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Tuesday's Elections Were a Major Warning Sign for Democrats

Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

More than 48 hours have passed since Republicans routed Democrats in the midterms and political professionals are trying to unearth why that happened. Was it Obama? The midterm electorate, the sixth year curse and extremely unfriendly geography? Or do Democrats have a fundamental problem with their agenda? There’s no single answer, obviously. But Tuesday’s events should scare the Democratic Party that its problems might run deeper than which states had elections or the quality of its candidates.

That’s because Democrats didn’t just lose in a bunch of Senate races. They also lost gubernatorial battles in Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois—three solidly Democratic states. In Maine, they were unable to defeat Republican Governor Paul LePage, who has denounced the safety net and refused to expand Medicaid. The Democratic governor in Vermont couldn’t even crack 50 percent and will now be chosen by the legislature, as per Vermont law. In another three states where Democrats are typically competitive—Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin—Democrats failed to knock off governors Rick Scott, Rick Snyder, and Scott Walker. You can attribute some of these losses to idiosyncratic factors; my colleague Alec MacGillis makes a good case, for example, that Maryland Democrat Anthony Brown was just a lousy nominee for governor. But with so many losses, over such a broad swath of states, voters may be sending a different, more powerful message to Democrats: Government isn’t working and we’re fed up with it.

If that’s the case, the Democratic Party should be very concerned. Liberalism’s success depends on the public’s confidence that the government is a force for good. People will tolerate higher taxes and larger government programs as long as they believe the programs work and might, at some point, benefit them personally. They don’t believe these things right now. And their faith just keeps eroding, for reasons both inside and outside of Obama’s control. In 2008 and 2009, Americans saw the government spend trillions of dollars to prop up banks and boost the economy. Six years later, median household income is still 5 percent below its 2008 levels. Last year, Americans watched the Obama Administration launch the Affordable Care Act—and saw not improved economic security, but policy cancellations and a bungled website. The fact that Obama’s approval rating is stuck in the low 40s is not surprising.

Obama’s record deserves better than that, given what he’s achieved and the political opposition he’s had to overcome. One problem is that his greatest achievements consist of disasters prevented—improvements that, however real, are hard for most people to see. The Recovery Act prevented a second Great Depression. The Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law is designed to help avoid future crises. Even Obamacare, by far Obama’s most visible legislative achievement, does not affect the vast majority of the population directly, except to provide a safety net for people who might lose their insurance. Americans benefit from these changes, enormously in some cases. But they don’t feel it in their daily lives.

Where do Democrats go from here? That’s the question the party—and Hillary Clinton—will have to address in the coming months. If the economy continues to grow and wages, finally, start to climb, she might be just fine. People will feel more content and they might start to believe in government again, even if gridlock persists (as it is sure to do) and the big problems facing the country remain unsolved.

But if wage stagnation continues or, worse, another recession hits, Americans will enter the 2016 campaign feeling the same way as they did this year. It won’t matter that Republicans share the blame for obstruction or that, absent such obstruction, Obama would be enacting programs like  a minimum wage hike, equal pay, and infrastructure investment that could boost people’s living standards. He’ll be the president that didn’t deliver economic salvation and Clinton will be the heir apparent running to promote the same kind of governing. The voters will want to hear something new and it’s not clear Democrats will have something new to offer. It’s a big problem—with no obvious solutions.

Danny Vinik

News from Thursday:

ECONOMY: The Commerce Department will release the October jobs report at 8:30am. Economists expect the economy to add 235,000 jobs and the unemployment rate to remain at 5.9 percent. Check back to QED for Danny’s recap. (Shane Ferro, Business Insider)

GAY MARRIAGE: A federal appeals court in Cincinnati upheld the right to ban same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. (Fiona Ortiz, Reuters)

PRISONS: An investigation of Rikers Island jail reveals massive security holes. (Jake Pearson, Associated Press)

SENATE: Moderate Democrats are plotting ways to make the Senate function more effectively to allow more dealmaking. (Sam Stein and Ryan Grim, Huffington Post)

Articles worth reading:

Good news of the day: Brad Plumer writes at Vox that American water withdrawals haven’t come close to keeping up with population growth, which means we’re becoming more efficient with our water use.

Bring back circa-2013 Wendy Davis: Amanda Marcotte says that Wendy Davis not only ruined her gubernatorial campaign, but the possibility of turning Texas blue. (Slate)

The New York rat census: Columbia University statistician busts the myth that there are more rats than people in New York City. In fact, there are just 2 million rats, which means a very manageable ratio of four New Yorkers to one rat. (Polly Mosendz, Newsweek)

The ballot measure no one’s heard of: Policy Mic’s Zeeshan Aleem explains the importance of California’s Proposition 47, which demotes certain drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

What we’re watching:

Jobs report and continued fallout from the midterms.


Danny Vinik explains that while President Obama and Mitch McConnell may be talking nice, they are on a major collision course. Rebecca Leber paints a nightmare world in which climate change denier Ted Cruz becomes a chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space—and it might happen. David Dayen writes about a new paper, written by a former Obama Administration economist, suggesting that Reinhart and Rogoff were wrong: Prolonged, severe downturns do not inevitably follow financial crises.