Losing the Virginia and New Jersey governorships hurt. Local factors played a part, but these are major states. So it matters why the Democrats lost them. Here are eight reasons, with lessons on how to reclaim the momentum of just a year ago:
The consensus choice, but worth stating before moving on to reasons less obvious. Creigh Deeds ran an awful campaign, even saying he'd reject a healthcare public option. As a follow-up poll confirmed, he lost major support as a result. Jon Corzine's ratings were disastrous from the beginning and his Wall Street background combined with the massive indictments of so many New Jersey Democrats to offer the worst possible symbolism. You have to give people something to fight for, and if our candidates are this unpopular, we'd better get better ones.
The Blue Dogs watered down the stimulus package so much that it couldn't stem the continuing loss of jobs. It also included far too little aid to beleaguered state and city governors. So unemployment has continued to climb, creating an understandably disgruntled electorate. No one likes a governor or mayor whose main job is to cut needed services and throw more people out of work, so this puts Democratic incumbents in a terrible bind. If Democrats want to protect their incumbents in 2010, they need to tackle continued job losses and the continued bleeding of local budgets.
Baucus, Nelson, and their cohorts. (More Blue Dogs)
Imagine if Democrats had united to pass a health care bill like the original House version, including popular elements like a strong public option and being funded through taxes on the wealthy. Imagine if they'd done it promptly after some reasonable discussion, instead of dragging it out for months and second-guessing every step. Obama and the Democrats would have something to show voters by now, a record as a party that can get things done even on critical and difficult issues. Instead, after watching endless internal bickering, the public fears the Democrats really will never get their act together, and that what they do pass will be so beholden to wealthy corporate interests that it won't address our real problems. The sooner the Senate and House pass a reasonably progressive healthcare bill, especially one that starts benefiting people immediately, the more the Democrats can reclaim their reputation.
Obama hardly has sole responsibility for the defeats, especially since most voters in New Jersey, and even Virginia still approve of his presidency. And he's done some important things, like beginning to repair our relationship to the rest of the world, supporting alternative energy and respecting scientists' warnings on climate change, and signing strongly progressive student financial aid legislation. But maybe if he'd talked more honestly about the level of disaster we've inherited, and what it will really take to address it, Americans wouldn't be backlashing so severely on the economy. Maybe if he had put people other than like Geithner and Summers in charge, voters wouldn't feel that if you're a banker or speculator who helped crash the global economy, you and your institution get a bailout or golden parachute, but if you've been thrown out of work or your small business fails, you're on your own. Maybe if he'd leaned on the Blue Dogs more (channeling his inner Lyndon Johnson), they'd have come around by now. Obama needs to start governing more as he campaigned--by consciously building a movement and creating momentum to carry candidates and legislation he supports over the top. And he needs to take stronger moral leadership on the key issues we face.
The plummeting youth vote, and demobilization in general.
In exit polls, Virginia voters under 30 dropped from 21% of the 2008 electorate to 10% this year, and from 17% to 9% in New Jersey. Minority voting saw a similar decline. In both states, over half the Obama voters of a year ago simply stayed home, more than a million people in both Virginia and New Jersey. With this collapse of the Democratic base, even relatively modest Republican turnout could carry the day, and did.
In Seattle, where I live, voters elected a strong slate of progressive local officials, both in the city and our more conservative county, including candidates who defeated entrenched incumbents. These candidates actively targeted young voters, whose participation also helped defeat a regressive statewide tax initiative (predecessors of which had passed) and pass a statewide initiative affirming civil unions. The difference is mobilization and vision. Our local candidates invested resources on reaching young voters and giving them something to turn out for. The Obama campaign reached out to young voters intensively, as did major nonpartisan efforts like those of the PIRGs and RockTheVote. This time, the Democratic campaigns did minimal outreach, and too many young voters who would have supported Democratic candidates never made it to the polls.
The Democrats and the media who threw ACORN under the bus.
ACORN definitely made some poor staffing choices. But their alleged "voter fraud" is a Republican myth, since when a handful of paid canvassers added fake registration names, the only institution harmed or defrauded was ACORN itself, who'd spent money to register nonexistent people, none of whom ever even tried to cast a vote. Fox and its cohorts never mentioned that ACORN was legally required to turn in the dubious names, which they flagged for election officials to reject. And yes, some low-level staffers deserved being fired or worse for not instantly ejecting the young conservatives who played pimp and "ho," but the media stories never mentioned those who did and even called the police. The real reason for the attacks was the organization's long-time role in organizing low-income communities, and their registering 1.3 million legitimate voters in the 2007-2008 election cycle alone. By failing to stand up for ACORN's legitimate achievements, cowering Democrats helped the political right demobilize a major force to get low-income communities to participate politically. Other efforts will find hard this force hard to replicate.
Organizing for America.
Organizing for America has done some important things, like generating 300,000 phone calls on healthcare reform. But mostly, it's just been sending out videos of Obama's talks and then asking for money. They've done little or nothing to foster the actual campaign's intensely creative invent-your-own-approach style, and little to connect people so they can empower each other to act. Despite a 13-million-name email list, the organization's impact has been underwhelming so far. They need to start taking more risks and help rebuild a strong grassroots movement among those who did so much to elect Obama. That would go a long way toward shifting America's political culture.
Our common inaction.
This is perhaps the most important area that needs to change, because it affects everything else. A few days before the election, I had dinner with my friend Magdeleno Rose-Avila, who used to work for Cesar Chavez and first got Sister Helen Prejean involved in death penalty issues. A year ago, Magdeleno said, everyone he knew was going to the mat to get Obama elected: giving money, time, everything we could. We stretched beyond what we could, and then we stretched some more. Now, most people he knows have become political spectators. We send out emails. Maybe we call our Senators. But compared to the year before, our actions are minimal, and ineffectual. We haven't been reaching out, canvassing, bombarding the media, calling swing states, marching in the streets, attending town meetings, and coming together to get our voices heard. Or at least not enough of us have. If we want significant change, we must lead the way we did before, but have since stopped. If we want progress, we're going to have to work for it.
The reasons for the Virginia and New Jersey defeats are correctable. We can get better candidates, and make clear to those running that if they stand for nothing, their constituents will fall for anything. Obama and the House and Senate leadership must tell Blue Dogs and Senators like Baucus: The more they block progress on popular key initiatives, the more swing Democrats, including many of the most conservative, will pay the electoral consequences. Conversely, if they can finally pass a decent progressive healthcare bill and help shore up state governments, they'll ultimately benefit at the polls. For his part, Obama needs to start building a movement again. That means leading by example, playing hardball with obstructionist Democrats, and encouraging those grassroots citizens who act on the issues he cares about--even if they push him farther than he'd like. Finally the rest of us must recognize that the fight to get our country to deal with its most critical issues is a huge one, and that change can't come from Obama alone--something that should be amply clear by now. We have a chance that will be fulfilled only if we start reaching out once again to our fellow citizens, as we did when we helped carry Obama over the top a year ago.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, whose wholly updated second edition will be released in March 2010. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles