This is the second of three posts analyzing Michael Barone's cover story "Open-Field Politics" in the current issue of The National Journal. In the article Barone, lead author of the Almanac of American Politics, is working hard to rewrite history, diminish the importance of the 2006 midterm results, and resurrect the Republican Party.
It is important to note that Barone, a conservative political scientist, has undue influence on shaping the worldview of the 'Inside the Beltway" crowd. He claims to be the firstpundit/political commentator to describe America as a 49% nation - a country evenly divided between two partisan factions. Through his writings in US News & World Report and The National Journal (not to mention his appearances on Fox News) he presents his conservative "spin" on election results, typically hyping Republican advances and diminishing Democratic gains. Often, these ideas become the conventional wisdom of the DC political class.
Why is this important?
When Democrats accept Barone's conservative framing of the political power balance, it leads to failure. Our confidence falters. Our leadership loses its way.
As stated in the previous post, Barone's article should be viewed as part of the ongoing effort to redefine conservatism and distance both the movement and the Republican Party from the failures of the Bush presidency. Glenn Greenwald discussed the GOP's effortsto repudiate George W. Bush as a real movement conservative two weeks ago.
Let's look at the "story" Barone tells about the midterm election in "Open-Field Politics."
In Part I: The Myth of the "Bitter Divide," 1995-2005, I examined Barone's omission of critical events (September 11th) and strategies that facilitated the creation of a Republican-friendly frame by establishing the following:
- America has been bitterly and evenly divided between two parties
- The conflict is rooted in the "culture wars" (guns, gays and abortion)
- It is unclear as to which party is to blame, although if the MSM and American public believe the issues of guns, gays and abortion are the cause Democrats are likely to be blamed by swing voters
Part II: The 2006 Midterms - A New Majority?
Barone states "the 2006 election was at least somewhat different" from the five national elections that preceded it. Somewhat? Let's review the facts: Both houses of Congress switched party control, the Democrats won six of the seven closest Senate races, the margin between the victorious Dems and the defeated GOP in house was 6 points (similar to the margin in the 1994 GOP "Revolution) and not one Democratic incumbent lost their seat, an unprecedented feat.
How does this add up to somewhat different?
The numbers are difficult to deny, but Barone tries.
The Democratic capture of the Senate last year owed something to luck, as is often the case; Democrats won six of the seven closest races, and their candidates won in Montana and Virginia -- both long shots at the start of the year -- by a total of 12,891 votes.
The defeat of six incumbent GOP Senators is simply glossed over. These GOP defeats are not described as a repudiation of Republican incompetence or the Iraq War. Nope. It was merely luck.
Barone looks at the voting patterns of various demographic groups and there is not a single bright spot for the Republicans, except the ongoing participation and support they received from evangelical and born-again Protestants.
According to Barone's review, the bad news for Republicans is everywhere:
- The GOP lost support across the ideological spectrum, most significantly among independent voters
- Democrats defeated GOP House incumbents even in strong Bush districts when they ran strong campaigns (hey, there's that Fifty-State Strategy thing working again!)
- The labor movement's GOTV effort was extremely successful
- The new voters who contributed to a surge in voting in 2004 appear to have switched from Bush voters and supported Democrats in the 2006 House races
Despite this widespread GOP collapse, Barone states,
"The election was more a verdict on competence than on ideology, and it gave the Democrats an opportunity but, on most issues at least, not a mandate. (emphasis added)
As the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, Democrats got their votes on loan. It was a negative verdict on the conduct of the military struggle in Iraq and on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. It was a negative verdict on a Republican Congress that seemed casual about corruption and complacent about wasteful spending. It was a clear victory won after a campaign that was conducted largely in an idea-free zone."
This is a very important and dangerous point. Democrats accept this message at their own peril.
