Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Victory lessons for American Republicans

It's hard to think of a word for the treatment that voters just doled out to US Democrats. A kicking? A battering? A marmalising? Well, why don't we just settle for a good old fashion shoeing while we're at it? Republicans' rather wider-than-expected margin of victory in the Senate, their large majority in the House of Representatives, and their success in seizing Governors' mansions must all fill American liberals' veins with ice.

That's as it should be. Democrats will talk a lot about mid-term turnout, and it's true that 'their' voters - young people, African Americans - don't turn out in the numbers that they do in Presidential election years. They'll talk about 'the map', and of course they were defending seats in highly Republican states (think of Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, West Virginia, Montana) that they had won on the day of President Obama's first election. They'll say that this always happens to the party of a second term incumbent President, especially one with such poor approval ratings (President Obama's numbers now hover somewhere not far above George W. Bush's at the same point during his time in the White House).

All that's true, and important in any final analysis. But those are also a set of easily-digestible and believable myths, and Democrats would be doing themselves a disserive if they didn't take a good old look at themselves and wonder where it all went so wrong. They lost in 'purple', competitive states such as North Carolina and (increasingly liberal) Colorado. They lost with good candidates (like Alison Grimes in Kentucky). They lost against appallingly poor opponents - even managing to hand Rick Scott another term as the Governor of Florida. They lost seats in the House all the way across the country. Turnout? The map? Second term blues? Pah.

The lesson the Democrats should take is twofold. First: it's always a mistake to stray too far from voters' own views. Remember 2006 and 2008. Democrats won the Senate. Big. Then they won the Presidency. Easily. There was huge noise about an 'emerging Democratic majority' - which that party allowed to go to its head. President Obama then bet the house on health care reform, allowing his stimulus to get whittled down as he spent his energies in a long bout of trench warfare over health insurance - a (mostly) admirable and overdue measure, but one which most voters ranked below salvaging the economy. Then 'Obamacare' got bogged down in procedural niceties and technical disasters, and the President had to admit that it might mean changing your existing cover (something he had said would never happen). Voters were - how shall we put this? - not impressed. It has thereafter been difficult, to say the least, to recover even an impression of the President's previously heady levels of intellectual and political authority.

Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, must learn those lessons. He must keep his troops together, exert discipline and try to get some legislation passed that the President can actually sign. Massive oil pipelines? Check. Immigration reform? Definitely. More infrastructure works? Maybe. Tax simplification and harmonisation? Sure. The alternative should be horrible enough to concentrate Republican minds. Focus on social and moral issues, try to turn every question into an opportunity to hold an inquiry into the White House, talk about impeaching the President and jostle with each other for who is going to be the party's standard bearer in 2016 - well, that'll see the Democrats back in control in just 730 days.

And the second lesson? That there's a crisis of American jobs and wages - similar to that engulfing the whole developed world - that needs addressing somehow. We don't know what the answers are, by the way, though we'll have a stab at that another time. Median household incomes have not risen for years. The average household doesn't feel any richer than it did at the end of the Clinton years. Good, permanent jobs are hard to get. The American promise - that you would always be better off than your parents, if you knuckled down and worked hard - has withered. That's why voters are so angry with 'Washington' overall, and it explains why Republicans have been talking about previously 'left wing' themes - jobs, wages, even inequality. To some extent that's because they've learned their lessons from previous cycles, when (shall we say) 'exotic' candidates cost them seats. But it's also down to just sheer voter rage and confusion. 

The new Senate will have to work hard, compromise and address the question of living standards. If it doesn't, there'll be another along in just twenty four months.

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