President Obama and the Democratic Party leadership more generally have, I argue, been overlooking or ignoring significant warning signals over the last few months. That's dangerous at any time in modern politics, but even more so as we are already in the early stages of the runup to the midterm elections. Unless the president and the rest of the party leaders wake up quickly, I fear we are not going to see a third election cycle wherein the Democrats pick up seats in Congress.
The start of the slump, in my mind, was this summer. When the wingnuts were out having their fun pretending to be patriots and interrupting anyone they didn't like (which was just about everyone in politics), the Democrats largely let them have the news cycles. We woke up eventually and took some reparative steps, but by that time the damage had already been done. The initial slippage continued as we headed into the autumn, with the health-insurance reform package (where we started out from a disadvantageous position and then
compromised gave in to our opponents on virtually every point). Both the president and the party leadership were largely absent from the fall election season, particularly as regards Question 1 in Maine, which should have been a no-brainer.
Once the elections were over, with their mixed results, the party leadership largely seemed to conclude that the message being sent by the voters was not (as it should have been) "stick to the principles you said you believed in and for which we voted in 2008," but rather "try to become more like Republicans than you already are." Suddenly, all questions of progressive issues were being kicked down the road--when the pressure should have been all the greater to get precisely those things taken care of, before the momentum from the 2008 elections wore off.
I would hope that the declining approval numbers for both President Obama and the Democratic Party would be a matter of concern in party leadership circles in and of themselves. But even if they are not, then this should be:
But a bigger indicator of peril comes from a new survey question added [to] the DK tracking poll for the first time this week. The poll now includes a rather simple indicator of baseline voter enthusiasm for the year 2010. The question offered to respondents is a simple question about their intentions for 2010:QUESTION: In the 2010 Congressional elections will you definitely vote, probably vote, not likely vote, or definitely will not vote?
The results were, to put it mildly, shocking:
Voter Intensity: Definitely + Probably Voting/Not Likely + Not Voting
Republican Voters: 81/14
Independent Voters: 65/23
DEMOCRATIC VOTERS: 56/40
Two in five Democratic voters either consider themselves unlikely to vote at this point in time, or have already made the firm decision to remove themselves from the 2010 electorate pool. Indeed, Democrats were three times more likely to say that they will "definitely not vote" in 2010 than are Republicans.
What that result should tell the party leaders is that they are losing their base. Couple that with other polling results showing that independent voters are currently identifying more with the Republicans than with the Democrats, and the strategists should already have started flop-sweating. The new R2K "likely voter" results should also help solidify the message that came in earlier this week from PPP, suggesting that, while passing a strong public option would cost the Democrats some support from independents, not passing a bill with such a strong public option would cost them even more support from their base.
It is self-evidently obvious, to the point that I have a hard time believing that the Democratic Party and its leaders could actually have forgotten it, that if you alienate your base you are automatically going to be in electoral trouble. Yet it certainly seems as if the Democrats have been doing exactly that. Perhaps this is the end result of decades of taking their most vocal supporters (women, gays and lesbians, people of color) for granted, on the "who else are they going to vote for?" principle. Or perhaps they are still punch-drunk on the results of last year's elections, and naively assume that everyone who came out for Obama last time will automatically be in the fold for the party in 2010, and for Obama in 2012. Neither assumption is valid: and that, too, should be obvious to anyone in professional politics.
It is particularly difficult to see how anyone could reasonably believe that Obama would be able to hold on to the coalition of voters who propelled him to the Oval Office, given the tremendous difference between the positions and issues on which Obama campaigned, and the positions and issues he has actually taken since being inaugurated nearly a year ago. After campaigning on hope and change, his administration has largely continued to govern on an "inside politics" basis. There hasn't been a great deal of change from what went before, even on some things that seemed to be fundamental to Obama the candidate.
Although the president will not announce his actual intentions regarding the decade-old war in Afghanistan until next Tuesday evening, it is widely anticipated that he will announce a troop increase on the close order of the 40,000 requested by General Stanley McChrystal. Such a decision, if President Obama takes it, is likely to be hugely unpopular with voters already disillusioned with the wars inherited from the Bush regime. The fact that we can't really afford either of them at the current levels is not likely to help, and neither is the addition, also widely anticipated, that along with the troop increase, the president will announce at least the parameters of an exit strategy.
It will be interesting, though probably not uplifting, to see what the polling numbers look like at this time next week. I wish I could be more optimistic about the likely response from the party leadership to the handwriting--already on the wall--that just keeps getting darker and more dire.