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REFLECTIONS: The Midterm Elections

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections I am about to go way, way out on a limb and suggest that Barack Obama and congressional Democrats may not fare as badly as many commentators predict in the midterm elections on November 2. I may be alone on that limb, but wouldn’t it be nice if I were right?

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg fears a repeat of 1994 when his boss, Bill Clinton, lost the Congress to Newt Gingrich after his health care proposal was defeated. Nate Silver, the genius at Five Thirty Eight, figures Democrats will lose 20 to 50 House seats, but that’s down from his earlier prediction of 20 to 60 seats. And Greenberg sees a flickering of fresh Democratic enthusiasm.

I’m no genius, but I think they will be wrong and or they will further revise their predictions if, as I expect and hope, the economy continues to improve, and Obama, his White House and the Democrats ride the momentum of his unprecedented health care victory, with passage of a good jobs bill and financial regulatory reform, and aggressively take on Republican know-nothing obstructionism and vicious, racist Tea Party wingnuts.

Greenberg, Silver and nearly every commentator will cite the fact that since 1946, the president’s party has lost seats in the House and/or the Senate in every midterm election during his first term, save one. They cite one exception, 2002, when George W. Bush’s Republicans gained seats (eight in the House, two in the Senate) largely on the strength of support for the president following 9/11.

But there was one other important exception under circumstances similar to the tumult and controversy of Obama’s activist first term. That was in 1934, amid the Great Depression, two years into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ended years of conservative Republican presidencies.

Despite Republican warning of the coming of “socialism,” charges that Roosevelt was a “traitor,” promises to repeal the tough new banking regulations and virulent opposition to Social Security, Democrats won nine seats each in the House and Senate.

The voters rejected a return to the party that had led them into economic catastrophe and the Democrats became the majority party. Republicans believe that today’s voters want to return to the policies that gave us the Great Recession, but I don’t think so.

As Time magazine reported April 2, the outlook for Democrats may not be as dire as in 1994 because the biggest advantage for the Democrats so far is the Republican Party under the clownish, incompetent Michael Steele, who can’t organize himself let alone the party faithful who would raise money, man phones, do the kind of scut work to get their vote out.

Nor does the Republican Party have a discernible leader who can rally the troops. Indeed, I’m not sure what remains of the Grand Old Party.

Another thing the pundits are missing is the crazy extremism of what passes for the disloyal opposition. As our best political philosophers have told us – from V.O. Key to Richard Hofstadter – the genius of the American political system is its centrism, its rejection of extremes – left or right.

The last time a politician told us that “extremism in defense of liberty” is a virtue, he and his party suffered a terrible defeat. But compared to today’s Republicans and their leaders, Barry Goldwater was a moderate who would not recognize what’s become of fellow Arizonans JohnMcCain and Jon Kyl, who vow to obstruct whatever their president tries to do.

Despite Obama’s centrism and his efforts to accommodate Republicans, they have clearly set out to destroy his presidency, opposing him in lock-step. They have used the filibuster more than 100 times, which is unprecedented, to block his proposals and nominees often for no reason. They have voted against his least controversial proposals. They have ridiculed him for not wearing a jacket in the Oval Office. They have characterized his health reforms as socialist, Marxist, communist and fascist, similar to the Nazi “final solution,” lying about what was in it.

They encouraged racist caricatures of Obama. They called the health bill “Armageddon,” the climactic biblical and mythological battle that comes at the end of time. They have encouraged secessionist threats. And when they lost on the health care vote, these Republican men and women who are well paid to do the public’s business, refused to work after 2PM, citing an obscure rule, and they shut down several committees in what one senator called a childish tantrum.

Their advocates and allies are certainly not moderate or centrist. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and their cohorts among the shock jocks can’t be called anything else but extremists as they encourage and publicize the so-called Tea Baggers and their latest darling, Sarah Palin, who made a lousy mayor and quit as Alaska’s governor to become a money-making charlatan with an empty head.

But what’s important to know is what they say they would do if they got a chance to govern. Even if they were unable to repeal the health care reforms, as they’ve promise, they would end Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. I do not exaggerate, that’s the stated plan of Republicans’ designated thinker, Representative Paul Ryan. And on Larry King, Tea Party leaders vowed “absolutely” to end Social Security.

The New York Times’ Timothy Egan writes,

“Do Republicans really want to campaign in favor of insurance companies’ right to drop people when they are sick?“

Maybe Republicans won’t, but the Tea Bag right would relish the opposition that would stir. In this political climate, Republicans may have to explain if one of their gun-toting, brick-throwing patriots hurts someone? I hope Obama and every Democrat makes this clear between now and November; this is no time for turning the other cheek.

Political organizer Robert Creamer, writing for Huffington Post, says Democrats must stay on the offensive, reminding voters of the Republican depression the country barely escaped. And the debate should be framed in the populist terms that the Tea Baggers seek to steal.

But while the unemployment rate has steadied, 15 to 25 million Americans are in need of full-time jobs – as engineers, construction workers and skilled laborers. It would help if Obama lifted another page from the New Deal and, as Bob Herbert suggested in The New York Times, propose or create job-creation measures like the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Works Progress Administration. Democrats have proposed such legislation, in which the federal government and the states would become the employers to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges, schools and the neglected national parks.

It’s a long time between now and the elections and there are signs that the economy is improving. Unemployment seems to have steadied. The Dow-Jones average, a pretty good forecaster of what’s to come in six months, is nearing 11,000. A new Bloomberg poll reported that most Americans believe the worst of the recession and the financial meltdown are past.

