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Can the Democrats Recover from the Midterms?

For U.S. Democrats, hiding President Barack Obama and making the U.S. midterm elections about local politics was supposed to curtail the predicted gains of the Republican Party. 

That strategy did not work, and the GOP gains turned into a wave. While midterms are not presidential elections, the new U.S. electoral map may favor the possibility of a trifecta sweep for the GOP in 2016.

We can therefore expect a spirited race for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.  And unlike the Democrats, who could claim Hillary Clinton as their nominee early in the primary season (if not before), the Republicans will dominate the news cycle once the Iowa caucuses meet in January 2016.  This could favor the GOP if the party veers closer to the political center.

Is it over for Obama?  On November 6, Canada’s most respected daily, The Globe and Mail, published an editorial entitled “Obama is still alive and living in Washington.”  Yet despite the convincing GOP victory on November 4, U.S. pundits on the Sunday shows have been careful to avoid concluding that the Obama presidency is over.  Quite the opposite: spokespersons of both political parties recognize that political gridlock was likely uppermost in voters’ minds on Election Day.  Talk of bipartisan immigration reform, tax reform, and an infrastructure rebuilding project was heard on various news shows in the course of the week, thereby keeping Obama potentially relevant in the political mix.

Granted, Obama spoke of executive action on immigration reform, and the GOP reiterated its customary mantra for repealing Obamacare.  Yet, it was clear that both sides were eyeing 2016, knowing full well that the electoral map is different and turnout may actually double in a White House contest (about one-third of the eligible U.S. population voted in these midterms, but turnout for presidential elections ranges from 50 percent to 60 percent).

The Democrats, however, must do more than lick their wounds and repeat how difficult it is to run in an election year where the presidential approval numbers were in the low 40s.  The Republicans were clever to “nationalize” these mid-terms and make Obama the issue. 

The Democrats lacked courage, and failed to defend the accomplishments of six years of White House control and eight years of Senate control. They failed to take credit for the economic upturn or make the case for how their policies helped lead to lower unemployment rates (currently 5.8 percent), significant debt reduction, healthy corporate balance sheets, greater financial stability (thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act), record stock market numbers, and a reduced gap between high earners and the middle class, thanks to Obamacare and reductions to the Bush tax cuts.  These feats—in a year where the economy was seen as the top voter issue—should have been the discourse of all the Democratic candidates.

President Obama is not beyond reproach for this failed Democratic strategy.  His style of governance often conveys a detachment and a lack of passion.  While capable of great oratory, he has failed miserably in communicating and selling the policies that have worked under his leadership.  The last two years of his administration may therefore have more to do with process and style than with content. 

And for this reason, it is premature to count him out.

Some analysts believe that the Electoral College generally favors the Democrats in national elections due to the nature of their coalition and higher voter turnout.  While the House of Representatives seems out of reach for the Democrats in the foreseeable future, the Senate could once again come into play by 2016 if gridlock persists, and Obama gets marks for trying to  end it.

If Hillary Clinton runs, she will undoubtedly be a formidable candidate.  The Republicans will have to move more closely to the center to reduce the so-called “Electoral College advantage” of the Democrats. This is why the name of Jeb Bush is now surfacing, and the example of Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich—who moved to the center and won a decisive re-election victory in his swing state—is worth noting.  One thing is certain:  if Democrats repeat their losing strategy of 2014 and run away from their policies and their record, last Tuesday’s results will just be a foretaste of what will happen in 2016.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Democratic Party, Barack Obama, U.S. presidential elections

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