Whom will Democrats blame for their midterm defeats?

Max Baucus

Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. Unless you’re talking about the 2010 elections, in which case the list of scapegoats for likely Democratic losses is long and growing. With only hours to go until polls close on Election Day, prognosticators have settled on their forecasts: Most agree that Republicans will gain at least 50 seats in the House—enough to win the majority—and about seven seats in the Senate. Whom to blame?

The complete list of scapegoats will not be available until after the election. But it never hurts to get a head start. Here are some of the people, institutions, and political phenomena Democrats are likely to blame:

Barack Obama. The president swept into office promising to pass monumental legislation that would transform our health care system and fix Wall Street. Unfortunately for some Democrats, he succeeded. When asked what makes them want to vote against sitting incumbents, most voters cite health care reform, according to polling commissioned by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Had Obama first pushed more popular legislation like job creation—instead of waiting until March 2010—Democrats would be OK, the thinking goes. (Never mind that job creation was the whole point of the stimulus package.) And whatever the merits of health care reform and Wall Street reform, Obama failed to articulate them. Instead, he ceded that territory to …

Republicans. They called Obama “socialist.” They indulged in the “death panels” myth. They obstructed bills without providing plausible alternatives. And it worked. Whatever you think of the GOP’s governing philosophy, their electoral strategy—attacking Obama’s policies as government overreach of historic proportions—was airtight. Democrats labeled them the “Party of No.” It turns out “No” is an effective rebuttal.

Max Baucus. Health care might not have happened without Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. Then again, it might have happened a lot faster. Over the course of four months in 2009, Baucus made one compromise after another—scrapping the public option, killing the employer mandate—in order to attract Republican votes that never materialized. That gave Republicans time to demagogue the bill and ate up valuable time on the congressional calendar—time that could have been used to pass legislation like immigration reform or an energy bill (which, of course, would probably have hurt Democrats, too).

Chris Van Hollen. It’s a tough job, sure. But there’s no way the man in charge of re-electing Democratic House members doesn’t escape unscathed. Van Hollen, who represents Maryland’s Washington suburbs, appears to have done everything he could, urging Democrats to vote against party leadership when it helped their re-election chances and raising twice as much money as his Republican counterpart earlier this year. (Republicans eventually caught up.) This year, everything was not enough.

Nancy Pelosi. The speaker of the House did an incredible job getting Democrats to take a tough vote on a climate change bill. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did not, leaving the House Democrats who supported it with a damaging vote but nothing to show for it.

The Supreme Court. With a series of decisions culminating in Citizens United in January 2010, the Supreme Court opened the doors to unlimited independent expenditures in elections by unions, corporations, and individuals. Since then, Republican-leaning interest groups have been outspending Democratic-leaning groups by a factor of 2-to-1. (There’s a chicken-and-egg problem, though, since the spending disparity may be caused by greater Republican enthusiasm.) Democrats also argue that the court’s decisions led to the rise of front groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which allow corporations to spend money anonymously. (Again, it’s more complicated than that.)

The Economy. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. A bad economy hurts incumbents. In fact, there’s a strong correlation between economic indicators and votes. You could argue that Democrats shot themselves in the foot by making the stimulus package too small. But they were probably doomed either way.

The Cycle. The president’s party almost always loses seats during midterm elections. There are some exceptions, notably Democrats during the Depression in 1934 and Republicans in the aftermath of 9/11. But still, since 1862, the president’s party has lost an average of 32 House seats and two Senate seats in off-year elections. In politics, that’s the price of doing business.

The Voters. Job losses, a rising deficit, and frustration with the tone in Washington got Obama elected in 2008. Two years later, the same forces will push Democrats out. The ultimate culprit for Democratic losses may be voter impatience. Many voters don’t seem to know what they want: They want smaller government, but they don’t want cuts to Medicare. They want tax cuts, but also want to balance the budget. They want more political cooperation, but they reward House Republicans for casting not a single vote for the stimulus package or health care reform. And voters who do know what they want want it immediately. “When we promised during the campaign change you can believe in, it wasn’t change you can believe in in 18 months,” Obama told Jon Stewart last week. Maybe he should have been more specific.

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