Elephants in the Room

Republicans on Tuesday took control of the U.S. Senate for the first time since 2006. (Photo credit: POLITICO)

Republicans on Tuesday took control of the U.S. Senate for the first time since 2006. (Photo credit: POLITICO)

Republicans may have won the midterms, but Democrats got what they deserved.

When Barack Obama swept to power in 2008, turning red states blue amid the highest voter turnout in forty years, many commentators predicted the imminent collapse of the modern Republican Party. How could a faction dominated by “old white men” compete with such a young and diverse Democratic coalition? Conservatives were literally dying off and liberals were in ascendance. Conventional wisdom said they would never again control Congress or the White House.

Oops.

It took just two years for Republicans to retake the House of Representatives, buoyed by the nascent Tea Party and public mistrust of the Affordable Care Act. From that point forward, congressional Democrats largely abandoned their platform, leader, and tangible accomplishments. They actually made gains in 2012, unexpected gifts from the impossibly unlikable Mitt Romney. But then came Snowden, the shutdown, and HealthCare.gov. By the time the first 2014 polls arrived, it was clear that Democrats would need a miracle to save the Senate.

The midterm elections were a bloodbath, felling Democrats across the country and erasing the Senate majority that had frustrated Republicans since 2006. Mitch McConnell survived reelection and will soon replace Harry Reid as Majority Leader. Ted Cruz promised to end the “lawlessness” of the Obama Administration, while Rand Paul noted the ease with which Republicans had crushed Clinton-backed Democrats. Not a great sign for those calling themselves “Ready for Hillary” in 2016.

The problem for Cruz and Paul is that they’ve taken the wrong lesson from the midterms. The quirks of electoral procedure made this year especially difficult for Senate Democrats, forcing them to defend blue seats in traditionally red states. Conservative interest groups broke their previous midterm spending records and poured untold millions into Republican campaigns. A number of unfortunate factors combined to punish liberals, but that hardly means that Americans prefer the alternative.

In fact, more Americans agree with Democrats than Republicans on almost every major issue. Midterm voters decided to legalize marijuana, raise statewide minimum wage laws, and expand access to abortion services. White men and the elderly outnumbered young people and minorities, but Democrats maintained their edge in those demographics and would have won the night had they turned out in force. That bodes well for liberals in 2016, when a presidential ticket will boost turnout and the electoral map will shift to Republicans in traditionally Democratic states.

That leaves the battered Democratic Party with an awkward question: If they had such built-in advantages, why did so many voters stay home and allow Republicans to seize the Senate? We already have the answer: Because Democrats made the conscious choice to abandon their platform, leader, and tangible accomplishments. They campaigned without purpose and stood silent while their opponents caricatured them as failures or worse. What did they really expect?

Democrats had a powerful case at their disposal and tossed it aside. Gas costs less than $3.00 a gallon for the first time since 2010. A national unemployment rate that neared 10% at the height of the Great Recession has fallen to less than 6%. The country is in its 57th straight month of private sector job growth, the longest such streak on record. While Europe hovers on the edge of another collapse, the U.S. economy grew by 4.6% in the second quarter and 3.5% in the third. By every objective measure, Americans are living in one of the strongest and healthiest economies in a stagnant world.

Of course, no one in the Democratic Party thought to tell them that. Instead, voters were told that President Obama had failed them and that the economy remained a disaster. They were told that Democrats had done nothing to rebuild the country and deserved nothing but contempt. Whipped into a frenzy, conservatives rushed to the polls. Fearful and confused, independents bought the only narrative provided. Forgotten, liberals stayed home.

The resulting Republican Congress believes it has a mandate to crucify the president who saved the American economy. In turn, President Obama will probably spend the next two years vetoing one hyper-partisan bill after another. The toxic rhetoric will escalate and the gridlock will worsen, especially as Republicans eye 2016 and the possibility of taking the White House.

Each party deserves its shot at governing, but we already know how this experiment will end. At the height of the recession, Mitch McConnell said his chief legislative priority would be to deny the president a second term in office. When the Affordable Care Act refused to fail as predicted, Ted Cruz spearheaded the Tea Party shutdown of 2013. Republicans have made clear that they care less about solving problems and more about defeating Democrats. Prepare for another two long years of Washington drama.

Voters deserve better than what they got this election. If Republicans won’t acknowledge reality, Democrats have a responsibility to do it for them. We have for too long endured a system in which one party works solely to destroy the other, regardless of who or what gets caught in the crossfire. And if you think a crimson Congress will change anything, you haven’t been paying attention.

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