Friday, November 05, 2010

Winners, losers, and our addiction to the grand narrative


I know a thing or two about politics, and one thing I know is that winners and losers will tell you exactly what the outcome of an election means even if their analysis grossly oversimplifies what really just happened. 

Everybody loves a "big picture" analysis.

Winners will say they won because the electorate, in its infinite wisdom, chose to embrace every plank of their platform and every nuance of every argument they put forward.

They will say that they now have a mandate, that the American people have spoken, and that losers, if they have any respect for the will of the people, need to get behind this newly defined direction for the nation.

Losers lost, they will note, because the electorate rejected, holus bolus, everything for which they stand.

Losers will argue that extraneous forces conspired to deprive them of victory, despite the fact that their main arguments remain valid and worthy of support. They almost always admit that they bear some blame for not adequately communicating their message. If only they had better articulated their vision, voters would have knocked over furniture to get to the polls to support them.

But, as is only fair under the rules of the game, winners get to speak the loudest.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the election, "[w]e're determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected and to turn this ship around. We'll work with the Administration when they agree with the people and confront them when they don't."

Okay, but this does beg a rather significant question: Where was Mr. McConnell after the 2008 election when the Democrats won the presidency, the Senate, and the House by such large margins? Where was he when America spoke so forcefully on that day and what in hell was he doing opposing everything the Obama Administration did to implement the mandate so obviously given to them?

True to form, Republicans have an answer and that answer is to deny that Obama was ever given a mandate. Something else was going on. And that "something," it seems, is offered by Tea Party activist Phillip Dennis in his observation that: 

President Obama and the Democratic majority misread the 2008 election. They envisioned their victory as a mandate to take America to a European-type socialist democracy based on the legislation they have passed or proposed. 

In fact, as far as losers are concerned, winners always misread the intention of the voters who got them elected.

Mr. Dennis continues that Democrats lost the election because they refused to accept the fact that Americans "did not approve of expanded government programs with large price tags such as bailouts, the stimulus bill, Cash for Clunkers, cap and trade and 'Obama care.'"

Well, yes, maybe, sort of, kind of. The truth is that voters vote the way they do for any number of reasons, and no doubt some voters were focused on the things cited by Mr. Dennis, but there is always more to contemplate.

We know, for example, that presidents usually take a hit in the midterm elections perhaps because the results of their first two years of work can never live up to the lofty rhetoric of the campaign trail. And how often do we hear rhetoric loftier than Obama's?

We know that the Republicans did so poorly in '06 and '08, and frequently in places they usually hold, that it was inevitable that seats they lost in these years would be won back sooner rather than later.

We know that when the economy is in the crapper voters take it out on incumbents. Who else are they going to blame? We don't get to vote for Wall Street executives.

We know that Obama pulled a lot of younger people and black voters to the polls and that many of these voters didn't show up on Election Day because Obama was not on the ballot.

We know that the Republicans have been very good at frightening people and vilifying Obama and the Congressional leadership. In many ways, the Dems where just out-campaigned.

We know that Obama and the Democrats disappointed some on their left flank, likely resulting in less enthusiasm from previous core supporters.

We know that a lot of third-party money was spent and that this benefited Republicans disproportionately.

Anyway, it is not my intention to provide a comprehensive assessment of "what happened" to the Democrats, only to make the obvious point that a lot of different things happened.

And, as noted at the top, winners will claim a clear mandate and losers will claim still to have the confidence of the American people while recognizing that they have been sent a message -- and life will go on.

This is the way politics works and the way the media cover it. Complexity is just not that interesting and it is never very sexy to begin every second sentence with "on the other hand."

I don't know what's going to happen over the next two years, before we are visited by another election, but let's stop pretending there is anything simple about the will of the American people.

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