Those who stayed up late last night to watch the mid-term drubbing of the Democratic Party did so, no doubt, with champaign or tequila already on hand. The results of the 2010 election were, by all accounts, a foregone conclusion. From the absurdly self-important "November is Coming" signs so beloved by Republicans to the efforts Democratic candidates took to distance themselves from Obama, the writing was on the wall well before any of the races were called.
To hear the Republicans tell it, the 2010 election is a "rejection of the Obama Pelosi agenda" and a referendum on liberalism in America. That makes for a great bumper-sticker, but the facts do no support the right-wing conclusion. Polling data and exit polls suggest that Republican victories in 2010 had more to do with a fall-off in Democratic enthusiasm than anything else and, despite some fairly impressive Congressional pickups, no meaningful groundswell of conservative voters has actually appeared. It is not so much that the Republicans won the 2010 elections as the Democrats lost them.
A fine point, to be sure, but one worth making nonetheless.
In light of that, however, a curious political opportunity presents itself. Later on today the President will make remarks concerning the outcome of the 2010 election and, in so doing, set the tone for the Democratic party in the coming months and years. Obama could adopt a conciliatory tone and that would certainly be in keeping with the post-partisan identity he has crafted for himself, but while the President may be comfortable in that role, the facts of the election do not support that decision.
That is because the real losers of the 2010 election were not the Democrats, at least not as a political whole. Certainly the Democrats took a beating but the real losers were a subset of the Democratic caucus whose ranks were literally cut in half: the blue dogs - conservative Democrats who managed to pick up seats in traditionally Republican districts by capitalizing on frustration with the Bush administration.
This is not to judge the wisdom or folly of the blue dog strategy. Regardless of the outcome of the 2010 election, the strategy netted the Democrats some 54 seats they would likely never have won otherwise and those votes strengthened negotiating positions and padded margins in key legislative battles. Yet these moderate Democratic Congressmen and their seats were and are invariably tied to traditionally more conservative districts with thinner electoral margins and all the political baggage that comes with that. Many blue dogs voted against healthcare reform (not that the helped them yesterday) and other key components of the President's legislative agenda and in so doing they dragged the Democratic Party to the right and provided political cover for obstructionist Republicans.
Later today, when Barack Obama speaks to the results of the 2010 election he will do so faced with an incoming Republican House already pledged against the idea of compromise and based on such promises and the actions of the Republican minority in Congresses these last two years, President Obama can expect nothing less than total partisan warfare from the House of Representatives come January. In light of this the President can either choose to continue in the Blue Dog strategy - attempting to find common ground with an opposition that verbosely rejects the very notion - or he can depart from it and engage the Republicans head on.
It is a choice between the increasingly disaffected base of the Democratic Party which has watched its leadership cave and compromise on issue after key issue in an attempt to reach across the aisle and the moderate "what have you done for me lately" middle. Perhaps more directly, it is a choice between those who support the Democrats but didn't turn out in 2010 and those who turned out in 2010 but did not support the Democrats.
The easy choice, the smart choice, and even the mathematically correct choice (given the astonishing turnout in 2008) is obvious. What remains to be seen is what the White House will do.