Before I review the "lack of mandate" and "negative verdict" statements, I must point out Barone's cynical and misleading use of E.J. Dionne's writing to validate his conclusions. The wording of the excerpt above implies that Dionne makes these same observations. But, this is not the case. If you click on the link contained in the article, it takes you to the RealClearPolitics online posting of Dionne's Nov 9, 2006 opinion piece. The headline of the piece at RCP is indeed, "Democrats Won With Votes on Loan." But, there is a disconnect between the article's title and content. Here is what Dionne actually writes:
American voters, in their wisdom, ended an era on Tuesday. They rejected a poorly conceived war policy in Iraq that has weakened the United States. They rejected a harshly ideological approach to politics that cast opponents as enemies of the country's survival. They rejected a president so determined to win an election that he was willing to slander his opponents by saying: "The Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses.'' The voters decided there was no decency in that.
No longer will the national tragedy of 9/11 be used as a political currency. No longer will Democrats cower and invoke Karl Rove's alleged genius as an excuse for their mistakes. No longer will learned commentators be able to assert that conservative Republicans form a "natural governing majority,'' that swing voters aren't important, and that independents and moderates don't matter any more.
-- snip --
But many of the party's successful candidates ran as moderates, and Democrats hold power on the basis of a loan of votes from middle-of-the-road Americans who simply could not stomach Bush Republicanism anymore. The loan can be recalled at any moment.
The good news for Democrats is that their candidates, moderates and liberals alike, ran on two common themes: that the Bush Iraq policy had to change, and that the Washington Establishment simply does not understand the personal struggles and economic insecurities confronting so many Americans.
While Dionne describes the votes Democrats received from swing voters in 2006 as a loan, it is hardly the central point of his article. So, I thought I'd look at how it was headlined in Dionne's paper, The Washington Post, and, lo and behold, the WaPo has a far different - and more accurate - headline: Meeting at the Middle.
So, Barone incorporates Dionne into supporting his analysis, essentially using a headline that Dionne may have never seen to imply the two pundits reached the same conclusion. See? Barone isn't spouting conservative spin. He's just reinforcing the bipartisan consensus.
Now, back to dissecting Barone's conclusions: "The election was more a verdict on competence than on ideology, and it gave the Democrats an opportunity but, on most issues at least, not a mandate...Democrats got their votes on loan."
On the surface the claims made here seem quite reasonable. In fact, I'd argue that they are already generally accepted in the DC political cognoscenti circles, if not the nation at large. But, let's be clear, the development and dissemination of this view is designed to hamstring the Democrats in Congress.
Let's look at three problematic components of Barone's review of the 2006 midterms:
- The election was about Republican incompetence and not ideology. Yes, it was primarily about GOP mismanagement, but it was also about ideology despite Barone's claims. If we define ideology as how we view the role of government in our society, then one could argue the GOP's approach of a smaller government reliant on a private/public sector partnership has been rejected. While many Americans may not be paying enough attention to connect the dots, FEMA's incompetent and tragic response to Hurricane Katrina was a result of this ideology.
- The Democrats may not have a mandate on most issues because the campaign was run in an idea-free zone. The 2006 campaign was dominated by Iraq and the multiple Congressional scandals. On these issues Democrats did receive a clear mandate from the voters. This "lack of support" mantra also ignores polling data. Rasmussen Reports' tracking polls show the public trusts Democrats over Republicans on all ten key issues facing the nation today. Media Matters' recently released report "The Progressive Majority" effectively dispels the belief that America is a fundamentally conservative country. And, one other thing: wasn't it the GOP spinmeisters telling us prior to the election that House races are always about local issues? Didn't they deride the Democrats' efforts to nationalize the election? The voters knew what they were voting for when they gave the Democrats the majority.
- The election was a negative verdict on the GOP; Democrats got their votes on loan. Every election provides the nation to issue a verdict on the incumbent party's performance. When parties get ousted from power, it is usually a result of a "negative performance review" issued by the electorate. As far as this idea the Democrats got their votes "on loan," I respond: Isn't this true of every election, especially when we're talking about the all-important swing voter? Isn't convincing the middle-of-the-road voter you can do a better job than the other guy what campaigns are all about?
Six months into a Democratic Congress approval numbers are plummeting into the basement. Much of this can be attributed to the Democratic leadership accepting and operating within the frame created by Barone and his colleagues in the conservative spin machine.
The American electorate voted for change. Thus far, the Democrats are failing to deliver.