11/05/2014 05:40 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

What Now?

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The only thing I know for sure from yesterday's election result is that I owe a conservative friend a steak dinner over a bet about Senate control. Right-wing pundits and spin-masters are already presenting last night as a stinging rebuke of President Obama, a head start on the 2016 race for the White House, and an indication that Americans are really tilting conservative.

The reality, however, is this. The GOP spent an historic amount of money in a low turnout midterm election to energize their base in symbolic vote against Obama, because they couldn't actually beat him at the ballot box. Conservative columnist David Frum hilariously tweeted "is tonite's takeaway that Republicans do great when voter turn-out drops below 38%?" And Todd Starnes of Fox News ran an election-day column titled "It's time to hold your nose and vote." The core message of which was that the GOP candidates aren't great conservatives, but anything is better than Obama. For the right-wingers, that was the singular, defining goal.

The GOP did this against demotivated democratic and independent voters, for whom a GOP senate just means more of the same gridlock as we have now. The only likely change is that instead of the House and Senate volleying bills back to each other, GOP bills will go to the White House for veto, and President Obama's priorities will be DOA in Congress. For the American people, little will change, as inaction will rule the day.

At that, the GOP won or hung on to states that tilt or heavily favor Republicans, and then too in tightly contested races. Democratic presidential candidates haven't won in states like Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky or Alaska in ages. In fact, a real surprise is how Allison Lundergan Grimes got 40% of the vote in Kentucky challenging the sitting Senate Minority leader. Or that the state of Washington passed -- by 60 percent vote -- a bill requiring background checks on ALL gun sales...which is a huge defeat for the NRA.

As to the predictive value of all this for 2016? None. The democrats suffered a worse defeat in 2010 than last night, and President Obama won re-election handily just two years later. The only way the GOP can translate last night's gains into an edge for the White House is to do something they have been loathe to do in the four years since they took back the House, which is to actually govern. Unfortunately, there is little chance of that.

The GOP's narrow majority in the Senate is already fractured. Though last night was a clear setback for the Tea Party wing, Ted Cruz has already refused to support Mitch McConnell. And, the right wing's radio hero has declared, "Republicans were not elected to govern." Yes, that is the quote. If the GOP falls prey to its extremist wing, and wastes its time...and taxpayer dollars...on bills to repeal Obamacare, they will do great harm to their party's 2016 candidate for President.

The American people are fed up with gridlock. Sixty percent disapprove of the president, but a full 78 percent disapprove of Congress. Last night had nothing to do with a changing tide in public opinions. A majority of Americans still support universal background checks for guns, action on climate change, immigration reform, and even Obamacare.

As to what the Democrats should do to regroup and prepare, first is not to panic or cave. It's hard to sell against the perception that both parties are essentially the same if you don't shout out your differences and make them more clear now than ever. Democrats showcased some stars in these midterms, and those stars -- not the tired voices of the party's past -- need to stay out front and be the voice of the party's future. A lot more Wendy Davis, and a lot less Hillary Clinton.

Second, President Obama needs to grab the mantle of leadership available to a man who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain... for his legacy and his party. For all his oratorical skills, President Obama hasn't given enough broad, national addresses aimed at persuading independent voters of his vision for a better America. Those speeches aren't for party loyalists on either side, they are for the 40 percent of voters -- myself included -- who are independents and want to believe in something bigger than themselves.

Most importantly, if Democrats want to actually govern and lead, they have to realize what they are up against and compete accordingly. This isn't just about the White House, it's about control of Congress and the States too. When the GOP lost Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008, they geared up. They used GOP-led states to gerrymander. They used the Reagan-Bush legacy Justices to legislate from the bench with decisions like Citizens United, Heller v. DC and McCutcheon v. FEC that turned decades of precedent on their head, all to gain advantage in upcoming elections and cater to their base.

Like it or not, those are now the rules of the game. It clearly isn't enough that Democrats align with majority public opinion on many issues. They have to highlight what's at stake for the everyday American family. The GOP made elections about "taking away your guns" and a fictitious "war on Christianity." And somehow that immigration reform meant open borders, and that climate change meant higher gas prices. It doesn't matter that none of those things are true, it matters that they got out the right wing vote.

Similarly, Democrats they need to break down the benefits of their high-minded ideas -- and the dangers of right wing ideas -- into bite-sized nuggets that the increasingly disengaged, jaded and misinformed average voter can chew on and digest. Global warming is too esoteric. So is "fairness" when it comes to immigration reform or equal rights. Climate change has to be about cheaper energy and more jobs through innovation. Immigration reform has to be increasing the tax base, so everyone pays into the system. And so on.

It will be very interesting to see what the next 24 months bring from President Obama, the GOP, the Democrats and the ever-changing global economy. Who will win and what will happen, no one knows. But what is necessary is as easy to say, as it is hard to achieve. An American public, and a truly representative government, that are aligned in their vision for a better America, working hard to maintain our tenuous leadership well into the 21st century.