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Oct 20 2013

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Shutdown Post-Mortem

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Not What Founders Intended

Not What Founders Intended

Who won the election in 2012?

Deceptively simple in construct, and just as easily answered by almost any American, the question is actually the key to the recent government shutdown.

President Obama won, right?

When all the votes were counted, the President won by a convincing 51-47 percent margin in the popular vote. Indeed, President Obama was the first president since Reagan to win back to back victories with over 50 percent of the vote. And POTUS’ Electoral College victory was even more impressive, 332-206 (62%).

In the Senate, with 23 open Democratic seats (versus only 10 for the GOP), the Democrats actually picked up two seats, a fairly stunning achievement. And Democrats trimmed the GOP advantage in the House by eight seats – not enough for a Democratic majority, but a victory nonetheless, particularly when you consider that overall, Democratic House candidates won more than a million more votes than the returning GOP majority.

After the budget fight in the summer of 2011, both sides punted the unbridgeable issues until after the 2012 elections, allowing the American people to set the course. By all accounts, given the results, 2012 was an endorsement for Obama-centric solutions, right?

Well, not so fast. By looking at a different set of facts, you can reach a different conclusion.

President Obama won, but it was an unmistakably weak win at best.  Every second term president since Andrew Jackson has increased their margin of victory in re-election, consolidating their leadership and power. But not Obama.  The President won 3.5 million fewer votes in 2012 than in 2008. He won 33 fewer Electoral Votes. Even in Mitt Romney’s loss, nearly a million more Americans voted Republican in 2012 than in 2008.  In absolute terms, the number of Americans who voted in 2012 – 129 million – was 2.3 million fewer than the total for 2008. This showing could be called many things, but surely not a mandate.

And while the GOP didn’t win the White House, the Republican brand did well nationally on the state level.  The Republicans expanded their control to a record 30 governorships after ’12. If there had been a Democratic wave, surely it would have registered at the state level as well.

And of course, there was the House of Representatives. Despite the budget fights and debt ceiling showdown in 2011, the GOP majority came out of Election Day intact, if slightly smaller, but still winning 54 percent of the seats.

In this alternative interpretation, the Republicans won no less than the President had, and thus had no less of a mandate. It was this paradigm that was the origin of the debt ceiling blunder.

GOP dominance at the state level between 2010-2012 created a much safer electoral map for House Republicans in 2012, after the Census and re-districting solidified a deeper Republican hold on many districts. Despite President Obama’s victory at the national level,  the vast majority of GOP members won landslide victories in 2012. The following chart breaks down the margin of victory for the GOP Caucus in the last election.

 

 GOP Members Victory Margin
49 +40 points or more
93 20-40 points
61 10-20 points
29 Less than 10 points
               (12) 5 points or less

Thus a staggering 203 Republicans won their elections by more than 10 points; a margin so large as to make those districts uncompetitive. Only 29 Republicans won by less than 10 percent, and of that number,  only 12 GOPers actually won in the competitive range of five points or less.

As a result, the psychological verdict for the House GOP in 2012 was not that President Obama and the Democrats had emerged victorious, or that the nation had solidified a turn to the left,  but that at a minimum, that both sides had won. How could it be otherwise with so many GOPers simply crushing their Democratic opposition?

But the tragic mistake for so many House Republicans in the shutdown battle was the belief that the views expressed in their overwhelmingly conservative districts were a reflection of the national mood, which is always more nuanced, complex and centrist.

Time and again during the shutdown, Members who supported tying government funding and an eventual debt ceiling breach to defunding Obamacare referenced a silent majority of Americans demanding action who would rise up in support of their efforts. It never materialized, because it never existed. The polls consistently told the story from the summer on.  Obamacare was uniformly unpopular, but threatening government funding or the debt ceiling to repeal Obamacare was even more unpopular. The GOP majority, with an overwhelming number of Members who were in office less than five years, had little experience with past spending disputes that resulted in shutdowns, and were convinced of their course based on their own views and district feedback.

As a result, two weeks in October were essentially a “second election” for the House majority, particularly their Tea Party agitators. By confusing their individual district mandates for a national consensus, House conservatives triggered the biggest and fastest drop in GOP approval in this century. All to no justifiable policy end.

It was a monumental mistake.

A better judge of the post-’12 realities would probably have been Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

As Minority Leader, McConnell watched as the chances for a Republican Senate majority evaporated in the strongly GOP election in 2010. Tea Party favorites, Christine O’Donnell (DE), Sharon Angle (NV) and Ken Buck (CO), all bested more “establishment Republicans in the primaries and lost in the general. Had more acceptable candidates been selected, the Senate balance in 2011 would have been 50-50.

Worse, in what should have been a banner year for Senate candidates in 2012, Tea Party selected candidates again damaged the Party, causing the GOP to lose a net of two seats in Indiana and Missouri. And of course, it was the Tea Party that almost single handedly killed the candidacy of Republican Lieutenant Governor Dave Dewhurst in Texas, in favor of the an unknown – Ted Cruz.

McConnell more than any other person in Washington could understand the energy of the conservative grassroots, and also its misapplication in the electoral process, where ideological purity was more valued than electoral acceptability. Where fighting was more important than winning. Where election results were only a pause between legislative warfare as if  the votes had no discernable consequence.

That is why the government shut down. That is why we again went to the brink.

And now a new class of Republicans have been bloodied and introduced to the actual political reality. A 50 point win in a district does not a national mandate make. And while the President and his Party may not have received a mandate, they have the power to protect the programs that they consider most vital to their interests, and turn that postion to political advantage with the electorate as a whole.

A significant change in policy in the favored direction of either side depends entirely on Election 2014. That was true before the shutdown crisis, as it is now.

The GOP had the advantage this summer, which has evaporated amid the crisis of the last two weeks.

Have they learned their lesson?

We will see.

 

 

 

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