Politics is not complicated. Here are the key tenants of political strategy you need to know to win elections:
1) You should encourage as many of your supporters to vote as you can.
2) You should discourage as many of your opponents’ supporters from voting as you can.
That’s essentially it.
This is why I was so dispirited to see a new WSJ poll and new research from Pew on Millennial voters that shows them abandoning the Democratic Party. They are not becoming Republicans. This is because Millennials (as the Pew research shows) identify as more liberal than any other age cohort. This advantage is even larger if you break it out to positions on individual issues. Millennials want more government involvement in the economy, a looser immigration policy, legal marijuana and gay marriage. 1 They identify as less religious and less “patriotic” than older cohorts.
This is part of the reason why Republicans are poised to win the 2014 midterms despite having one of the most wildly unpopular agendas a major US party has ever run on. Millennials increasingly identify as “independents” and are unenthused about voting for the Democratic Party. If you can’t turn out your party’s core voters, you will lose elections. People with liberal policy views are, or should be, the Democratic Party’s core constituency.
It is important to understand why this happened. This happened because obstruction works and Democrats badly mishandled the political situation in 2009-2010.
Obstruction Works Because Voters Don’t Understand How Government Does
Virtually nobody understands how the American political system works. Only one quarter of voters know that it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, for example. 2 Polling on procedural questions like whether to raise the debt ceiling show that huge majorities of the public doesn’t know what the debt ceiling is or why it’s important. I could list dozens more examples.
Basically, the marginal voter’s understanding of the political system boils down to: “The President is in charge and if things are going badly he is responsible.” They may also express a desire to throw out some or all members of Congress, who are (correctly) understood to be largely corrupt and ineffective, but because people tend to actually like their congressman, this will never happen.
This is why obstruction is effective. It has three benefits: It obstructs legislation you disagree with from being enacted, it makes the President look ineffective or insincere because he’s unable to enact his stated agenda and it demoralizes the public about the political system, decreasing voter turnout among less committed demographics. This is why Millenials won’t vote in 2014. It’s not that their preferences don’t align with the Democratic Party. It’s that they no longer believe Obama actually supports the Democratic Party agenda because they don’t understand why he was unable to actually enact it. No one who matters understands, because it is too stupid and too boring. The only downside to across the board obstruction is that it will make the country shittier, but that’s not even a downside, because the President, not individual Congressmen, will be blamed for that anyway.
Yes, it has made the Republican Party unpopular, but a party built on groups that reliably turn out for elections (whiter, wealthier, older votes) has much less to lose from voter demoralization than the Democrats. Making voters cynical and dispirited isn’t a side effect of obstruction, it’s why it works.
The Missed Opportunity
What’s so frustrating about this is that the Democrats actually had a chance to avoid this. They entered 2009 with 58 seats in the Senate and a huge majority in the US House. Great, right? Given the power to enact basically any legislation you wanted, the White House decided to employ a strategy of reaching out to Republicans. The idea, basically, was that the stimulus bill would be so popular that the GOP would be forced to support it, and then the momentum built off that would shame Republicans into enacting other Democratic priorities into law with GOP support.
I understand why this is an appealing strategy. Everyone would rather be seen as a healer than a tyrant. Part of the appeal of Obama was the idea of healing the ideological divide between “Red America” and “Blue America.” I’m sure now that he was sincere. Maybe it expresses a desire to avoid conflict that has served Barack Obama well in other areas of his political career. Maybe he’s really an idealist that honestly believes guys like Jim DeMint just want what’s best for America.
Whatever his intentions were, it’s insanity to ask politicians to vote in ways that are disadvantageous for their political career, especially if they’re agenda items that they disagree with. Smart Senators and Representatives know that even local elections increasingly turn on Presidential approval rating 5 so helping a President of the opposing party is extremely bad political strategy.
So the White House’s strategy, based on having a compliant opposition in Congress, was basically fucked from the day he took office. 6 Part of the reason is because this strategy has never worked in the history of the United States. The idea of achieving a “bipartisan consensus” in Congress is a relic of the 1950s and 1960s when the issue of segregation caused the parties to become briefly unaligned from liberal/conservative blocs. If you look at the Presidents that history has considered “great” you have “moderators” like FDR, who once basically attempted to dismantle a branch of government in order to enact his agenda. Or Abraham Lincoln, who solved America’s slavery problem: not by compromising with secessionists, but by actually eliminating slavery, even if he had to wage a war and lock up political opponents to do it. Presidents who were instead stymied by obstruction from adversaries in Congress like Harry Truman or Jimmy Carter have enjoyed much lower reputations. Republicans went on to do just that to Barack Obama, preventing him from enacting most of his agenda by voting in lockstep against any major items and using obscure parliamentary rules to obstruct the business of Congress.
None of this is to say that moderation isn’t appealing rhetoric, but for it can’t be an effective political strategy as long as the incentives in the system mean the opposition party should be obstructionist. 7 You will end up being ineffective and despised by the exact voters you need to turn out for you to win future elections, which is exactly what the new data has shown is the case with today’s Millennials.
Your New Political Hero: Thomas Brackett Reed
In 1888 8 the Republican Party controlled the Presidency and Congress for the first time in nearly two decades. But newly elected Speaker of the House Thomas Reed faced a major obstacle. Due to an obscure parliamentary loophole called the “Disappearing Quorum” 9 the minority retained the ability to block legislation, jeopardizing Republican priorities that the public had just voted to enact.
To Reed the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent the legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, “it becomes a tyranny.” He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress. The duty of the Speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.
