While widely disputed, the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1925-43) has come to be associated with making the trains run on time. Myth or not, I couldn’t help thinking of old Il Duce while assessing Tuesday’s election. The Republicans, given up for dead but a few years ago, won and won big. Perhaps more important for those of us aligned with the Democrats, we lost. For the moment that loss was probably more consequential than the win, and we should seriously focus on why. Was this a referendum on the president and his administration? Whether justifiably so or not, I think it was. So we should try to understand why a man beginning with such promise and twice elected has lost so much esteem; why the once sought after and admired campaigner was sidelined in this election?
The fact that, aside for a short period, the trains in Mussolini’s Italy didn’t actually run on time turns out the be irrelevant. In a historically dysfunctional country, the dictator sold the story and with relentless public relations that kept him in power for nearly two decades, the perception of on time not only persisted but also long outlived his discredited regime. Perception and indeed myth, we should all know by now, can be far more powerful than fact. That is ever more so in a political environment that trades so heavily on perception and mythmaking while happily suppressing fact. Consider the vapid and misleading content of advertising in this election cycle. Of course, the trains did run on time early on under Mussolini without which the perception, albeit exaggerated, could never have taken hold.
Perceptions take time to be formed and gain currency. But it’s clear to me the Barack Obama is now branded as a man who may talk the good talk but has trouble with the walk — he can’t seem to make the trains run on time. The seeds of this perception were sown even before he took office, planted not by Republicans but by Democrats, specifically Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary. Their argument was that the Junior Senator was unprepared to take on the presidency. His rhetoric was uplifting but his resume was thin — a state legislator and a first term on the Hill. He lacked executive experience, like say a governor or the seasoning of a more senior senator (and two term First Lady). Her 3 AM call ad was aimed at building this not ready for prime time image. When the rollout of Obama’s signature ACA program ran so terribly amuck the words “I told you so”, expressed or not, hung in the air. Sure Obama had a great campaign organization, perhaps the best ever, but clearly governing was something else entirely. Compounding the problem was that Obama’s campaign juggernaut was famously built on mastering technology, which made people wonder all the more about what essentially was a massive software failure.
The bungled rollout of the ACA (cleverly branded Obamacare by Republicans and reinforced by the lemming press) was a watershed event for the president. But it was not necessarily a irreparable. What solidified the perception of weak management more than anything else was the VA problem. While the ACA might be a source of political contention, left and right, providing service to veterans, especially those who returned wounded physically or mentally from war, is not. There is widespread bi-partisan and public support for addressing their needs. It is seen as a moral obligation. That is particularly so at a time when so few of us are directly exposed to conflict and where a level of guilt for letting others (often economically disadvantaged) do the job is the room's unspoken elephant. Finally, while highly partisan bickering in Congress, especially in the GOP controlled House, may account for Washington's gridlock and dysfunction, the "top dog" president ultimately gets the blame. He acknowledged as much in his day after press conference.
Perhaps the most unfair burden carried by the president and undermining his approval rate is the fact that, despite substantial progress — lower unemployment, improved housing prices, robust business, a record stock market and greater access to affordable healthcare — a large segment of the population, perhaps the majority, is losing ground rather than gaining it. Real income is down and the prospects for the next generation, even those with college degrees, looks anything but bright. College costs and debt are staggering. The two Americas, one super rich ($60 Million for, often not lived in, apartments in New York) and the other treading water or struggling (living from inadequate paycheck to paycheck), is not a perception but a harsh reality. Obama didn’t cause that problem, but again is getting the blame. The recovery is minimal or non-existent for many. Young people and minorities who have been his base are the very same people who are feeling most pressed and frustrated. They thought, realistically or not, that he was their savior. In truth, the problem of economic inequality is so systemic that no single person can possibly fill that role, especially when his opponents are fighting hard to sustain the status quo. The fact that many of Republican voters are also victims of and disadvantaged by income disparity seems to be of little consequence. Speak of perceptions and myths.
The problems we face are real and for sure the administration has under performed in certain instances. Add to that the fear factor produced by a toxic combination of the ISIS's rise (which Obama once discounted) and the manufactured hysteria about Ebola threatening the country. The trains don't seem to be running on time. But the perception that Obama is incompetent is way overblown. What’s so mind boggling is that the Democrats themselves have not helped dispel them — quite the opposite. By running away from the president and from a record of significant accomplishment, they have solidified the misperception and, in my view, paid a heavy price (they and we) for abandonment. If you don’t ask the president to come out and campaign for you, then voters conclude that you too think we’re headed in the wrong direction. While they may blame Obama globally, the only way they have of expressing their frustration is by pushing you out the door. Fault them if you will, but voters don’t respond well to candidates running away from their own record. They see right through them.
The bottom line here is that I think candidates who ran from the president and who emphasized their independence made a huge and costly mistake. It was their pressure to avoid provocative decisions before the election that kept Obama from issuing his executive order on immigration. That hurt badly with Latino voters, not to mention that it was wrongheaded in and of itself. We’ve all complained that Republicans have been the party of no. We have challenged them to put forward positive programs, for example alternatives to ACA that would address our healthcare problems. But in this election certainly Democrats were not the party of “yes”. Money and negative ads may impact elections, but ultimately it’s when candidates don’t stand up for their record or the record of their party, when they express no real vision for the future or avoid addressing the real problems that they cannot prevail.
This election was portrayed as the most important ever. That has become the standard characterization for all elections these days. The Republican takeover of the Senate and thus of Congress as a whole is consequential, but probably not the end of the world. It may represent a step backward, even a substantial one, but just as Democrats (and the press) over read their victory in 2008 and even 2012, Republicans are likely to do so this year. Pundits will predict the extended demise of Democrats just as they did of Republicans when Obama was elected. But this country will continue to have a two party system and the pendulum of power will continue to swing back and forth. Over the immediate term, deniers of human induced global warming may be successful in turning back or slowing environmental efforts, but at some point reality will win out. Some major city will be under water. Politicians beholden to the super rich may pretend the economic disparity isn’t something that can or should be addressed, but at some point the 99% will become so mad that they won’t take it any more.
We’re told that Americans are sick of gridlock and polls suggest that a majority of voters — by the way disgracefully only 1/3 of the eligible went to the polls on Tuesday — want compromise. That may be true, but perhaps even more som all of us are hungering for leaders who have vision, have convictions, are willing to address real issues and are prepared to move the country beyond the narrow status quo. Are Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren, albeit on very different sides, those kinds of people? Perhaps so, and perhaps more than the assumed continuity candidates most likely to be facing each other in 2016, but we may not be ready. Also, both of those partisan darlings are freshman politicians, holding their very first public office. If getting the trains to run on time is of any importance, we may not be willing to take the risk of another disappointment, even one that is more perception than reality.