What's Behind the Blowout

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio celebrates the GOP's victory that changes the balance of power in Congress and will likely elevate him to speaker of the House. Cliff Owen / AP

The Democrats got blown out in the midterms for three big reasons—abstraction, frustration, and communication, all three related to the worst economic times since the Great Depression. President Obama will have to deal with all three or he'll lose in 2012.

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The abstraction was the mental gymnastics that Democrats asked voters to perform—the idea that as bad as things are, they could have been much worse. The fact that we didn't have a depression, that unemployment isn't at 20 percent, is not a selling proposition in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society. It's what historians (and the president) call a "counterfactual." Most Americans don't know what that word even means, and fewer are able to absorb the concept when they're hurting. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded because he came into office in 1933 when the Depression was more than three years old and at its bottom, with 25 percent unemployment. Any improvement, even if it didn't end the Depression, was easy to credit to FDR's efforts. Obama became president when the deep recession was only beginning to show up in the statistics. The economy was losing nearly 800,000 jobs when he became president. If we had stayed on that pace, we would have had another Great Depression by the end of 2009. Most Americans have short memories. To be grateful for not being laid off requires a leap of imagination that most voters, frightened about the state of the economy, aren't willing to make.

The frustration was with the government's inability to turn around a bad economy, which discredited the whole idea of government. The most interesting exit poll finding from NBC News was that 56 percent of voters now agree with the statement that "the government is doing too much." Just two years ago, when voters hoped that Washington could stop the economy's free fall, that number was 43 percent—an astonishing shift. Nationally, 40 percent of voters have a favorable impression of the Tea Party, an antigovernment movement that is only 18 months old. The Tea Party explosion won the House for the Republicans but cost the GOP the Senate. Had Tea Partiers Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell not won the Republican primaries in Nevada and Delaware, the GOP might well have taken the Senate, too.

"What we have here is a failure to communicate"—that was the warden's line to Paul Newman in the movie Cool Hand Luke. A similar inability to frame a message applied to Democrats on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. The president elected as a silver-tongued orator never conveyed the idea that jobs were job one. It wasn't that he shouldn't have pursued health care; the problem was that he never pivoted to jobs in a convincing way. He never managed to imprint the message that he had cut taxes for the middle class and for small businesses, and that the banks had repaid their TARP bailouts with interest. Obama disdained slogans. They wouldn't have won it for Democrats in a brutal year, but it didn't help that the party never found a coherent message beyond "Don't give them the keys!" In the House, Nancy Pelosi spurned advice from doomed members that she hire some PR professionals. In a year when 49 Democrats held seats in districts that John McCain carried in 2008 (and almost all of them lost), better communication couldn't have saved the House for the party, but it might have lessened the margins and put the Democrats on a path to win the argument in the next two years.

For all the talk of whether Ted Strickland's loss in Ohio or Russ Feingold's defeat in Wisconsin bodes more poorly for Obama's reelection, the state-by-state breakdown is much less important than the national picture on employment. If the jobless rate doesn't come down sharply, 2010 will be merely a prelude to another historic win for the GOP in 2012. Even the stupid now get that it's the economy.

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