Rumsey Punch: How Obama Blew It

Obama Midterms
President Obama walking toward South Lawn of White House. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Many elections ago, Adlai Stevenson, one of the smartest Democrats to ever run for president (or so he seemed to think), was greeted one day by a woman on the campaign trail who said, “You have the support of all the thinking people!” He reportedly replied: “Thank you, madam, but I still need a majority.”

Watching President Barack Obama’s post-election press conference made me think of that anecdote, as he parried with members of the Fourth Estate who tried in vain to make him own up to his party’s shellacking that cost them control of the Senate.

Obama wouldn’t take the bait but he gave the impression he clearly regards himself as one of the brainiest people in the room, despite the Democrats’ debacle. He should have come out swinging, daring the Republicans on Capitol Hill to do something positive for a change. But expressing that kind of raw emotion is not his style. For all his intelligence, this president has never learned how to govern without seeming to disconnect his head from the body politic.

When push came to shove, and his party was literally up against the wall, his inability to communicate viscerally will have profound political repercussions in the months to come. The neediest and the unemployed will suffer the most, and he’ll be powerless to help them. Democrats nationwide should have grasped the importance of this mid-term election and come out to the polls, but the vast majority of them stayed home.

So now he’s the lamest of lame ducks as he clings to relevancy in the remaining two years of his presidency. All the good he did—and there was a lot, such as saving America from the second Great Depression—will probably become a footnote in some future grad student’s thesis. And the misguided followers of Fox News can go on deluding themselves that Obama is “the worst president ever.” Move over James Buchanan, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore! Those Fox folks’ deliberate ignorance of American history is pathetic, if not unpatriotic.

But a history lesson was surely in order for the president and his closest advisors. You’d think all the president’s men and women would have seen this train wreck a long time coming. But they proved surprisingly obtuse.

The coup de grace to the Democrats’ slim chances of retaining the U.S. Senate supposedly came on Oct. 2 this year, when Obama said in a speech in Chicago what was already obvious: “I am not on the ballot this fall… But make no mistake—these policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.”

That observation wouldn’t have made such a stir—and given the Republicans such potent ammunition in the final weeks of the campaign—if the administration had been working closely with the Democrats on Capitol Hill long before this election cycle began. But Obama had remained aloof.

Obama is a cerebral guy, all professorial and cool. In basketball—his favorite sport—he prefers to be the outside shooter because he dislikes going hard in the paint. In politics, metaphor aside, under the basket is where the action is. On Capitol Hill, he is consistently a no-show. It’s amazing that the Affordable Care Act ever became law—and his party has been paying for it ever since, despite providing health insurance to 10 million Americans and counting who never had coverage before!

Both sides of the aisle knew what this off-year election was going to be about. Yet only the White House was in denial, as the Washington Post so adeptly reported on Nov. 4, and those Obama people are supposed to be the best and the brightest!

The sad part is that his policies haven’t gone far enough despite the right-wing rhetoric. He’s no radical; the opposition is. Compromise is not on the conservatives’ agenda. Why wasn’t that an issue on the ballot? Even before Obama’s first inauguration, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who’s about to become the majority leader, told his fellow Republican Senators his determination to deny the president any record of accomplishment. Yet Obama has never found an effective way to communicate their obstruction.

The most the Republicans have ever had to run on is their base’s irrational, emotional hatred of the first black president, a man who’s had more threats against his life than any other occupant of the White House, according to the Secret Service—and the president’s opponents blamed him for the agents’ incompetence.

Tellingly, even though the party out of power tends to gain seats in an off-year election, especially when the incumbent president is in his last term, Republicans and their billionaire backers weren’t taking any chances. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, more than $234 million was spent on just the Congressional races, and that’s the money we know about, not the vast secret sums from the shadowy operatives given carte blanch to buy votes thanks to the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has simply become another conservative wing of the Republican Party under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts. The fact that these rich folks forked over so much money when history was already on their side is another sign of how high the stakes really are for this right-wing cabal.

Was there ever a chance that the Democrats would regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives? Hardly. Since Obama took office, his party has lost nearly 70 seats. But to lose control of the U.S. Senate is a colossal failure that should not have happened on his watch.

So, like a typical Democrat, instead of blaming the enemies of progress, I first want to criticize the figurehead of my own party for bungling the 2014 mid-terms. I know I should cut him some slack. After all, I voted for the guy twice, but that gives me an excuse to let his team have it. For justification, I cite the great American humorist Will Rogers of the 1930s, who once said, “I am not a member of an organized party—I am a Democrat.”

Besides, it’s not the worst Democratic defeat I’ve lived through. For that low point, I’d have to go back to November 1972 when I was still in college.

We started out so idealistic, we “McGovernites,” in supporting the candidacy of the three-term Democratic U.S. Senator from South Dakota because of his outspoken anti-Vietnam War stance. Of course, it wasn’t all altruism on my part—I had a draft lottery number, like other young men my age. Four years before I’d walked the streets of Concord, N.H., with then-U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D. Minn.), who gave President Lyndon B. Johnson a run for his money in the 1968 presidential campaign.

McGovern was cut from the same cloth as McCarthy. At the Democratic Convention he finally got the nomination sometime after midnight, and wound up giving his acceptance speech when most Americans had already gone to bed. McGovern’s first mistake—and his campaign had barely begun. But, we who despised President Richard Nixon were sure that nobody could vote for “that crook.” Yet “Tricky Dick” carried every state except Massachusetts, and that’s where I was on the night of the election, watching the news as the nation turned red except for the Bay State.

George McGovern
George McGovern let the Nixon campaign paint him as a pinko weakling despite his heroism in WWII. (Photo credit: Warren K. Leffler)

I never felt so out of touch with the country. How could Americans buy what that snake-oil salesman was selling? Yet they all bought it, hook line and sinker, millions of them. Within two years, Nixon resigned in disgrace, proving us right. His supporters had successfully painted McGovern as a pinko weakling who hated America—and they lambasted his Democratic platform as “acid, amnesty and abortion.”

Years later, I learned that McGovern had actually been a war hero himself in World War II. He flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 pilot, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters. Why his presidential campaign didn’t use his medals to counter the character assassination I’ll never know.

Why Obama and his advisors let the Republicans turn the president into such a pariah that his own party didn’t want him around on the campaign trail is another thing I’ll never understand. Take Alison Grimes the Democratic Secretary of State from Kentucky, who got trounced by McConnell, whom she tried to unseat. She was an Obama delegate to the 2012 convention, yet she refused to admit publicly whether she voted for Obama!

Now it’s time to move on. I am so looking forward to 2016 I can hardly stand it. The country deserves better.

For comfort on these dark November nights, I like to recall what Major Gen. Ulysses S. Grant said to Gen. William Sherman after his Union troops had just suffered a surprise attack at the battle of Shiloh that left him with his back against the Tennessee River.

“Well, Grant,” said Sherman, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” Grant said, chewing on his cigar in the rain, “lick ’em tomorrow, though!”

They did. And so shall we.