How Much Blame Should Democrats Take?

It's fitting that the first post-election column by an elected Democrat would be from Indiana's lame-duck senator, Evan Bayh, whose calling card is inoffensive, business-friendly centrism. His explanation for Tuesday's Democratic losses -- "Democrats were too liberal" -- is likely to be the standard one going forward, for the simple reason that it's easy. Whenever Democrats suffer an electoral loss, moderates and conservatives flood the nation's op-ed pages with a torrent of editorials blaming the left for the party's losses, declaring that this is a "center-right nation" and that Democrats should have never bothered governing.

I can't fault such critics -- why wouldn't you capitalize on electoral disarray? -- but the simple fact is that they're wrong, on both counts. The United States isn't a particularly conservative country, and liberals aren't to blame for Tuesday's results, at least not entirely.

Indeed, "blame" shouldn't really enter the picture, given the systemic forces that direct most election results. Since 1900, the president's party has lost an average of 29 House seats in first-term midterm elections, with losses greater than 40 in 1910, 1914, 1922, 1930, 1946, 1966, and 1994, and six of those elections saw losses greater than 50. As far as history is concerned, 2010 isn't particularly remarkable. And given the wide partisan swings of the last few election cycles, you can make a good case that we are reverting to an older era of American politics when House majorities were fragile and transient. Moreover, the widest swings occurred when the majority party was extremely dominant. Republicans won 81 seats in the 1938 election -- their largest gain ever -- but that was up from an 88-seat minority; that Democrats controlled 334 seats ensured significant midterm losses.

Simply put, you could have predicted -- with nearly absolute certainty -- that on Nov. 1, Democrats would lose a few dozen seats, even before thinking about economic performance. With the economy in view, the outcome becomes even more predictable. Almost all districts voted more Republican in this election than in 2008, but much of that shift came from states hit hard by the recession. Republicans made big gains in Michigan (13 percent unemployment), Florida (11.9 percent unemployment), and Ohio (10 percent unemployment). The national unemployment average, by contrast, is 9.6 percent.

Tactical concerns only come into play once you account for losses due to systemic forces. Once you account for those forces, as political scientist Douglas Hibbs explained in a recent paper, you end up with a GOP gain of about 45 seats, the lower bound of Republican gains for most election forecasters.

So, are liberals responsible for the 15 other seats Republicans won on Tuesday? Yes and no. Congressional liberals were clearly the driving force behind adopting a climate bill in the House of Representatives, with strong support from progressive activists. Passing that bill required hard votes from vulnerable members in rural, conservative districts. If the Senate had passed a climate bill, those members might have been able to make lemonade from lemons. But the Senate failed to act on climate legislation, and the bill became dead weight for a number of rural Democrats. By all accounts, Rick Boucher, a 14-term representative in Virginia's 9th District, wouldn't have faced a serious competitor -- and would have cruised to re-election -- had he voted against cap-and-trade. Likewise, Tom Perriello, a freshman Democrat in Virginia's 5th District, might have edged out his Republican opponent (or come closer to doing so) had he voted against health-care reform or any other piece of major labor.

That said, you can only go so far with this; the economy was the issue for most voters, and had centrist Democrats been willing to support a more liberal stimulus with larger payouts and fewer tax cuts, they might have saved a few of those vulnerable seats. Which is to say that moderate and conservative Democrats -- by reflexively opposing President Barack Obama on so many items -- bear as much responsibility for Tuesday as liberals do.

Lastly, does this election prove that the United States is a center-right nation? I'm doubtful. Early exit polls show a huge swing toward older voters, as far as the composition of the electorate is concerned. In 2008, voters over 65 were 11 percent of all voters. This year, voters over 65 were 23 percent of all voters and supported Republicans with 58 percent of the vote. The results only really say that older voters skew conservative, which has always been true.

The midterm wasn't a rebuke to liberals, a validation of moderates, or an endorsement of conservatives. No, it was an affirmation of things we already know: Americans shy away from ideology, they aren't keen on one-party government, and they care most about economic conditions. Two days after the election -- and two years after Democrats made their huge gains -- the only certainties are banal and signify very little.

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