How can the Republicans be winning?

August 27, 2014

Barack Obama and the Democrats have (almost) nothing to blame for their problems but themselves, writes Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History.

THE 2014 November midterm elections are only a few months away, and political commentators are predicting that the Republicans will have a good year. The GOP will definitely retain its majority in the House of Representatives, they say, and the highly accurate elections forecaster Nate Silver gives the Republicans a 60/40 chance of gaining a majority in the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, right-wing governors like Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Michigan's Rick Snyder look like they have good chances of winning, despite having spent their terms destroying unions, handing out tax breaks to corporations and slashing programs for the poor.

If the Republicans hold their own or even improve on their position, they could certainly claim a political comeback of sorts, compared to their situation in the autumn of the last two years.

In 2012, although convinced that Mitt Romney would right the "fluke" of the 2008 election and drive Barack Obama from the White House, the Republicans instead had their heads handed to them. And the setting for that election was a barely perceptible economic recovery from the 2007-09 recession. Obama was nevertheless able to ride the coattails of a "new electorate" of younger, non-white and female voters to a surprisingly easy victory. Democrats even improved their position in the House and Senate, though control of neither chamber of Congress changed hands.

Republicans Mitch McConnell and John Boehner
Republicans Mitch McConnell and John Boehner

The 2012 Republican loss was so traumatic that the party appointed a commission to autopsy the defeat. This commission concluded that the GOP had to appear to be more welcoming to women, Latinos and other racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT people. The report ended up on the shelf, though, as the voices of Tea Party conservatism won out with their conclusion that the Republicans had lost only because they weren't conservative enough.

In October 2013, the Tea Party, led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, won the Republican caucus in Congress to shut down the federal government in protest of the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's signature health care reform legislation--aka Obamacare. This proved to be a monumentally unpopular move, and the Democrats maneuvered the Republicans into throwing in the towel.

At the time, Gallup recorded the lowest-ever favorability rating for the Republicans, with only 28 percent of Americans supporting the party. For a few weeks, it appeared that the Republican right-wingers would be politically sidelined, as millions of average Americans gained access to health insurance that they hadn't previously been able to afford. Therefore, in the 2014 midterms, those millions of grateful Americans would punish the Tea Party that had tried to prevent them from reaping the rewards of Obamacare.

That was the hopeful liberal Democratic narrative, anyway. It lasted for about a week before crashing into the reality of the Obamacare launch fiasco. Within a few days, the Tea Party's obstructionism had been pushed off the front pages, and the failures and shortcomings of Obamacare--whose main "achievement," ultimately, will be to force millions of people to buy inadequate, overpriced private insurance--became clear.

The Obamacare system was eventually repaired well enough for more than 8 million people to enroll, slightly better than what authors of the legislation envisioned back in 2010.

But the twin disasters of the glitch-filled sign-up process and the growing awareness that Obamacare was forcing people into expensive insurance plans with lots of holes in coverage also fixed something else--the Republicans' favorite theme that "big government" can't do anything right.

According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, three-quarters of Americans surveyed "say they believe that the economic problems facing the country are a result of Washington's failure to get things done"--and eight of 10 said they were dissatisfied with the political system.

It's not that the Republicans are that much more popular. Basically, the U.S. public feels that no one among the political elite--from President Obama and the Democrats to the Republican Tea Partiers--is really looking out for their interests.

THESE ELECTIONS will be the ones where many of the right-wing Tea Partiers elected to state office in the Republican sweep in the 2010 elections--as well as those in Congress who survived the party's 2012 setback--will face voters again. After the rule of ruin that has characterized their time in office, you'd think ordinary Americans would be fed up and ready to reject the bigoted, austerity politics they represent.

But that's hardly a foregone conclusion. There are several reasons why.

The first factor to look at is the claim of the "Republican establishment" that it has triumphed in its counteroffensive against Tea Party candidates in this year's Republican primaries. With a few major exceptions--most spectacularly, the primary election defeat of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor--incumbent and established Republicans defeated the kind of right-wing Tea Party challenges against so-called "moderates" that took down leading figures in the party in 2010 and 2012.

Yet in many cases, the "mainstream" conservatives won against the Tea Party this year by tacking far to the right. Thus, Tea Party Patriots spokesman Kevin Broughton--who supported the right-wing challenger to dull-as-dishwater Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts--was correct when he said, "In a general sense, we like to think this year we shifted the narrative, shaped the debate." As Salon's Jim Newell wrote:

[T]his is a "convenient position" for these groups after another one of their candidates lost. But they're right, too. The Tea Party challengers, while not successful, have kept the debate and incumbents' voting records far to the right of where they might otherwise be in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi and now Kansas. Roberts' victory is another case of the "Establishment" candidate winning by sucking up all the "Tea Party" oxygen.

Given that the "Tea Party" was never really more than a repackaging of conservative Republicans for the Obama era, it stands to reason that its politics will live on, even if politicians distance themselves from the Tea Party label.

