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Borde-nough: The Democrats’ letdown gap

Published: October 1, 2010
Section: Opinions

Polls indicate that Democrats are less likely to vote on Nov. 2 than Republicans. But commentators have picked the wrong phrase—“enthusiasm gap”—to describe this phenomenon.

The gap between the parties has little to do with enthusiasm, a term which suggests an element of irrationality. What separates the parties is really a letdown gap. Democrats didn’t do what their backers elected them to do in 2008, while Republicans’ behavior in the minority satisfied their supporters.

Leading Democrats like the enthusiasm gap concept. It allows them to argue that projected Republican victories reflect problems with Democratic voters’ minds, rather than problems with the Democratic candidates. Vice President Joe Biden said in a Sept. 15 interview that only Democrats’ own failure to “get in gear” or “get energized” will keep them from the polls.

Former President Bill Clinton concurred, telling National Public Radio’s Judy Woodruff on Sept. 22 that Democrats have only sentimental or irrational reasons for not voting, like “my anger, my apathy, my amnesia about who’s going to do what.”

Democratic leaders have no interest in admitting that their voters are dissatisfied rather than disoriented or disturbed. But Democrats have good reasons to feel let down. First, in 2008, bad economic times helped the Democrats oust the Republicans. Democrats’ supporters, from the staunchest to the ficklest, elected them expecting them to restore prosperity.

That hasn’t happened, notwithstanding some academic economists’ accurate but practically meaningless recent observation that the recession ended last year. What voters expect is not an end to the shrinkage of the economy (and thus a technical end to the recession), but growth substantial enough to sustain and improve living standards.

Democratic voters didn’t get what they expected. By contrast, like the Democrats in 2008, Republicans this year stand at one remove from immediate responsibility for the economy. The second part of the letdown gap stems from the parties’ treatment of their core supporters. Both parties sometimes neglect them to appeal to independents. But Democrats neglect their base more often and more self-destructively than Republicans.

Democratic leaders scoff when Republicans appeal to their base. Clinton described for Woodruff “very straightforward” Republican plans to repeal recent health care, student loan and financial regulatory legislation, to privatize Social Security and Medicare, and to continue high-spending, low-tax, high-deficit fiscal policies. “They want to do … what they’ve wanted to do for 30 years,” he concluded.

Similarly, on Sept. 26, President Barack Obama accused Republicans of propounding “the same worn out philosophy,” and described a parade of Republican horribles like Clinton’s. But if Democrats want to close the letdown gap, they should ask themselves whether Republicans’ approach is so bad. Clinton and Obama think that the Republican Party’s problem is that it does what its core supporters want it to do.

Is that such a bad way to run a party?

Leading Democrats think so. They’ve made their contempt for their base too explicit. Their core voters don’t lack enthusiasm; they lack good reasons to help a party that takes their votes for granted.

Although they received plenty of antiwar votes in 2008, the Democrats have become another war party. Obama’s announced end to combat in Iraq on Aug. 30 left tens of thousands of troops (and mercenaries added to offset some of the withdrawals) there indefinitely.

Obama finally scaled down troop numbers in Iraq only when he wanted more troops to send to Afghanistan. The Bush-appointed, Obama-backed political general in charge in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, suggested to ABC News on Sept. 14 that American troops will be there beyond 2020 and will leave only “at a pace that is determined by [unspecified] conditions.” Against that backdrop, Obama’s Aug. 30 speech seems like political cover for Congressional Democrats who needed something to say to voters tired of wasteful war.

The Democrats’ six-month old health care law has declined in popularity. The law, when it takes full effect in 2014, will assure health care providers of big money even in hard times, create inefficient captive markets for health insurers, undermine existing employment-based plans, and drive down the percentage of the cost of treatments that insurers pay.

Many Democratic voters sought a single-payer system or at least a public option. But their leaders snubbed them. Instead, they cut a deal with health insurers based on the electoral calendar. Insurers accepted some crowd-pleasing restrictions on their behavior that took effect on September 23, weeks before the election. The law’s insurer-friendly components begin taking effect after Election Day.

Democrats provided bailouts and soft loans to well-placed banks and corporations. They did not show hard-luck individuals such compassion. Ordinary people still face a Republican-crafted bankruptcy law that doesn’t absolve debtors of their debts. Democrats’ health care law will leave millions uninsured. It will cause some to lose employer-provided coverage. It will compel others to impoverish themselves to qualify for Medicaid, which pays a higher percentage of treatment costs than plans under the new law.

Democratic leaders preferred a temporary tax credit large enough to fill a taxpayer’s gas tank a few times to an even modestly creative social program, thereby repeating Republicans’ “stimulus checks” under another name. Democratic leaders want oil companies to drill, baby, drill, up and down the coasts, notwithstanding this summer’s BP disaster. After criticizing Bush’s deficits, Democrats produced larger ones.

In these circumstances, Democrats won’t vote for reasons having little to do with enthusiasm, sentiment or fancy. Their party let them down. Democrats might lose in 2010, but they might have to if their best supporters are ever to get their due from party leaders.