In the wake of Tuesday’s electoral curb-stomping, a narrative is coalescing among movement liberals that Democrats lost because of Obama’s failure to live up to the campaign pledges that he’d made to his progressive base. The theory goes something like this: Because of Obama’s failures to close Gitmo, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aggressively push for a public option in the health-care bill, push for an end to DADT and/or DOMA, and make significant headway on either card check or cap-and-trade, liberals who would typically be more motivated to vote in a midterm election did not turn out, and this absenteeism of voters caused the Republican rout.
This theory is no doubt comforting to liberals, who would of course prefer not to believe that the country roundly rejected their policies at the polls. It is probably also necessary for them to spout this theory out loud, for the sake of keeping the troops motivated for 2012. Unfortunately for them, it is completely contradicted by all the available evidence.
According to exit polling, the “war in Afghanistan” was the most important issue for a mere 8% of voters, just one issue shy of “illegal immigration” on the totem pole. Of those 8%, Democrats won those voters 56% to 42%. By contrast, “the economy” was the number-one issue for 62% of voters; these voters supported Republicans 54% to 44%. Nearly half (48%) of all voters sought the repeal of ObamaCare, and Republicans won these voters 87% to 11%. Even among the 16% who favored leaving ObamaCare as it is, Republicans garnered 31% of the vote. Fifty percent of voters proclaimed themselves “very worried” about the economy, and favored Republicans 70% to 28%. The reason Democrats lost is not exactly a mystery. American voters rejected their handling of their two signature issues: health care and the economy.
The counter-spin that liberals have for sale is that the Blue Dogs in the House fared much worse than their more progressive brethren, in terms of percentages of seats lost. And it true that the Blue Dog caucus was decimated on Tuesday, losing 28 members. However, this “evidence” ignores the very simple truth that Blue Dogs tend to be Blue Dogs for a reason; i.e., they tend to represent conservative districts that are most susceptible to Republican swings. Of the approximately 65 Democrats who lost their jobs on Tuesday, none represented a district in which Obama received more than 60% of the vote in ’08. Very few Democrats lost in districts in which Obama received more than 55% of the vote in ’08. If Melissa Bean ultimately is declared the loser in IL–8, she will have the distinction of being the loser from the most pro-Obama district in the country (with 58% of the vote in 2008).
This spin is also contradicted by the landslide losses suffered by the liberals’ favorite Senate and House candidates, Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson. Grayson ran in a fairly typical swing district (FL–8), in which Obama carried 53% of the vote in FL–8. Grayson was an unapologetic liberal, arguing forcefully and often for the public option and virtually every other liberal pet cause which came down the pipe. He had millions of dollars to spend in a relatively inexpensive district. Liberals cheered him for his pugilistic and aggressive nature with Republicans; in the end, these characteristics led him to an overwhelming 18-point defeat.
Feingold’s loss has to sting progressives worse. While Grayson’s loss might justifiably be blamed on an unnecessarily nasty campaign that backfired on Grayson personally, Feingold had no such personal issues. Feingold has cruised through a Senate career that has been remarkably free of scandal or personal innuendo, by all accounts leading a relatively modest financial life (for a Senator). Feingold is also a relatively soft-spoken and personable guy. However, he is without a doubt a hard-charging liberal, bucking Obama to the left on a number of issues, especially issues related to war and civil liberties. He threatened to vote against the healthcare bill if it did not include a public option. He famously voted against Obama’s pet bank regulation bill because it did not go far enough in regulating the banking sector. In other words, if the liberals’ narrative about this election were true, Russ Feingold would be the one Democrat in either chamber who could count on the enthusiastic support of an energized Democratic base carrying him to re-election, especially in a state won by Democrats in every Presidential election since 1984. However, Feingold was easily swept out to sea by a self-financing millionaire political neophyte who ran ostensibly and unapologetically as a champion of the hated TEA Party.
No doubt in the coming days and weeks Obama will receive conflicting advice from his advisors about how to react to the Democrats’ losses. Some will no doubt advise him that he must respond by appealing more to his base in anticipation of the 2012 elections. Some have already suggested that if he does not do so, he faces a likely primary challenge in 2012 from Feingold himself. However, the evidence suggests that if he does, he will likely share Feingold’s fate.