THE BLOG
11/02/2014 08:38 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2015

The Dems and the Avoidable Election Rout

Barring a miracle, Tuesday is likely to be an unhappy Election Day for the Democrats. They will need to win virtually every close race to hold the Senate, and that seems unlikely. They are on track to suffer losses in the House as well.

Could it have been different? I think so.

Working against the Democrats is the six-year jinx. Six years into an incumbent's tenure, the president's party almost always loses seats in Congress. The Republicans got clobbered in Eisenhower's sixth year, 1958, and in Bush II's sixth year, 2006. Even Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats lost massively in his sixth year, 1938.

Can you guess the one recent exception? It was Bill Clinton in 1998 -- right after the Lewinsky sex scandal and Clinton's impeachment, no less. The Dems actually picked up five House seats.

How on earth did the wily Clinton and the Dems pull off that feat? The public felt the Republicans had badly overreached with their sex obsession and their impeachment. Perhaps more importantly, the economy was good and it was good for working people.

In 2014, the economy is far from great, Barack Obama is a drag on the ticket, and by the luck of the draw a lot of red state Democratic senate seats that were narrowly captured in the Obama win of 2008 six years ago are now up in a non-presidential year. It's hard to get voters to turn out in off-years, especially the poor and the young, who tend to vote Democratic when they vote at all.

But this year did not have to be the blowout that it appears to be heading for.

Polls suggest that the voters are in a state of barely suppressed rage. They are disgusted with an economy that has delivered no wage gains for all but the top. They see both parties in bed with Wall Street. They are fed up with all large institutions, and especially with the government.

Ever since FDR, the Democrats' selling proposition to voters has been that the private economy delivers risks and that benign government can help regular people. The Democrats' signature programs, Social Security and Medicare, remain popular proof. But it has been a long time since most working age people got much back from their government. So the Democrats' core idea is a hard sell.

Remember that old phrase from another era, "a revolution of rising expectations?" Today, we have a counter-revolution of diminished expectations.

Obama might have used the financial collapse to remake the financial system for the benefit of ordinary people; instead the administration gave priority to bailing out the banks. The right-wing tea parties captured the popular revulsion against Wall Street. So, with the mood sour, Obama and the Democrats fail to get credit for the things they achieved, such as preventing the financial meltdown from turning into a second Great Depression, or tempering the recession with a program of public investment.

Other achievements, such as the Affordable Care Act and the program of mortgage relief known as HAMP, were designed in close collaboration with industry special interest groups -- drug companies, insurance carriers, and bankers. They are frustrating for ordinary people to navigate, feeding the Republican line that government screws things up, is corrupt, or both.

Obama himself seems hunkered down, if not depressed. Roosevelt, when attacked, was at his jaunty best. Clinton was a terrific counter-puncher. When his own election is at stake, Obama finds his voice, but it has been a long while since he has acted either the role of master politician or inspiring president. And it's hard to know what to do when your own party's candidates would rather not have you around.

Even so, too many of the Democratic senate candidates have not played to the party's historic strengths as champion of workaday Americans. The economy is what's killing regular people, but you'd hardly know it to hear many of the Democrats campaign.

As a proxy for economic issues, some Democrats are betting on a poll-tested appeal to women voters. It's true that women, especially single women, tend to distrust Republicans, in part because of reproductive rights issues and in part on economic grounds. But many Democrats have foolishly turned this insight into their entire campaign. In Colorado, Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Udall has bet the ranch on abortion rights, to the exclusion of other issues -- to the point where he is ridiculed as Senator Uterus.

Want to hear what a real Democrat sounds like? Check out Sen. Elizabeth Warren's stump speech. Warren, unlike Obama, is welcome on the campaign trail just about everywhere.

In Kentucky, far from deep Blue Massachusetts, Warren campaigned for Democrat Alison Grimes who is challenging Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Warren declared, "Mitch McConnell is here to work for the millionaires and billionaires... This is right in line with the Republican philosophy across the board, because their view is the most important thing government can do is protect the tender fannies of the rich and powerful." And she added, "Let's be clear about this: The game is rigged, and Mitch McConnell wants to keep it rigged."

Did you hear Barack Obama say something like this lately? I sure didn't.

Then again, Grimes is far from a good candidate. Likewise Democrat Bruce Braley, who is on the verge of blowing a winnable race in Iowa. The larger point, however, is that there is a latent winning politics that too few Democrats are embracing. Warren is one of the exceptions who shows what's possible.

In the Sunday New York Times, there is a tongue-in-cheek article titled "The Terrible 32s." The authors offer a guide to older adults for parenting 32-year-olds who just can't seem to get traction in adulthood, who bounce back and forth from shared apartments to the family basement. ("Restrict your 32-year-old's data usage on the family cell plan, for which she sporadically remembers to pay her share.")

Very funny. But beneath the barbed humor is a grim economic reality. Mom and Dad, the boomer generation, floated upwards on a rising tide of debt-free college, good jobs with health and retirement benefits, and a windfall of affordable housing whose value appreciated faster than inflation, leaving a nice nest egg for the silver years. Those anxious 32-year-olds, it turns out, have plenty to be anxious about -- college debts, astronomically expensive housing, crappy jobs.

A Democratic Party worthy of the name would be addressing the real pocketbook frustrations of the Barista Generation. One of these days, more Democratic candidates will come along with convictions and courage. Until then, voters will fault both parties and damn government -- a default setting that happens to play to the advantage of Republicans.

Robert Kuttner's latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect, a professor at Brandeis University's Heller School, and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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