-footed, incompetent and helpless in the face of wholly predictable, and predicted GOP strategy. Where the hell have they been for the past thirty years?

    The "youth vote" never shows up for midterm elections, minorities, women either. With lives to lead, they just aren't paying that much attention. Go ahead, call your most loyal supporters idiots, the ones who hit the phones and the field for you, alienate them and avoid them all you possibly can while making failed deals with the opposition, who is out to bring you down regardless. That'll work.

    9. Hubris, brought down hard. Badly played. Just my humble opinion.

  10. @Jeff

    >Or people who believe that health-care reform didn't go far enough, so they vote for the party pledging to repeal it altogether

    Many of the people who felt that way simply stayed home on Election Day. That obviously had the indirect effect of helping Republicans, but it wasn't the same thing as voting for the Republicans. I doubt there were very many disappointed liberals who went to the voting booths and pulled the lever for Republicans.

  11. I'd guess the top 3 issues are (from most important to least)

    - 10% unemployment
    - young democratic voters are less likely to vote in midterms
    - terrible campaigning from President Obama on down. they didn't try to sell any clear solutions to the recession.

  12. Kylopod, according to these exit polls,, 14% of those who voted Republican in House races said they wanted health-care reform expanded, and 31% said the wanted it left alone -- a total of 45% seemingly voting to defeat their own purposes (although 87% of GOP voters also wanted HCR repealed, so I don't know if people are contradicting themselves even within the poll, or what). Meanwhile, 30% of these voters said the highest priority for the next Congress is "spending to create jobs" -- even as they voted for the party most resolutely opposed to doing that. So, while I'd like to think you're right, it's hard for me to discount the sheer weight of blithering idiocy in an election like this one.

  13. All of the above... if you consider "lying to your constituents about your opponent's accomplishments and agenda" to be "crafty".

  14. @Jeff: Low information, little attention, action bias, mistrust of incumbent party promises, partisanship, other institutional attachments, fondness or dislike for particular candidates, other local factors, the desire for public self-expression, and whatever other things caused people who don't support the GOP platform to vote Republican shouldn't be reduced to "blithering idiocy." They may not all reflect equally rational approaches, but politics is really an arena of means-end rationality, and a lot of those impulses can be satisfied rationally depending on the ends one has in mind. It's not like Louisiana reelecting David Vitter is more obviously irrational, let alone idiotic, than Louisiana having reelected Mary Landrieu last time out. The psychological and social forces that led to outcomes we weren't thrilled with this election helped our candidates last election, but we weren't complaining about how irrational it was Idk e.g. for people from the industrial Midwest (Gulf, rural NY-PA) to support the party some of whose members want to regulate coal (oil, natural gas) in burdensome ways -- at least, I wasn't, though I did wonder about that sort of thing a bit.

    Oh, I don't mean to be preachy, and I apologize if it came off that way. It's hard to gauge how tone is going to come across on the Internet.

    As to the actual question: yes yes economy exposure yes, but I don't think people have been giving enough credit to Republicans here really. As far as I can tell, apart from a few high-profile NRSC and state-level (Carl Paladino comes to mind, and poor sad Dan Maes) failures late in the season, GOP candidate recruiting, and as I say earlier in the year at least field-clearing, was pretty top-notch. Maybe governors in particular: subbing in Brian Sandoval for Gibbons in Nevada, Vic Snyder presenting himself as a moderate technocrat and sailing through in Michigan, throwing weight behind locally appropriate candidates like Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and that Foley? fellow in Connecticut (even though the latter two didn't win), of course Christie and McDonnell last year, perhaps Whitman (only because it could have been so much worse for them there), Susana Martinez out in New Mexico -- people liked these candidates and came out and worked for them. Freshish-but-not-out-of-nowhere faces like Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte and Lou Barletta (rematched with Kanjorski); old pros like Blunt and Toomey and Portman and Coats, or Charlie Bass in New Hampshire -- these "get"s don't happen by accident. The NRCC and many local parties really seem to have done good jobs of picking candidates and offering targeted support. Some people allowed themselves to become distracted by shiny flashy things (and again, I don't mean to imply that short-term pragmatism is the only rational way to approach electoral politics!), but not everyone.

  15. #2 and #7 (in that a bigger stimulus would have worked better, and improved the condition of the economy (and hence, #2)

  16. I'll take no's 1 , 2 , 4, and 8 . The unemployment rate and relatively slow growth is issue no 1 by far. Policies put in place over the last 2 yrs were very effective at preventing us from going over the cliff but that is a tough arguement to make. In most mid term elections the composition of the electorate won't favor Dems. Anger is the biggest motivator for voting and that was all on the Republican side. We will have some anger after seeing the actions of the repubs in the next two years. With a little more motivated electorate we could have easily held PA and IL Senate. The Minority and youth vote will make for a much more favorable electorate next time . With the Presidency to defend Dems will vote ( I hope). The Citizens United decision will make it tough for Dems to compete on money. Last but not least is that it will always be harder to be progressive . Doesn't fit well on bumper stickers and you have to ask people to make short term sacrifices for longer term gains.

