The Advice Columnists

Pundits and their post-midterms tips

The post-midterm op-ed pages were full of advice this morning. Nearly all offered tips for a beleaguered president who took the brunt of the blame for last night’s Republican wave. Others had suggestions for Republicans who have shifted overnight from legislative roadblocks to back seat drivers: time to start governing. And then there were those who eschewed advice in favor of a victory dance: we’re looking at you, Wall Street Journal editorial writers.

The main takeaway on Obama was a familiar one to anyone who’d picked up an op-ed page in the last six months: He who had communicated so effectively in campaign mode had failed to sell his administration’s achievements as president. The lead New York Times editorial said as much and offered some counsel for the next two years.

Mr. Obama, and his party, have to do a far better job of explaining their vision and their policies. Mr. Obama needs to break his habits of neglecting his base voters and of sitting on the sidelines and allowing others to shape the debate. He needs to do a much better job of stiffening the spines of his own party’s leaders.

He has made it far too easy for his opponents to spin and distort what Americans should see as genuine progress in very tough times: a historic health care reform, a stimulus that headed off an even deeper recession, financial reform to avoid another meltdown.

In a typical bait-and-switch, the Times’s Maureen Dowd recounts in her column a conversation we’re led to believe is with new House majority leader Boehner; but turns out to be with Newt Gingrich, from 1994. See, says Dowd, the Republican leadership’s promises have a familiar ring, and their actions will have familiar results. Dowd sees Clinton’s and Obama’s failures as equally similar and familiar.

Republicans outcommunicated a silver-tongued president who was supposed to be Ronald Reagan’s heir in the communications department.

They were able to persuade a lot of Americans that the couple in the White House was not American enough, not quite “normal,” too Communist, too radical, too Great Society. All that Ivy League schooling had made them think they knew better than average American folks, not to mention the founding fathers.

The Speaker-in-waiting sounded the alarm: the elites in the White House were snuffing out the America he grew up in. It only took two years to realize that their direction for the country was simply, as he put it, “a contradiction with the vast majority of Americans.”

It’s a theme that runs through much of the Times’s editorial response to the Republican wave. In a smart take on his blog, Timothy Egan suggests Obama “recast himself as the consumer’s best friend,” and Evan Bayh, for whatever reason, is given real estate in the paper to voice his list of “where we went wrongs” and “how to fix its.” Not surprisingly, communication comes first:

First, we have more than a communications problem — the public heard us but disagreed with our approach. Democrats need not reassess our goals for America, but we need to seriously rethink how to reach them.

For anyone who believes in government as an institution to serve the best interests of the people, Bayh’s is a heckuva depressing column. It’s a call for reform to taxation and entitlements partly because he believes reform makes sense, but mostly because it makes Republicans look uncooperative should they object and makes his party electable.

Having seen so many moderates go down to defeat in this year’s primaries, few Republicans in Congress will be likely to collaborate. And as the Republicans — including the party’s 2012 presidential candidates — genuflect before the Tea Party and other elements of the newly empowered right wing, President Obama can seize the center.

I’m betting the president and his advisers understand much of this. If so, assuming the economy recovers, President Obama can win re-election; Democrats can set the stage for historic achievements in a second term. The extremes of both parties will be disappointed. But the vast center yearning for progress will applaud, and the country will benefit.

For some reason, that “assuming the economy recovers” part gets short shrift in much of the editorial coverage today, despite exit polling that suggests the economy was far more than an addendum to last night’s result. Elsewhere in the Times, Ross Douthat uses his blog to say basically nothing.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, the editorial board has a lot to say:

Yes, the economy was the dominant issue and the root of much voter worry and frustration with Washington. But make no mistake, this was also an ideological repudiation of the Democratic agenda of the last two years. Independents turned with a vengeance on the same Democrats they had vaulted into the majority in the waning George W. Bush years, rejecting the economy-killing trio of $812 billion in stimulus spending, cap and tax and ObamaCare.

All of this reflects the epic overreach that has typified the House under Nancy Pelosi, who will now have one of the shorter speakerships on record. A Republican President, even a lame duck one in Mr. Bush, could hold the Democratic House’s worst instincts in check. But with the arrival of Mr. Obama, the party’s liberal barons, most of them creatures of the 1960s, unleashed all of the ambitions they had been forced to submerge during the post-Reagan era.

Say what you will about Rupert’s Journal, but you can’t deny the paper can still produce a blistering editorial. In typical Journal style, there are clearly outlined villains—Pelosi, Obama—and hallowed heroes—Reagan—swoon; and the language is strong, colorful, deliciously anti-Times stuff. There is no advice here, and hardly any looking forward or deep analysis. And there is certainly no evidence, in exit polls or anywhere else, to support the writers’ claims that last night was a mass repudiation of Godzilla and Mothra (Pelosi and Obama outside of the WSJ’s Sixth Ave HQ). But it sure beats the Times’s textbook-like list for an interesting read.

