The Republican base is energized. They've successfully convinced themselves that the country is governed by a President born in either Kenya or Indonesia, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary. They're also sure he's a socialist, even though advocates of single-payer health care are the only group who was never allowed a seat at the health care debate. And they're convinced that he's responsible for the budget deficit, even though the last fiscal year of the Bush presidency ended just four months ago.
But it takes more than that for the Republicans to win a Senate seat in Massachusetts. After all, it's usually the case that the party out of power does well in off-year and mid-term elections. More is needed for the kind of really big sweep that the Republicans may get this year. Specifically, what is required is a serious loss of confidence by the Democratic base in the President and Congress.
James Hohmann of Politico.com has a pretty good summary of why Democratic voters are deeply disappointed in the current Congress, and thus may stay home in the fall's election. Labor unions are a pillar of Democratic support, providing not just votes and campaign dollars but also a lot of the party's most hard-working activists and organizers. Yet despite helping to elect a Democratic President and large Democratic majorities in Congress, labor has failed to see any of its major legislative goals become law. Hohmann writes that,
"The Senate’s failure to confirm labor lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board was just the latest blow, but the frustrations have been building for months.
"Here's labor getting thrown under the bus again," said John Gage, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 workers. "It's really frustrating for labor, and a lot of union people are thinking: We put out big time in money and volunteers and support. And it seems like the little things that could have been aren't being done."
The 52-33 vote on Becker — who needed 60 to be confirmed — really set labor unions on edge, but the list of setbacks is growing."
Hohmann also notes that:
"The so-called “card check” bill that would make it easier to unionize employees has gone nowhere. A pro-union Transportation Security Administration nominee quit before he even got a confirmation vote. And even though unions got a sweetheart deal to keep their health plans tax-free under the Senate health care bill, that bill has collapsed, leaving unions exposed again.
"On health care, unions found themselves in a defensive posture. They worked in early January to carve out an exception from an excise tax on so-called Cadillac insurance policies, only to see the package fall apart, with recriminations about just the kind of back-room deal making they had engaged in.Obama said he would push for greater unionization at the Transportation Security Administration, but it hasn't happened."
Labor isn't the only Democratic constituency to be tremendously disappointed in the current Administration. Environmentalists are fuming that the Senate has abandoned plans to pass legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it seems that virtually all Democrats and Independents who supported Obama's election are angry with him for his refusal to fight for the public option on health care reform.
Did Democrats ask for too much? After all, when Obama and other Democrats standing for election in 2008 were drawing up their agenda three or more years ago, they weren't aware that by 2009 that the country would be facing its greatest economic crisis since the 1930s. The economy, at least, has been a success story. When Obama took office, the economy was shrinking at a staggering minus 5.4% annualized growth in GDP, with the banking and domestic automotive industries both on the verge of collapse. One year later, the economy is growing at the brisk 5.7% annualized growth in GDP. On other fronts, the Administration has put in effective plans to wind down the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and it has restored America's tarnished image abroad. And oh yeah, we stopped endorsing torture.
Rather than judging whether the Democratic base has become too cynical too fast, I want to conclude with a different thought. That is, if Democrats do give in to apathy this year because they haven't gotten what they want out of Obama and Congress, they will have done so a lot more quickly than Republican do when they control Washington and it happens that their base doesn't get what it wants.
Thomas Frank commented brilliantly on this phenomenon in 2004 in his classic What's the Matter with Kansas?. Frank observed that at election time conservatives always seem to back their leaders with the same fervency, despite the fact that,
"Their grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, and twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors, receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEO’s are rewarded in manner beyond imagining."
In conclusion, my hope is that we can somehow turn out the Democratic base in this fall's election despite our many disappointments. Because if we didn't learn this lesson from the Administration of George W. Bush, we never will: There is absolutely nothing worse than letting the Republicans run this country.