If the most stubborn lagging indicator of recovery, job growth, were to show improvement, it’s doubtful voters would want to take a chance with a party led by Limbaugh, Palin, Beck and Tea Baggers.

They’ll have some explaining to do when it becomes clear that the passage of health reform was not, as Beck & Company predicted, “the end of the America as we know it,” or as House Republican Leader John Boehner had it, the end of time. It’s time for the Democrats to remind Republicans and their propagandists of their intemperate words and make them eat them.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Chaput: The Blacksmith's Wife


excellent post and I hope some politicians read it. Wise words for the Democrats.
Thank you

I think you should run this post just before before the next election, so the Democrats read it again. We musn't forget.

I think you're an optimist, Saul.

Here in Buffalo, the tea party candidate for the governor of New York State is seen not as an extremist but as a down-to-earth, common-sense entrepreneur. Around where I live, signs like "Abolish New York State Government" are not uncommon--home-made signs on people's lawns. The radio morning shows' jocks feature a watered-down version of Limbaugh et al.

Among the people I know, even those benefiting from Democratic accomplishments and government employment are leaning right. They will vote against Dems; it doesn't matter what the Republicans do or don't do, because the rhetoric and goal is simply anti-Democrat.

I hope you're right about the appeal of centrism, but I'm not personally seeing it. Among people I know, the progressives remain deeply committed and will vote for Dems, but the former centrists are increasingly moving toward the Fox/Tea Party movement.

I see how many of the Tea Party are elders and wonder how many of them are are on Social Security and Medicare.
It scares me that they are buying this you-know-what Faux News is selling.

Saul, I hope you are right. How quickly the public forgets that it was the Republicans that led us into the quagmire.

I believe that the votes will depend on where the job situation is come November. The public has a short attention span and it's what is happening to them as the moment that they focus on.

I'm with you on that limb Saul -- I think we can hope that November will not be Armageddon for Dems, though it certainly will be bad.

In the House, Democrats are defending about 25 seats where McCain (!) outpolled Obama in 2008. Those were always going to be tough. Dems will lose most of them -- local conditions will decide things. My prediction today, and things can change, is that Nancy Pelosi will still be Speaker next January, but only with a very small majority.

In the Senate, Dems will lose a lot -- probably down to 52 Senators from a nominal 59. Harry Reid himself will probably lose in Nevada. That one is brutal. Nevada (Las Vegas really, the rest is mostly desert) had the ultimate bubble economy. Now folks have a great big nothing. It's tough.

But current Dems are better at doing elections than they are at governing, so they may hold on to bare majorities. There was a national realignment going on in 1994 -- we're through that. Dixiecrats are now Republican Tea Baggers. That switch became visible back then.

So I am hopeful to have Dems to kick around after Nov. 2 -- and will probably be working somewhere to ensure it happens. :-)

I think of two things when I read this article, Saul. Human beings will do anything to be right and be on the side that is winning (we are a sporting culture) and anger is a much more powerful and instantly gratifying activity than the joy of interaction and compassion. The Republican leaders seem to have so much of the expected reaction down pat in the adult population of this country. They have made it very easy for themselves by tapping into the frustrations of people who don't want to participate in government yet want to be on the winning side of things.

Who you are not mentioning here is the youth of America who have the energy and the investment in a future for this country. They want to be right too and they have the steam to back their temper. I'm of the opinion it was the youth of America and the world that sealed Obama's presidency. They are the hot water that the Tea Bags will end up in. While elders may be vilified in the process, the greater good, one hopes, will prevail for a better government for all. I think if we make sure our youth know what is going on and don't become defensive and choose to be supportive, we will see more stability in the country via their interest in participation.

It would be flat out glorious if you were right. :)

Turnout is the key: No one knows how Democrats will fare without Obama at the top of the ticket. To me, the best way to do this is to attack the extremism aggressively and caricature it if need be (not that the Dems need much help there). In other words, frame the question as "Is this who you want running the country?"

Climbing out on your limb--along with Jan. However, we both live in the West which I'm discovering is an entirely different universe from the east coast.

Clie mentions importance of young who voted for Obama, are struggling with darker future than ours, and who may keep the Dems afloat: if they vote!

With K., I think the emphasis must be on spotlighting the zero-sum folks who would be sanctified if we Dems don't get out the vote: Clowns, charlatans, and (with Alternet, I'll say it)near-seditionists in some cases.

Get busy, Elderbloggers. We must use our platforms and our words now in the service of good sense. And isn't it great to have Saul back with us, where he belongs! Great post. I am energized by it.

Go Saul! I am holding tight, right out there on the limb with you.

At the funeral service for former Senator Charles Mathias (R MD), one of the themes was the loss in the Senate of bipartisan respect and cooperation, characteristics that he so cherished. How did we get here?

Wishful thinking on my part is that you're correct, Saul. I never cease to be amazed how many of the U.S. electorate vote against their own best interests and that of our nation so anything is possible.

Interesting observation from Naomi noting diffrences in the West.

Thanks Saul. I hope you are correct. However, I have to agree with Joared. It is shocking how often too many U. S. citizens vote against their own best interest as many of them seem to have other agendas that conflict with their best interest.

Saul I suspect you might be right "if" the Democrats run a smart campaign. Taking a stand by saying we are getting things done and are in action. Secondly to remind the American public that the Republican insistence on doing nothing got us into our current problems. Finally the Republican stand to vehemently not support a standing President shows a total lack of respect for the office, a serious lack of leadership qualities and actively disrupts efforts to get America back on it's feet again.
Smart government and leadership is what we want and need.

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