|A new pledge just like the old one, 2010|
Once again, the Democrats had allowed the Republicans to set the narrative. Add to that a seemingly new force in politics -- the Tea Party -- which had risen to the fore by questioning Obama's birth certificate, among other crazy things, and threatened to hold Republicans accountable to religious conservative values by challenging them in the primaries. It was like some Fox comedy show from the 90s. It was hard to imagine any of this was real, but real it was, and Tea Party candidates were winning Republican primaries, knocking out "old guard" figures like Richard Bennett of Utah. This was an even more radicalized Republican Party that made a list of demands on the 112th US Congress and brooked no compromise.
Where were the Democrats? They held onto the Senate, but by losing the House in stunning fashion, they allowed the Republicans once again to set the agenda for the next two years. The Democrats listlessly responded to the Republican attack ads. It was like they expected more positive job numbers to come through as they promised, but unemployment continued to hover around 10 per cent. As Bill Clinton had said, "It's the economy, stupid!"
|Obama signs the Stimulus Bill, 2009|
Mostly, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (as it was formally called) gave Americans another round of tax cuts, adding a payroll tax cut to the continuing Bush tax cuts. It also provided home mortgage relief, small business relief and numerous other recovery-minded programs that did mitigate the damage caused by the banking collapse in 2008, but as Paul Krugman wrote, it didn't go far enough, as the economy needed much more money pumping through it to get it moving again.
Democrats expected that money to come from the refinanced banks, who were already reporting profits two short years later, thanks to the massive TARP bailout. Instead, the banks held tight to their money, much more cautious to issue new loans and continued to foreclose on first time home owners at alarming rates. So, the Federal Reserve was forced to make up for the shortfall by providing stimulus packages of its own. This literally resulted in "tent cities," as many Americans found themselves homeless in the wake of the depressed housing market.
There was no "New Deal," not even a new language to evoke FDR's massive federal relief program of the 1930's. Democrats ran away from any such talk. They didn't want to be labeled as "progressive" or god forbid "socialist" by the Republicans. What we now had was the pragmatic Democratic Party, looking like a first time home buyer or small business owner going to a bank for a loan, presenting his meager assets on the table only to be rejected by the loan officer.
The electorate demanded accountability, and the Republicans swept state legislatures and governor mansions once again, promising greater fiscal responsibility, ushering in austerity measures that did more to depress the economy than revive it. You had the whole Herbert Hoover v. Franklin Roosevelt 1932 debate played out again, only this time Herbert Hoover won.
It was really hard to fathom how the Democrats lost this election, but it just shows what an effective media campaign will do for a political party as long as it sticks with its message. The Republicans stuck with their message, the Democrats did not. Democrats started apologizing for their shortcomings and promised to review the measures they passed, including the new Affordable Care Act (ACA), which made them look accountable for the crisis. Politics is war. Republicans understood this. Democrats did not.
However, the Republicans didn't seem to know they had succeeded in pulling the Democratic Party to the right. This was readily apparent when Obama agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts in late 2010, after the Republicans had won the midterms. This is what they had been fighting for most strenuously. They also pushed the Obama administration to present major domestic cuts in a superficial effort to balance the budget, but now there was a major revenue shortfall due to the massive tax cuts over the last seven years, along with a bloated military budget that was considered off limits. New taxes were off the table.
Since 2010, the Republicans have set the agenda in Washington. Even when all the apocalyptic forecasts for the health insurance exchanges failed to materialize, Democrats still found themselves on the defensive and are expected to lose the Senate in this set of midterm elections. Similarly, the economy has improved but the media narrative is that it hasn't improved fast enough. What Americans want is a return to the fast-paced economy that led to the crisis in the first place, rather than slow and steady growth which had once been the hallmark of American society.
Democrats have failed to come up with a narrative to match the times. Obama trenchantly observed in the 2008 primaries that Reagan changed the trajectory of America. Democrats have done little to alter that trajectory. In fact, one can argue that Bill Clinton accepted that shift in American politics, and made it his own to the point we now have persons who identify themselves as Clinton Democrats.
But, what we have are Reagan Democrats -- a new generation of Democratic political leaders who have grown up under the influence of Reagan, and don't have a leading Democratic figure to match the aura of this Republican demigod, who remains fresh in many Americans' minds. So, to one extent or another these Democrats adopt the message of Reagan. FDR's New Deal, Kennedy's New Frontier, Johnson's Great Society are all part of the Democratic past, no longer even mentioned in political circles.
The best this generation has come up with "Change You Can Believe In," but the slogans seemed to run out in 2012. Maybe, "The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same" would be appropriate, as Hillary Clinton is poised to be the Democratic nominee for President once again, unless someone emerges in the coming months to challenge her, like Obama did in 2008.
This is a political party that has done a very poor job of defending its legacy and it is for that reason that we see a very poor Democratic turnout in these midterm elections, with Obama reduced to a shadow of his former self. You can argue that his presidency deserves more credit than he has gotten, but sadly Barack Obama failed to change the trajectory of America and we continue to live in the Age of Reagan.