The Persistence of the Donkey

Polls show a surprising resilience for Democrats in an incredibly adverse environment, not a catastrophic collapse. But are the polls right?

This is not exactly dancing in the end zone, but things should be going much worse for the Democratic Party. With spineless leadership, paralysis in Congress, a terrible economy, and an onslaught of increasingly vile and racist attacks from the Right, Obama’s approval rating should be about 15%, and a Republican takeover of Congress ought to be a sure thing. That the election is even in contention is a surprise to me.

First, consider that a party almost always loses seats in the first midterm election after its own president takes office. Bill Clinton famously endured catastrophic losses in 1994, ending decades of Democratic dominance in the legislative branch; voters punished Ronald Reagan in 1982, as a grinding recession much like today’s continued to afflict the country. (Ronaldus Magnus went on to enjoy one of the most crushing reelection victories in US history two years later.) George W. Bush was only able to interrupt this pattern by goading the country into a patriotic and paranoid fervor over “weapons of mass destruction” in the 2002 run-up to the Iraq War.

On top of this, the Democrats enjoyed so many improbable political upsets in the last two elections – for example, a Senate seat in Alaska, and a House seat in upstate New York that hadn’t gone Democratic since the Civil War – that Republicans were bound to make up some ground that they had lost. Almost regardless of what is going on in the country, the pendulum was going to swing back at least a little.

So history suggests that the Dems would lose seats in 2010 no matter what. Then you add in a brutal employment rate that has only been muted by Obama’s best efforts – the stimulus and a smattering of tax breaks for small business that Republicans allowed to be voted on in the Senate. People are in a foul mood, and rightly so. Things are not good. When voters ask why more has not been done about jobs, Democratic leaders mumble something about the filibuster and the motion to recommit. This is not inspiring leadership.

That 30% of the electorate is energized and ready to vote is not surprising – conservative white voters no longer have the millstone of George Bush hanging around their necks, and they don’t care for Obama for one bit. The dispirited GOP of 2008 is no more.  We’ve seen this show when Democrats have taken power before, with the right-wing hysteria that followed Bill Clinton’s election, and the John Birch Society’s conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy.  With Obama in office, conservatives have once again rediscovered the beauty of dissent. And Republicans have been more than happy to cater to this paranoid and self-pitying constituency with plenty of red meat – scary illegal immigrants! Muslim takeover! Viagra for sex offenders!

To top it all off, the Supreme Court’s awful Citizens United decision has lifted many restrictions on how corporations and rich people can spend to influence elections. 2010 will be the first election in which we get to see what happens when companies like Target and Exxon have free rein to drop massive amounts of negative advertising on Democrats, in their tireless pursuit of low wages, low taxes, and no regulation.

If this shitstorm is really happening, why is Obama’s approval rating stubbornly close to 50%? Although polls show a consistent lead for Congressional Republicans, the Dems are running close and have pulled even in a few surveys. Although there are some very depressing pieces of news – liberal stalwart Russ Feingold is in deep trouble in Wisconsin, and the popular governor of West Virginia might actually lose Robert Byrd’s old seat to a no-name Republican – Democrats have still clung on much more tenaciously than anyone might reasonably have expected.

I can only think of a few reasons for this endurance. One is obvious from the polls. The Republican Party has done nothing to distinguish itself and is actually less popular than the Democrats. The GOP had not controlled Congress for years when they took over in 1994, and they enjoyed a 52% approval rating before the election. Now only 24% approve of Congressional Republicans, while 33% view Congressional Dems favorably. Public sentiment may be for “Throw the bums out,” but Republicans have not given much reason for voters to believe they are any better.

Voters may vaguely remember that the Republicans were running the country right before things fell apart, and the shameless fear-mongering that candidates like Sharron Angle have indulged in has not endeared them to voters. Indeed, Muslims and Latinos may recall for years to come that they were television stars in a hate rally staged by Republicans in 2010.

Second, the liberal base that got organized and involved between 2004 and 2008 has not completely tuned out. Organizational and media structures remain in place, whether it is ActBlue fundraising and Obama’s Organizing for America or DailyKos and Rachel Maddow. This infrastructure has helped Dems hold on to several special elections in the last two years that they could easily have lost. A counter-narrative persists, despite the gloom and doom from the mainstream media. Liberal voters may be depressed but they have not disappeared.

Last, there is a more speculative possibility. Perhaps support for the policies that people thought they were voting for in 2008 has not collapsed. The Democratic Congress has actually done stuff – things that are far more important than they have been portrayed as in a media culture that focuses on horse races and name-calling. Bill Clinton was severely punished for coming into office and squandering a Democratic majority, as healthcare reform died and the president folded on gay rights and many other issues. Obama, in contrast, has pushed ahead on reforming student loans, insurance (no more “pre-existing conditions”), equal pay for equal work, clean energy, and many other issues.

The Democrats will probably get their asses kicked in November, and we will probably see two years of scorched-earth partisan warfare leading up to the 2012 election. Both parties have nothing to gain by working together, and everything to lose. But I doubt the Dems will lose everything. Catastrophic Democratic losses this year appear to be what historians like to call “over-determined,” and the fact that Dems are still in the fight (and may hold on to the Senate) is a testament to the resilience of a progressive base in the electorate.

Alex Sayf Cummings