  17. A mix of 1 and 2. Obama came in on a perfect storm, and this was a perfect storm in the other direction (though it blew out by the time it reached CA). Mistakes, money, and everything else were only minor factors.

    We are apes, and the primate house is the most embarrassing place in the zoo, so blaming the voters gets nowhere.

  18. @the classicist: Some of it is what you say, but some is just idiocy -- a non-trivial if not decisive amount, as I originally said. In fact, I wouldn't call "low information" and "idiocy" mutually exclusive; in some cases, the one generates the others. Since you're a classicist, you probably know the original Greek meaning of idiotes: "a person who did not participate in the political or public life of the polis, -- someone who lived an individual life, unconcerned with larger affairs."

    Also @Rick, blaming the voters (if that's what I'm doing) isn't necessarily about "getting somewhere." The question here was analytical: what factors contributed to the outcome. But you're certainly right that candidates and strategists must deal with the voting public they have, not the voting public they wish they had -- something I'm not sure Obama has ever fully understood yet.

  19. No. 2 is confusing because it could mean a lot of different things. It can mean:

    1. The Republicans didn't disgrace themselves enough during the Great Recession like they did during Hoover's administration by not changing their ideology/policy in response to the Depression. This limited the ability of Obama to approach the Great Recession with the same vigor as FDR dealt with the Great Depression. The alternative meaning could be:

    2. The fact that it was early on the Great Recession caused Obama's team to approach the situation to optimistically and underestimate the extent of the problems. This prevented them from doing what was truly necessary, a large stimulus based more on putting people to work than tax cuts.

  20. I believe that the primary reason was number 2 and 7. The Democrats would have done better if the economy is better, 7, but because of 2, they did not have the leeway that FDR did and they underestimated the problems facing the economy.

    3, 5, and 6 are also important. By 3, the GOP got lots of conservatives to hyperventilate about the Democrats being 5. While 6, perceived Democratic spinelessness during the fights caused liberals to be demotivated and not show up.

    9 should be that the important youth and minority voters of 2008 did not show up and vote for the Democratic party in the mid-terms. Don't know what would have gotten the youth and minority votes out.

  21. @Jeff: thanks for the reply. Yes, I agree, it's hard to hear the "keep your government hands off my Medicare/states' rights for Arizona on immigration but not California on carbon emissions/the deficit will kill the middle class so cut taxes on the ultra-rich" stuff without wincing. I was interpreting your "idiocy" claim as being about stupidity, but if you're including low information, irrational action bias, unhelpfully false views about differences between the parties or about politics as theater -- then I'm okay with that. It's just worth noting the contexts that set off action bias + desire for self-expression via voting, to wit, partisanship, unemployment and other bad stuff, and all that.

    (Btw, I'm not actually a classicist ... professionally, I mean. I'm a philosophy grad student. But point taken.)

    Also piping up to note a special circumstance I'd forgotten to mention earlier: the weird norms surrounding appointments to the Senate. Appointments who were intended for the long run -- Gillibrand and Bennet -- did well (and I suspect a more conventional pick than Bennet would have had to sweat a bit less towards the end). Placeholders for individuals had a mixed record: Crist dropped out of his primary, Lemieux didn't follow, then Crist lost; Kaufman's seat will stay Democratic, but by a bit of a fluke, and it's not going to Beau Biden; Goodwin will smoothly turn over to Manchin after just a few months. Placeholders for no particular individual -- Burris and Kirk -- made way for opposing party Senators. Does anyone think a competent candidate appointed by Quinn under non-shady circumstances would have been likely to lose -- either to Kirk or to the lesser recruit the GOP ran because Kirk was unwilling to give up his seat to run against a decent incumbent? Score another for the lasting effects of the Blagojevich circus.

  22. classicist, "philosophy grad student" is a bold move in this day and age. I wish you the best with that, in all sincerity. In my ideal world, we'd have more philosophy grad students than investment bankers, and they'd all have full-tuition fellowships. But I'm something of an "idiotes" myself on this, I suppose. :-\

  23. Thanks, Jeff. Yup, you know you've gone into a shady business when your old kindergarten teacher (!) asks what you're up to, and when you tell her she responds: "oh -- well, it's so easy to switch jobs nowadays."


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