2008 feels long ago.
A Democratic Party that rode the Obama wave to historic congressional majorities is now saddled with a president who was the hot new thing six years ago. Its agenda tends to be picayune or pointless, and its new generation of leadership is the same as the old generation of leadership.
As much as an indictment of President Barack Obama’s governance, the midterms were a commentary on the exhaustion of the Democrats in the late Obama years.
Electoral rebukes of this magnitude usually cause some reaction in their recipients. An invigorating policy departure. A new tone. A surprising staff shake-up. No, President Obama made clear in his postelection news conference, it will be more of the same, only more so.
He refused any memorable characterization of the results, like “thumpin’” (George W. Bush after 2006) or “shellacking” (Obama after 2010). He wasn’t getting drawn into that game, although “wallopin’,” “spankin’” and “whoopin’” were all available.
The president only gave a strong sense of disappointment — not at himself or his party, but at all those awful people in Washington who care about politics and image so much more than he does.
It is true that midterm elections are inherently more favorable terrain for Republicans, but if the midterms are the exception that proves the rule of Democratic dominance, they are a hell of an exception. Republicans control more legislative chambers than at any time since the 1920s. They have more House seats than at any time since 1928. They have more than 30 governorships, including in blue Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland.
Against this tide, the Democratic message this year was a dog’s breakfast of warmed-over sloganeering, irrelevant obsessions and small-bore policy proposals that couldn’t overcome the broad discontent with the state of country.
Notoriously, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall campaigned as though the U.S. Senate is the upper house of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
He sought to stoke the fears of women not sophisticated enough to realize that, no, Republican Cory Gardner wasn’t going to send morality police to confiscate their contraceptives. Udall duly ran up a 2-to-1 margin among single women, but at the price of talking about little else. Exit polls showed a strong plurality of people, 43 percent, thought the economy is the most important issue facing the country. Gardner won them by 50 percent to 42 percent.
What Udall was to the uterus, Harry Reid was to the Koch brothers. He invited the public to direct its fury at these two relatively unknown wealthy conservative donors who were supposed to be uniquely evil compared with the wealthy liberal donors who funded Reid’s (very inaptly named) Senate Majority PAC.
As for issues, yes, the minimum wage is popular, but it’s not a big-enough issue to drive the political debate. Its success at the federal level depends on electing officeholders who support it, and at that elemental task, Democrats failed miserably.
As in 2010, the Republicans have gotten another jolt of new talent. Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential race, they are brimming with young, new entrants on the national stage, whereas the Democrats prepare to nominate by universal acclamation a 67-year-old grandmother who has been a major player in national politics for more than 30 years.
Age is not everything, and Ronald Reagan projected a youthful vigor despite his years. But if the Democrats are all in on Hillary Clinton, they are betting that a restive public is really yearning for a familiar fixture who prominently served in the Obama administration.
For all the impressiveness of the GOP win, the Republicans don’t have a mandate so much as an opportunity. They can make the most of it only if they push a big, bold policy agenda that addresses the country’s economic discontents and sets the table for 2016.
The Obama Democrats are played out, and the mantle of the party of change and new ideas is there for the taking.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.