In the aftermath of an unexpected and gargantuan setback of any kind, the first response is usually denial. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross lists that as the first of five stages of grief in her seminal study, On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kubler-Ross at first narrowly applied that process to the reaction of the terminally ill to their prognosis, but later found that it applied to any catastrophic personal or professional loss.
Democrats and President Barack Obama suffered a huge professional loss this week. And they are most definitely in denial about it.
Dems lost control of the Senate. They watched the GOP extend its majority in the House, governors' mansions, and state legislatures. The extent of these losses may take weeks or months to absorb for the White House and its allies on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But the denial stage didn't start on Tuesday night. It started months before, or perhaps two years earlier, after Obama won a narrow re-election over Mitt Romney and learned the wrong lessons from it.
Obama became the first modern president to win a second term while getting fewer votes than his first election. That came in large part from get-out-the-vote technology, using entertainment media to reach low-information voters, and energizing the Democratic base. He also succeeded because he eclipsed the Republican focus on the economy by making Romney's wealth the issue instead. Despite a record of economic stagnation, Obama was able to make the argument that Romney's supply-side approach to tax and economic policies — especially after surreptitiously taped remarks about "the 47 percent" emerged — showed that voters could not trust Romney to look after Main Street rather than Wall Street. Instead of a referendum on Obama's first term, his re-election campaign turned the 2012 election into a referendum on Romney's riches and general unease on income inequality, a theme Obama had hammered since September 2011.
That strategy paid off, although it shrank Obama's reach in the polls. In 2008, Obama received 69.5 million votes, 52.9 percent of the electorate, and 28 states plus DC and a split in Nebraska. In 2012, Obama received 65.9 million votes, 51.1 percent of the electorate, and 26 states and DC.
The midterm election provided no Romney-like foil for the president and Democrats. It becomes a referendum on the administration and its policies. Obama acknowledged this once, to the utter dismay of Democratic candidates, in an early October speech at Northwestern University in Illinois. (Illinois, it should be noted, turned out to be one of four surprise gubernatorial pickups for Republicans, the first time in recent memory that a sitting president has seen his home state flip to the opposition during his term in office.)
"I'm not on the ballot this fall. Michelle's pretty happy about that," Obama said at the time. "But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot, every single one of them."
The president was absolutely right — his administration and agenda were definitely on the ballot, in all but name. But instead of approaching this dynamic honestly, Democrats instead adopted a strategy of distraction. Both the Democratic Party and their big outside groups tried talking about nearly everything except what voters considered most important in this cycle — the economy (which still gets low marks from voters), jobs in an era of historically low workforce participation, and competence in government.
In a stunning display of denial of the mood and interest of the electorate, Democrats instead launched broadsides against the Koch brothers, spent tens of millions of dollars to talk about climate change, and continued their demagoguery about a "war on women." In Colorado, they even managed to combine the latter two into an epically foolish NARAL-produced ad known as "Sweet Pea," in which a boyfriend patronizingly tells his girlfriend that Republican Cory Gardner not only caused a condom shortage but refused to acknowledge that climate change is "weirding our weather."
The strange combination of issues in the context of sexual frustration was explained after the ad's release by news that NARAL had recently been given a grant from Tom Steyer, who blew upward of $57 million in an attempt to cajole voters into making climate change their biggest concern.
The election results speak to the wages of denial and of lecturing voters rather than listening to them. So do the exit polls. In Colorado, women accounted for only 48 percent of the vote, the lowest in 22 years. Nationally, women only favored Democrats by five points, far below what they expected and certainly below what they needed to remain competitive.
Ironically, it was this turnout on which Obama built his argument that the midterms weren't a referendum on him at all. "[W]e've got to look at is the two-thirds of people who were eligible to vote and just didn't vote," Obama said in his press conference on Wednesday. In 2008 and 2012, Obama continued, "[w]e got folks to vote who hadn't voted before, particularly young people." However, in 2012 Obama got fewer voters to the polls and a smaller share of the vote, and since then lost ground in every single demographic. That includes "young people," which moved more than 10 percent to the GOP from 2012 to 2014, and was one of the rare demos in which Republicans improved over 2010. He also failed to address the fact that while about a third of the electorate turned out, two-thirds of the electorate still feels that the country is going in the wrong direction, as Josh Gerstein pointed out in Politico after the press conference.
Obama had an opportunity to demonstrate that the period of denial about voter dissatisfaction with his performance, the economy under his leadership, and the incompetence demonstrated by his administration on issues from ObamaCare to ISIS and beyond. Instead, he gave voters what amounted to an early State of the Union speech and the curious argument that he cared more about what voters who didn't vote think more than those who got engaged in the process on Tuesday.
Denial is indeed a strong impulse. Obama's allies on Capitol Hill — those who are still left, that is — had better try to get him to the acceptance stage soon, before they end up with a lame-duck president whose only contribution to their near-term future will be to sink it.