By Ken Feltman
You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
– Mark Twain
“The World Bids Farewell to Obama” screamed a headline in Der Spiegel, a leading German publication. “U.S. President Barack Obama suffered a painful defeat in Massachusetts on Tuesday. With mid-term elections looming, it means that Obama will have to fundamentally re-think his political course. German commentators say it is the end of hope.” Many other publications from outside the United States echoed the same gloomy assessment after Republican Scott Brown won the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy.
Articles and editorials in the U.S. were not so one-sided. White House officials started spinning a few days before the election, generally blaming the Democratic candidate for running a poor campaign and crediting the sour economy for voter disenchantment. Obama sympathizers tried hard to distance the president from the Massachusetts special election but surveys taken after Obama campaigned in Massachusetts showed that he actually cost the candidate votes.
Dozens of Democratic Party insiders blamed former President George W. Bush (indeed, Obama himself cited the burden of the Bush years). Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer answered that: “Let’s get this straight: The antipathy to George W. Bush is so enduring and powerful that . . . it just elected a Republican senator in Massachusetts?”
Mostly, Democrats and left-leaning publications joined the White House and blamed the candidate. They also blamed Congressional Republicans: The Republicans blocked the change that Obama promised and voters became frustrated. Wait a minute, said Republicans: Until Brown won, the Democrats had an absolute lock on control of the Senate and the House.
Republican officials and conservative media representatives said Obama and his advisers deserved what they got because they clung stubbornly to a flawed healthcare bill when the public wanted the focus on jobs and the economy. Obama is guilty of hubris, they clambered.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan saw the election as part of a larger and simpler contest: “Yes, we want change, but the change we want is not the change that has been delivered by the Democratic administration and the Democratic Congress. So we will turn elsewhere. We are in a post-romantic political era. They hire you and fire you, nothing personal. Family connection, personal charm, old traditions, fealty to party, all are nice and have their place, but right now we are immersed in crisis, and we vote on policies that affect our lives.”
A radio talk show host called me to say that I have been claiming for months that independent voters were in play, unsettled, unsure of what the Obama administration was trying to do. He said I must feel vindicated by Massachusetts. No, I feel apprehensive because the Democrats in charge of things may have a hard time moving toward the center and the Republicans in charge may take the wrong lesson from Brown’s victory. Obama is not Bill Clinton. Obama’s team is not Bill Clinton’s team. Clinton slipped and slid and turned and changed through his political career, bending as the polls and elections came and went. Obama appears rigid and his team seems more rigid yet.
They may not change or abandon unattainable goals. They may try to find other avenues to their goals. They share with conservatives Republicans the belief that they are right and, if they stay the course, the voters will come to understand and appreciate their steadfastness sooner or later.
GOP House Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) gloated as he assessed the election returns. He seems to believe that the voters were saying that they had tried Obama, found him wanting, and were coming back to the Republicans. A few GOP leaders claimed a surge of Republican support in Massachusetts. They are wrong. The Republican Party in Massachusetts continues to dwindle. The surge was among independent voters, who outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined in Massachusetts.
After swinging behind Obama in 2008, they wanted him to keep his promise about working to reform Washington and to seek consensus. That did not happen. Obama allowed Congressional Democrats to veer left to shore up and pay off the Democratic base, not right to draw in Republicans. Obama supporters complain that the Republicans would not go along. Who can blame them? The Democratic leaders in the House and Senate presented bills filled with too-obvious left-wing provisions and goodies for Democratic constituencies. Only the most moderate of Republicans tried to play, and they were eventually repelled.
GOP pollster Neil Newhouse handled Brown’s research in Massachusetts. He believes that “one of the lessons Democrats are taking away from this race is that they need to go negative against Republican challengers earlier in the campaign. Be advised that this race turned and turned fast, following the debate on January 11 when the Coakley campaign launched their negative advertising. Within days, her image was almost inverted and her ‘information flow’ was a net negative. Being perceived as the negative campaigner moved key groups against Martha that she could never win back.” The key groups were independent voters.
President Obama criticized Republicans in the State of the Union address. He seems to accept the advice of some Democratic political consultants that Democrats should attack and drive the Republicans into going along with legislation that tilts to the left rather than have the public presume that Republicans are obstructionists. Will that work? It is a high risk strategy.
Does negative advertising still work?
