In contact sports if you play scared you will get hurt. And in the mid-term elections the Democrats played scared.
Yes, Republicans worked shamelessly to suppress the vote in Texas, North Carolina and other states. Yes, the Koch brothers and others flooded key campaigns with money. And yes, some irresponsible voices played on fears of the electorate with wild statements conflating threats of Ebola, terrorists crossing the border and executive over-reach in Washington.
But the Democrats have only themselves to blame for an inept campaign that completely failed to build on a solid record of accomplishment. How could they do so badly despite a healthy growth rate, unemployment under six percent (although this figure masks a much grimmer reality), consumer confidence at a seven-year high and low inflation?
Their worst mistake was failing to champion the landmark reform that has delivered health care to 10 million people. They embarrassed themselves by disowning their leader. Instead of highlighting success they let themselves believe the Republican narrative – which was adopted by a typically lazy media – of a "deeply unpopular president." It did them no good. Most candidates in tough fights who distanced themselves from the president lost.
It was no surprise that the base did not turn out. Why would African Americans be energized when candidates held the first black president at arm’s length? Why would Latinos turn out for the Democrats when the Obama administration decided to delay executive action on immigration until after the election in the hopes of protecting vulnerable candidates? In Texas, Republican Greg Abbot garnered 45 percent of the Latino vote in his successful gubernatorial campaign.
Democrats relied too heavily on single issues such as women’s reproductive rights. By appealing only to minorities, single women and millennials they may be able to win the White House but not the House or Senate. Republicans were more disciplined than in previous elections and managed to keep the lunatic fringe in check. And there is serious thinking going on among some leading conservatives on reforming the tax code to make it friendlier to work and to families and to close loopholes; others are looking at criminal justice reform.
There is another factor that Democrats ignore at their peril. They must take seriously the need to reach white males, both middle class and blue collar workers, and address their anxieties.
Vast numbers are still suffering as a result of the Great Recession. Between 2007 and 2009 the net worth of an average family fell by $50,000. Many of those who experienced unemployment for the first time in their lives – often for months or even years – now find themselves working two or more jobs at far lower wages just to put food on the table. In his book Losing Our Way: an intimate portrait of a troubled America, Bob Herbert describes through numerous personal interviews a sense that the country is falling apart. Failing infrastructure and a fraying social contract cause many to look at the future with pessimism. By 2009-2010 the number of Americans committing suicide was approaching forty thousand annually, more than the number being killed in motor vehicle accidents. The suicide rate among men in their fifties increased nearly 50 percent from 2000 to 2102.
There is enormous anger at political elites – Democrats just as much as Republicans – who are completely entwined with megacorporate interests and Wall Street. A sense of insecurity and of unprecedented abandonment among millions of ordinary Americans allows vested interests to exploit racial, ethnic or class divisions and as well as historical resentments.
In a nation where political allegiance is increasingly defined by geography, Virginia stands as a key gateway state between North and South. This is important because our national political and cultural divide reflects in part the unhealed history of the Civil War and white Southerners reactions to President Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To avoid ongoing gridlock we need some political leaders who can work intelligently to overcome mindsets stemming from historical resentment, condescension and acceptance of the usual stereotypes.
Although they are both Democrats, our Virginia senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine may be able to play a bridge-building role. Warner is respected for his business acumen and his bi-partisan approach to budget issues. Kaine takes his Catholic faith seriously and his father-in-law was a Republican governor who exemplified the best of the party’s tradition. Both are rooted in values important to a more conservative electorate. Could they help generate an honest dialogue and encourage the best contribution from their colleagues of both parties for the sake of the country?