A Midterm Examination

The voters have spoken, but what did they say? Columbia political scientist Lincoln Mitchell '96GSAS assesses the 2010 elections.

by Lincoln Mitchell ’96GSAS Published Winter 2010-11
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Illustrations by Craig Larotonda

No room for reason

An enduring economic downturn can make life difficult for incumbent politicians, regardless of party. But this only partially explains the Republican victory, and it doesn’t explain why the Democrats lost so badly. While this loss was essentially unavoidable for the Democrats, it was probably possible to have limited the scope. The Republican Party campaign of 2010 was colorful, exciting, bizarre, or frightening, depending on your political views, but its impact was not unusual. The base was a little more mobilized than in most years, but extremist candidates in Delaware, Nevada, and elsewhere also cost the party a few seats.

The Democrats and the Obama White House, meanwhile, made two enormous mistakes that helped drive up the Republican margin of victory. The GOP, a defeated shell of a party in 2008, one that was associated with both the failures of the Bush administration and the economic collapse of that year, rebuilt itself largely through seizing on voter anger with the economy and government and channeling it toward partisan goals. This was done not by presenting alternative policies or a rational critique of the Obama administration, but by allowing the most extreme and sometimes downright wacky attacks on the Democrats to drive the Republicans’ message.

The charges of socialism (and its apparent counterpart, fascism) aimed at President Obama, the constant talk about how the Democrats were taking away people’s rights to own guns, make their own decisions about medical care, or run their own businesses — all dramatic overstatements at best — resonated with many voters. The Tea Party movement, which, despite endless speculation by the punditry about its origins, has never been anything other than a Republican Party faction, tapped into the populist, antibailout mood, while the mainstream media gave voice to far-out accusations aimed at the president: He was planning death panels; he was driven by an “anticolonial” mentality; he lied about his religion; he hated white people; and he probably wasn’t really American anyway. The Democrats’ initial response to these unfathomably strange assertions was to view them as fringe opinions and ignore them.

On some level, given just how absurd these accusations were, this approach made sense. However, by not pushing back, the Democratic Party made it possible for these charges to gain traction among voters. A constant media repetition of these claims made them seem less strange and more plausible to voters with each passing day.

The Obama administration seemed to assume, in spite of increasing evidence to the contrary, that politics could be based on reasonable debate, and that groundless rumor-mongering had no place in the national discussion. Yet the political environment during the first two years of Obama’s presidency showed otherwise. Political debate was replaced by name-calling; any allegation, no matter how baseless, ended up on Fox News and other outlets and Web sites; and epithets like Nazi, fascist, Stalinist, and communist, formerly the refuge of the most marginalized political factions, were more or less accepted as part of the political debate. Rand Paul, the Republican Senate candidate and now U.S. senator from Kentucky, for example, compared President Obama to Hitler apparently because they both came to power during economically bad times and were good public speakers.

While the president should not be expected to have to state that he is indeed a citizen, is not particularly concerned about anticolonial politics, and is neither a Nazi nor a communist, the Democratic Party blundered badly by letting these accusations go unrefuted. And the White House, by not saying enough while these accusations became more frequent, allowed them to be taken more seriously than they should have been. In short, the White House viewed these comments as nutty and assumed that most Americans would share this view.

They were fatally mistaken.

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