Republican gains in Tuesday’s elections delivered a stunning rebuke to Democrats and their party. The GOP is resurgent, despite having teetered after the 2012 election on the verge of disintegration and decline.
The Republicans achieved this gain primarily by telling voters that, under President Obama and the Democrats, the nation has fared badly. Republican candidates attacked both the style and substance of the administration. They assailed a government that they styled as autocratic, expensive, and ineffective. They railed against government intrusion, and (in the case of illegal immigration) against governmental laxness, too. They chafed against laws and constraints they don’t believe in. Most of all, Republicans succeeded by denigrating what will surely be regarded as this era’s most significant achievements, such as the government’s success at bringing the nation back from the brink of all-out economic collapse and at passing a radical yet tenable and comprehensive health-care reform bill.
Strategically, the GOP also took care to marginalize some of the worst kooks seeking to work their way up in the party’s ranks. The Republican National Committee under Reince Priebus encouraged and supported more electable candidates whose messages would still resonate with conservatives. The policy also served the goal of producing a Republican Congress that is more homogeneous and governable. Anyway, as campaign strategy, it worked. Even weak candidates like Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas won.
Sadly, the Democrats were afraid to be identified with their party’s strengths. They also failed to deliver a vision of government, that, if consonant with their recent achievements, was fresh and forward-looking. As the president’s time in office wanes, Democrats should be thinking about how to catch the next wave. What should the Democratic Party be about, once heavyweights like Obama and the Clintons are gone? The Dems are notably short on galvanizing up-and-comers who could breathe new life into what has become a too-staid and centrist political party.
Chiefly, though, the Democrats have failed to accommodate and adapt to legitimate criticisms of Democratic governance and ideology. In particular, they do not seem attuned to the people’s desire for a government that, if powerful, is deft and efficient. They have not cared enough about the national mood to break with the president and demand Congressional debate on issues like our open-ended bombing campaign against the Islamic State.* Nor have Democrats cared enough about the middle and lower classes to attack the glaring issue of corporate responsibility, favoring a rise in the minimum wage, yes, but remaining silent on a host of policies that work against working-class prosperity while benefiting corporations and the interests of global capital unduly.
Renew themselves: in short, this is what the Democrats must do. Dare to be a more interesting, local, peaceful, green, and economical party. Dare to think small, and find new ways to promote prosperity that rely less on government spending and more on shrewd uses of information and technology. Scour the countryside for young, charismatic, ardent, and innovative political thinkers. Restore pride in American citizenship and civic culture. And move beyond the paradigm of the social-welfare state in trying to figure out how to give a stagnant, suffering America what it wants and needs.
* The president has since called on Congress to debate and authorize the bombing campaign.