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“Take a look at this: gas under $3 a gallon. Unemployment under 6 percent, whoever thought? Stock market breaking records every day. No wonder [President Obama] is so unpopular.”
In three short lines, Letterman encapsulated thoughts of Democrats around the country.
By many metrics, the country is better off than when Barack Obama took office. To Letterman’s metrics, I would add a resurgent American auto industry, millions more Americans with health insurance, extricating ourselves from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (albeit with an escalating military presence against ISIS), and expanding access to higher education and quality jobs.
And yet, on Election Day, Democrats across the country took a drubbing. Even in Virginia, once-invincible Mark Warner eked out only a narrow victory.
Many Democrats wonder how is it, given what is going right, that people could still be so dissatisfied?
The answer, I believe, is simple. People are not necessarily upset with any one metric, one issue, or even with the state of our country generally. They are upset with the dysfunction of our government, which has muted these successes. On Tuesday, people voted against the party in control of the White House and Senate — or in many cases, they didn’t vote at all.
In recent years, the tone of discourse in Washington has been toxic. There is rarely a day without reports about one party attacking the other. Mitch McConnell’s No. 1 legislative goal was to thwart President Obama’s political agenda. President Obama blamed Republican obstructionism for a lack of progress. The media exacerbates this problem by scorekeeping on who’s up and who’s down after each round of finger pointing. And the public is simply left to throw up its hands.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2008, voters turned out in record numbers for Barack Obama on the promise of a post-partisan Washington — where the parties could come together to hash out compromise on tough issues. Younger voters in particular responded to this positive message.
Yet six years later, little in Washington has changed. If anything, the tone is worse. The 2008 voters are therefore left to question why they should even participate in elections at all.
Political inaction on tough issues simply feeds this narrative. Indeed, all too often our government shirks tough decisions in the interest of perceived political expediency.
For example, on immigration reform, both Republicans and Democrats agree that our current system isn’t working, that immigrants have a role to play in our economy, that we would benefit from more security on our borders, and that the growing influx of immigrants on our southern border has created an unsustainable humanitarian crisis. Though there is disagreement about how these factors should be prioritized in an immigration “fix,” the seeds of compromise should exist.
Yet rather than undertake the tough negotiations needed to reach agreement, both sides were content to let the issue lapse and instead trade barbs over who was to blame. This is not governing, and it is not what we send our representatives to Washington to do.
Last Tuesday, voters took out their frustrations on Democrats. Now that Republicans control both the Senate and the House, I believe they will face the same voter backlash if they do not change their approach. Mitch McConnell’s statement immediately following that election that he wants to “work together [with President Obama] on issues where we can agree” is a good — albeit tepid — start, as was President Obama’s similar overture.
But to restore faith in our government and, in the process, faith in elections, we need fundamental change. That means tackling tough, potentially divisive issues even in the face of an impending election. It means tamping down the vitriol in our political rhetoric, even where our representatives strongly disagree with one another. And it means rejecting the “blame first, govern later” attitude that has all-too-often characterized our government in recent years.
Tuesday’s results prove that lower gas prices and lower unemployment are no longer enough to ensure electoral success. How we get to these results matters. Tuesday’s election was first and foremost a vote against dysfunction in our government. Our elected representatives would be wise to take this clear message to heart.
Mike Lieberman is the Immediate Past Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.