Pelosi, Democratic Finger-Pointing, and Obama's 2012 Comeback

If the 2008 electorate had turned out in 2010, Democrats would be in much better shape.


Sift through the wreckage from the recent GOP wave. Underlying the top takeaways, one finds simmering arguments, lingering myths, and hints at how Obama and the Democrats might recover. Here are five trends I took away from the 2010 midterm elections:

Firing on Pelosi. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has been the butt of ceaseless jokes and grief from his own party and from Democrats. And not without good reason. His weirdly flip mien is, to put it kindly, unorthodox in modern politics. But give credit where it's due. The RNC's "Fire Pelosi" campaign got underappreciated traction in the general election. The idea came from a brainstorming session during the final healthcare reform push in a conference room on the RNC's first floor, where the communications team is housed. The team hoped to raise $400,000 and got $1.5 million within a week. When they hung a "Fire Pelosi" sign outside the RNC, they got flak from some House GOPers—too much invective, especially directed against a woman. But when Steele unveiled his "Fire Pelosi" bus tour at the RNC's summer session, it got uproarious applause. He covered 13,000 miles in the lower 48 states, rallying with some 230 candidates. And it came in well under budget, I'm told. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Republicans.]

What is it about Pelosi? The bus tour didn't cause her negatives, but it did smartly capitalize on them. Several factors were at play in making her what one GOP strategist calls a branding and marketing "gift." She was effective: Her House passed more than 400 pieces of legislation that died slow Senate deaths. Effectiveness breeds polarization and, judging by the last few years, this is especially true when the pol in question is a woman. Second, legislative leaders have to have a combination of wheeling-dealing and ruthlessness rarely popular with voters. They oversee the sausage-making. And Pelosi was the target of a concerted GOP demonization strategy that played on these factors. Healthcare cinched it: raising her profile, demonstrating her effectiveness, and highlighting what people dislike about the process.

Trend stories. The "people" have spoken, we are told, sending another clarion message. But given the results of the last 20 years—three presidents in a row, of different parties, have each lost control of the House—one would be forgiven for wondering if they're schizophrenic. But thinking of the electorate as a static group of voters thrashing around ideologically is a mistake. Exit polls showed that 2010 voters, for example, were sharply older and more conservative than 2008 voters. As the Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein noted, the drop-off in young voter turnout cost Democrats 4 percentage points this year, the falloff among blacks was worth 3 percent (with those groups possibly overlapping). "Looked at another way," Pearlstein writes, "if 2010 voters had decided the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama would have tied John McCain rather than won that contest by 7 percentage points." And the reverse is true. If the 2008 electorate had turned out this year, Democrats would be in better shape. So tales of the "people" having radically reversed course on Obama are somewhat overdrawn. And politicos should avoid the trend-line fallacy: assuming that today's trends will continue indefinitely into the future. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Democrats.]

Finger-pointing. Why did the Democrats get swamped? Centrists blame a too-liberal agenda. Liberals, annoyed at conservative Democrats watering down the party's initiatives in the name of moderation, note that 22 of 46 Blue Dog Democrats up for re-election lost in 2010. What good did their conservatism do them? the progressives ask. And if liberalism is so toxic, why weren't lefties similarly wiped out? Each side insists that it holds the key to victory. But it's a disingenuous and self-defeating argument and suffers from the mistake of assuming that all congressional districts are alike. Liberals win because they are in safe districts. Swing seats by definition can flip. In normal years, centrists hold these seats with practiced moderation. But in a wave year, swing voters go with the flow.