Second, conservatives and Republicans hold various strategic advantages in 2014 that go beyond the party itself and the thrust of politics around individual issues. As has been increasingly the case in the last several midterm elections--the national elections between presidential years--voters tend to be whiter, older and more conservative than in presidential years. So the "new electorate" that lifted Obama and the Democrats in 2012 will be much harder to get to the polls in 2014.

Third, Democrats, as the other major capitalist party on the ballot in November, will adapt to that more conservative electorate as well. Politico's Alex Isenstadt described how this conventional wisdom is playing out in 2014:

Faced with a treacherous political environment, many Democrats are trotting out campaign ads that call for balanced budgets, tax cuts and other more traditionally GOP positions. Some of them are running in congressional districts that just two years ago broke sharply for President Barack Obama.

Of course, this strategy of moving to the right to chase conservative voters raises the old question of why the electorate would buy the copy when they can have the original.

BUT ALL of these factors pale in comparison to the main reason why the Democrats and liberals are nervous about their immediate prospects: Barack Obama's low approval rating and the widespread sense that his administration is running on empty.

According to a number of leading national polls, only about 40 percent of Americans say they approve of Obama's performance, with about 50 percent registering disapproval. Obama's approval rating hasn't fallen to the lows of Jimmy Carter and the two George Bushes, but that's hardly a positive for him or the Democrats. Since the president's approval rating is one of the best predictors of performance for his party in November, the Democrats are right to be worried.

The only consolation the Democrats can cling to is the widespread recognition, supported in national polls, that the Republicans and Congress are even less popular than Jimmy Carter was when he was booted from office.

There are a number of reasons for Obama's low approval ratings. A good 30 to 40 percent of the population always opposed him, so that's no surprise. But he appears to have lost the 20 percent or so in the middle of the electorate that was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, he's basically down to his core supporters.

But even the people who are most supportive of Obama express dissatisfaction with his performance, even if they aren't about to vote for Republicans. After all, Obama promised to be a "transformative" president, who took office in the midst of a neoliberal crisis. Had it any interest in doing so, his administration could have reshaped American politics for a generation.

Instead, Obama has been a careful guardian of status quo. "There's a realization," Adam Green of Progressive Change Campaign Committee told the liberal American Prospect, "that this is not a bold, progressive president. He's ultimately not going to be a game-changer when it comes to taking on the powers that be."

For readers of Socialist Worker, of course, this description of Obama is hardly news to us, especially given that Obama is "one of the powers that be."

Still, the list of broken promises, failures and outrages of the Obama administration grows longer by the day: a record level of deportations, commitment to a decade of austerity in government spending, pro-corporate health care reform, preserving the majority of the Bush tax cuts, continuing the Guantánamo prison camp, drone warfare and the presidential "kill list", massive NSA spying, the destruction of thousands of union jobs at GM and Chrysler--and every reader of this article will be able to add more.

Even when Obama seems to score a victory against the right, he's careful to stay within the dominant neoliberal consensus.

Take the already mentioned Republican surrender during last year's government shutdown, for instance. Obama and the Democrats routed the GOP--but the deal that ended the standoff gave Republicans most of the cuts in government spending they had wanted, as Socialist Worker pointed out at the time. So this victory for "liberalism" against the Tea Party ended up reinforcing the conservative stranglehold on government spending!

All of this has unfolded in the context of a recovery from the Great Recession that has felt like anything but a recovery. Obama will end his term in office having presided over a decline in living standards for the majority of Americans.

As a result, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg finds among rank-and-file Democrats "a disappointment around government effectiveness. So you have all this money that was spent, starting with TARP, the stimulus, and cash for clunkers, and then health-care reform, and it just doesn't feel to a lot of people that it made a huge difference in their lives. And they're the ones who believe in this stuff."

So it's no wonder that when Obama talks about income inequality as being "the challenge of our time" or touts his latest too-little too-late jobs bill that Congress rejects, even his biggest partisans tune him out.

THE DEMOCRATS hope that the Republicans' unpopularity will save them in the November election, or at least stop the defeat from being so bad that they lose control of their U.S. Senate majority.

They will make some moves to energize the base before the election--Obama's rumored plans for bold executive action to stop deportations, for example, might encourage enough Democratic base voters to turn out so major losses are staved off. Party officials are also bragging that they've improved their "ground game"--the get-out-the-vote machine to mobilize the Democrats' core supporters to cast a ballot.

But there's no getting around the fact that the political momentum is with the Republicans at this point.

While disgust with the two-party system has created some opportunities for third-party openings to the left of the Democrats, the dominant trend in November, by default, will be against the White House and for the Republicans. This is an old story under the two-party U.S. political system--disappointment in a "liberal" administration's failures to keep its promises benefits conservatives who support even more unpopular policies.

If the elections deliver both houses of Congress into the hands of the Republicans, Obama's "lame duck" status will be cemented. His Cabinet advisers will start polishing their resumes for multimillion-dollar corporate jobs; Obama will cave further to the right, as he did following the Republican victory in 2010; liberals will wring their hands; and the Democratic establishment will start getting "ready for Hillary" in 2016.

But even if the Democrats keep the Senate, the scenario for U.S. politics during the next two years looks similar--unless something arises to change it.

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