Basically, this is what happened: when the Democrats attempted to use the disappearing quorum, Reed used his authority as Speaker to say that they couldn’t, knowing that he could not be overruled without an actual majority. Again, from Tuchmann: 11
They called Reed tyrant, despot and dictator, hurling epithets like stones. Among the variants on the word “tyrant,” “czar” emerged as the favorite, embodying for its time the image of unrestrained autocracy, and as “Czar” Reed, the Speaker was known thereafter.
Reed didn’t care. Democrats boycotted the chamber in protest. But after a few days, because parliamentary procedure is so boring, they lost interest, returned to the chamber and Reed rewrote the rules of the House of Representatives to prevent the Disappearing Quorum from ever obstructing the majority ever again. Thomas Reed went down in history as one of the greatest US House Speakers, not as a czar or tyrant.
The Other Reed/Reid
Back to the present day: The Democrats, lead by another guy named Reid, could’ve done something similar in 2009. Nothing was stopping them from exercising the so-called “Constitutional Option” to eliminate the filibuster and pass legislation with 51 votes. They had just won a resounding electoral victory and enjoyed huge majorities in both chambers of Congress and the Presidency. Because no one understands how the filibuster works, no one would have cared. 12 See this exhaustive and depressing list of popular bills that likely would have passed had the Senate filibuster not existed: Some choice examples:
Perhaps the most consequential blocked bill in 2009 and 2010 was the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were children when they immigrated, provided they serve in the military or go to college. It was blocked twice, once as an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that was paired with repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and once as part of the banal-sounding Removal Clarification Act of 2010. It had already passed the House, so if not for the filibuster, it would be law.
In November 2009, the House passed the Affordable Health Care for America act, a health reform bill that included a government-run health plan or “public option” similar to Medicare that exchange participants could purchase instead of private insurance. That same year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced that he had 51 votes for such a proposal in the Senate. But as anyone who followed the health care debate recalls, the proposal died when Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) declared their intention to filibuster a bill that included it. Absent a filibuster, it’s likely a public option would have gone through.
Creating American Jobs and Ending Offshoring Act
This bill would have barred corporations from benefiting on deductions and/or credits due to outsourcing and from deferring payment if taxes on profit earned abroad, a policy which encourages outsourcing. It would also exempt employers who “insource” jobs – that is, who move operations from abroad to the United States — from the employer portion of the payroll tax for those newly hired U.S. workers. The House never voted on the bill, but given its composition during the bill’s consideration in 2010, passage was probable. Nevertheless, the bill failed, garnering 53 votes with a few Democrats defecting.
(It’s also likely, in my opinion, that they could’ve passed the Cap and Trade bill that passed the House in 2009.)
Millennial voters would have much fewer reasons to feel depressed and cynical about the Democratic party if they had passed this extra legislation. It’s even likely that the Democrats would’ve done better in the 2010 elections because a larger stimulus would likely have improved the economy since the popular Public Option would have buoyed support for the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats would’ve been called tyrants by hardcore conservative partisans, but that already happened anyway on the issue of much more benign parliamentary procedure.
Instead, the Democrats got very little of their agenda passed, got wiped out in the 2010 election and pushed a generation of otherwise-liberal Millennials into the “politicians are just talk, I’m staying home on election day” camp. This is especially true after these voters actually did turn out to re-elect Obama and he was still unable to enact his agenda due to Republican control of Congress (which marginal voters do not understand). It’s too late to do anything about this monumental fuck up, especially because the 2010 election resulted in enough Gerrymandered Republican districts that it will be essentially impossible for Democrats to retake the House of Representatives before 2020.
It might be a long time before liberals have another majority in United States government, in part because conservatives are unlikely to fall into the trap of being obstructed (I have no doubt that if the Republicans retake both the Presidency and Congress their first order of business will be eliminating the filibuster), but next time they do they should learn from this tragedy. Obstructionism works, and you can’t compromise your way out of it. Your only alternative is to crush it, and you will get away with it because voters don’t understand what you did.
- The big exception here is support for cutting Social Security. This is a completely separate messaging failure by Democrats that I won’t address here. ↩
- This is even more embarrassing because the poll was taken when constant Republican filibusters were the main story in the political press. It was not some obscure issue in 2010. ↩
- Hardcore political junkies and partisans will vote in every election, which makes them perversely unimportant in understanding actual voter behavior. The people we’re concerned with here are the people who might vote in each election. ↩
- In the sense that it neither reflects what they’re taught in high school civics class (which itself is totally divorced from how US politics ever worked) or any sort of rational system ↩
- because marginal voters don’t understand how the system works. See above. ↩
- Actually, it was kind of fucked before he took office. It was clear the stimulus, which he wanted to sign on his first day in office, was already in serious trouble several weeks before his inauguration. I actually remember sitting in a bar at around 7:30pm on election day 2008 and telling someone that the early returns out of Kentucky meant that Mitch McConnell would win his Senate seat and the Democrats would fall short of a filibuster-proof majority (they only achieved this later through Arlen Specter’s kinda weird party switch) and therefore be fucked. I can’t believe I could see it then and super genius Larry Summers thought they could go back to the Senate for additional rounds of stimulus. But I digress. ↩
- Just to review, that’s 1) public ignorance of how obstruction works, 2) strong correlation between Presidential popularity and results of congressional elections 3) demoralization favoring the party with voters who will turnout reliably ↩
- Bear with me here ↩
- Trust me, as someone who said that current Parliamentary procedure is too dull for most people to care about, you really don’t need to know the details of the disappearing quorum, which is somehow even less interesting than the filibuster. But if you’re into that sort of thing, here you go: Disappearing Quorum on Wikipedia. ↩
- page 125 ↩
- page 128 ↩
- In fact, just a couple years before, the Republicans had threatened to eliminate the filibuster to prevent George Bush’s court appointments from being blocked. This did not stop them from immediately reversing themselves on the issue, because they understand no one understands how Congress works. ↩