The Midterms Are All About the "Still...."
No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post
It was probably inevitable that the Tuesday election post mortems would focus on process and conventional wisdom. An outfit like Politico can pump out a feature length article on it almost by rote: There is a great deal of populist anger out there, from tea parties on the right to the netroots on the left; incumbents are the targets and cannot take anything for granted; new forms of organizing and fundraising are changing the possibilities for candidates; Democrats once again had a better ground game and better strategy.
There is something to each of those points: A good part of the electorate is angry. Calling it "populist" gives it a vaguely irrational and menacing subtext, but sometimes anger is legitimate, and sometimes it is channelled in productive ways (like, for instance, in a primary challenge).
It is also true that some of the new actors on the scene are subverting old structures. A site like Daily Kos lets partisans bypass a traditional media that may ignore or be hostile to issues important to liberals. Act Blue can make candidates easily available to small donors across the country and has somewhat improved candidates' ability to succeed without lots of large contributors or institutional support.
And yes, party machinery plays a role. The DCCC has a nice little winning streak going, and maybe it has some kind of advantage in election day "get out the vote" operations. There certainly seems to be some kind of structural advantage in that regard.
Even granting all of that, the analysis looks skewed because it misses the big picture. Like the fact that we are still waging two wars nearly four years after voters flipped control of Congress largely out of deep unhappiness with Iraq. Maybe voters are angry because the thankfully soon to be retired David Obey said the following in 2007:
As chairman of the appropriations committee, I have no intention of reporting out of committee any time in this session of Congress any such (war funding) request that simply serves to continue the status quo.
Yet somehow, three years later, we are still there. Obey is hardly the only one guilty of this, either.
Maybe the fact that the Afghanistan war has become deeply unpopular but still endlessly grinds on has people a little upset. Maybe the ramped up program of remote murder has people thinking that perhaps we are doing more harm than good there, and maybe any vital national interest there (if it exists) could be achieved at a less fearsome cost. Maybe the fact that tens of billions more dollars will soon be approved for our wars is making folks not feel very kindly inclined towards incumbents. Maybe the fact that the money will come from the same off-the-books deception that George Bush was such a fan of doesn't strike people as very responsible (or mature). Maybe they remember Barack Obama congratulating himself that he had foresworn emergency supplementals in favor of a budget that "accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules."
The unemployment rate lingers near double digits; what has Congress done to address it? All of Washington seems to just be waiting for the economy to correct itself. Perhaps those outside the Beltway do not view the situation with the same equanimity.
I know I tend to have a bee in my bonnet over civil liberties, but maybe there is a broader discomfort over the ongoing efforts to weaken Constitutional protections. Or the fact that the same scumbags who wrecked the economy not only escaped entirely unscathed from their crimes, but came out of it with a system rigged to guarantee their further enrichment. Or that the company that just unleashed (via) the biggest environmental catastrophe since Chernobyl is dictating terms to the government.
To spare a few thoughts for conservatives, most of them were never particularly thrilled with the bailout, and it has come to take on iconic status for the Republican base. Being associated with it is by itself discrediting, much like the Iraq war vote has been for liberals. From Florida to Texas to Utah, those who can stick that label onto their opponents are doing so, and winning.
In short, Washington has for several years now been fully committed to disastrous policies. Citizens are responding by getting rid of those responsible in the hopes that the policies will change. It is not the result of some rabid, irrational rage but an emphatic vote of no confidence in the things they are doing. Getting all wrapped up in the weather in Pennsylvania obscures the fact that on almost the full range of issues people care most about, America's leaders are doing things that voters really, really hate.