Lesson: Independents like it clean. Partisans love it dirty. The more partisan you are, the deeper you like the dirt piled. Campaigns “go negative” because tons of research shows that it works. But the voters in Massachusetts showed that as independents become more important to winning, negative campaigning may be less effective. Negative campaigns used to turn off independent voters. Now it sends them to polling places to vote against the more negative candidate.
Is that the big lesson in Brown’s victory? The Republican won but not because of Republican voters or the Republican Party. The GOP was not a decisive factor in Massachusetts. The Republicans were not cohesive enough, not numerous enough, not organized enough to put up much of a fight. Independent voters carried the day for a Republican who ran a positive campaign, even phrasing his opposition to Obama policies in a positive way. For example, regarding the failed Christmas Day airline bomber, Brown said he would rather spend money rounding up terrorists than paying for lawyers to defend them in U.S. courts. That statement resonated with centrists as well as conservatives.
Since the Democrats received and ignored the warning shots delivered during the summer in the form of agitated crowds at townhall meetings, the Democrats have lost gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia and the special Massachusetts Senate election. In each case, independent voters who supported Obama in 2008 broke sharply against the Democratic candidate.
How did three very different Democrats lose independents in three very different states? All three failed to show how they would get beyond politics as usual. The promise of change in Washington attracted independents in 2008, but what they saw from Obama and the Democrats was simply more of the same.
A recent fundraising appeal from the Republican Party tried to appeal to younger voters with the slogan, “It’s not your father’s Republican Party.” Perhaps no one at Republican headquarters remembered the campaign General Motors created a few years ago for one of its laggard brands: “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Where is Oldsmobile today? Jettisoned by the downsized and subsidized GM.
The trouble for GM was that, as those ads were running, the Oldsmobiles in showrooms were too much like dad’s Olds. The trouble for Republicans is that, as moderates drift away and become independents, the GOP is left looking even more like dad’s party and less like a party that can appeal to today’s and tomorrow’s young voters. With the moderates gone, only the more conservative are left in charge of the GOP.
Can the Republican Party change to appeal to more voters? A more important question is whether the present leadership of the party wants to change. Discussions with party leaders, at all levels from state chairmen to precinct workers, suggests that current GOP leaders think it is the voters who need to change. This surprising attitude is not new. For at least 30 years leaders of the Republican Party have discussed “educating” voters over listening to voters. Where has this led? To a party that thinks its problems are caused by voters who do not understand. And now the Obama Democrats are voicing the same incomprehensible attitude. Is it any wonder that the Tea Party burst on the scene this summer?
Not all party leaders are so out of touch. Many Democrats have been warning that the administration and Congress were headed for a crash. The “blame-the-voters” attitude is not emanating from the top of the Republican Party. GOP National Chairman Michael Steele may be gaff prone but young people like him and he understands that candidates who are forced to sign loyalty oaths and support at least eight of ten conservatives principles will have a hard time winning. The old guard is skeptical and prefers to believe that if the voters only understood the situation….
Are the voters out of step – or are the GOP leaders?
That is the Republican dilemma: GOP leaders see a different problem and a different solution. The voters do not understand. Teach the voters. Meantime, the Democrats may seem to be in more disarray than usual. But it is the Republicans who have deeper trouble. Slowly but surely, they are literally dying off. New leaders and new ideas are hard to come by. The Republicans are a party that needs help from independents and now the Tea Party – combined with fumbles by the Democrats – to win elections.
In the wake of Brown’s upset victory, the White House and most Democrats will reassess, retool and adjust. Probably, the White House will not be able to pull it off because they do not believe deep down that they need to change. The president has just appointed David Plouffe, his 2008 campaign manager, to overhaul and oversee political aspects of the Democrats’ agenda. Plouffe’s introductory article listed passage of healthcare reform first. Valerie Jarrett, senior White House advisor, stated the Sunday after Brown’s election that the president would push for healthcare. Are they listening to the voters? Are they reading the letters to the editor from disaffected middle Americans? Perhaps it will take the president too long to get his footing. Perhaps we will see many faces of Obama, frustrated and angry at the banks today, urging huge spending solutions tomorrow. Obama needs to be careful. He is not a natural populist.
For their part, and heady with a string of three victories, too many Republicans will be deluded into believing that things are going their way. They are wrong.