The same can be said for South Carolina senator Jim DeMint’s column in today’s Journal. DeMint offers some keen insights into just how the few Tea Partiers who were elected last night will behave in Congress—assuming they listen to their Dear Jim advice columnist.

Many of the people who will be welcoming the new class of Senate conservatives to Washington never wanted you here in the first place. The establishment is much more likely to try to buy off your votes than to buy into your limited-government philosophy. Consider what former GOP senator-turned-lobbyist Trent Lott told the Washington Post earlier this year: “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”

Someone isn’t going to be popular at the D.C. steakhouses this week. DeMint then gets into specific pieces of advice, the most specific being, “Do Nothing.”

First, don’t request earmarks. If you do, you’ll vote for legislation based on what’s in it for your state, not what’s best for the country. You will lose the ability to criticize wasteful spending. And, if you dare to oppose other pork-barrel projects, the earmarkers will retaliate against you.

Second, hire conservative staff. The old saying “personnel is policy” is true. You don’t need Beltway strategists and consultants running your office. Find people who share your values and believe in advancing the same policy reforms. Staff who are driven by conservative instincts can protect you from unwanted, outside influences when the pressure is on.

Third, beware of committees. Committee assignments can be used as bait to make senators compromise on other matters. Rookie senators are often told they must be a member of a particular committee to advance a certain piece of legislation. This may be true in the House, but a senator can legislate on any matter from the Senate floor.

Fourth, don’t seek titles. The word “Senator” before your name carries plenty of clout. All senators have the power to object to bad legislation, speak on the floor and offer amendments, regardless of how they are ranked in party hierarchy.

He ends by advising Tea Party Republicans to “put on their boxing gloves.”

Mitt Romney must have heard DeMint, and he has his own feisty post-election advice spiel in The Washington Post—which features, among other op-eds, a statement by Ruth Marcus-as-President-Obama (the point of which is never really explained, but we guess this is a Dowdian variety of advice by possession), and a very Kumbaya “time to work together” editorial by the board featuring this bizarre blindside.

So pardon us if we don’t overinterpret the results of Tuesday’s vote. Particularly when unemployment is approaching 10 percent, incumbents are going to take a beating.

Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that the midterm elections represent a sharp rebuke of President Obama, and that many voters meant them that way.

Did we just say we’re not going to overinterpret? Forgot we had inches to fill…

But we digress. Inches are also given to Romney, who has advice for his (fingers crossed) 2012 adversary, and not for the GOP:

Government is smothering the pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit that propelled our economy past those of older, larger nations. Ever higher taxes on small and big business, layers of red tape, onerous labor regulations, and punitive bureaucrats and lawsuits are suffocating U.S. economic vitality. So far, the president and his fellow travelers in Congress have made things worse: If Obama is serious about changing the way things are done in Washington, he must slay the job-killing beast Washington has become.

He must also choke off government’s voracious appetite. Under current law, the federal government’s share of the economy will grow from its 50-year average of 20.3 percent to 26.5 percent by the end of this decade; federal, state and local governments will then constitute more than 40 percent of the economy. At what point do we effectively become a socialist economy, with its associated low growth, low incomes and permanently high unemployment?

His advice is at least more constructive than DeMint’s, but he may have just given Obama a serious headstart in debate prep:

Rule One: Start with the total, don’t end up with it. Decide from the outset the amount that the government will spend for the year…

…Rule Two: Go where the money is. With entitlement spending about half of all federal spending, the president has no choice but to address Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He should propose less costly progressive indexing for future Social Security beneficiaries - using the consumer price index inflator rather than the wage index for higher-income retirees.

E.J. Dionne has a smart take on why the midterms were lost, and some specific advice on where Obama might mine for Republican Kryptonite next time (just like Romney, Dionne is squarely focused on 2012).

…Democrats held onto moderate voters while losing independents. What hurt them most was this brute fact: Voters younger than 30 made up 18 percent of the electorate in 2008 but only about half that on Tuesday, according to network exit polls. This verdict was rendered by a much older and much more conservative electorate. Yes, there was an enthusiasm gap.

And then:

Republicans need to be pressed to put specifics behind their anti-spending, anti-deficit rhetoric. They should be confronted with budget cuts that force them to face their constituencies. Farm subsidies are not sacred, nor is spending for weapons systems the Pentagon says it doesn’t need, nor are hundreds of millions in tax expenditures and preferences. And if Republicans continue to insist on tax cuts for the wealthy, they should have to identify spending cuts to cover the costs…

…[The election] is a setback for progressives, not a permanent defeat. They took real losses but held their own in the Senate and in key governors’ races. The real showdown takes place in two years - and with the electorate equally disapproving of both Republicans and Democrats, that battle is wide open.

The best column from the Post, though, might be the one that actually doesn’t overinterpret the results. In a snippy two-graf blog entry posted at 12.01 a.m. this morning, Steven Stromberg actually looked at the exit polls and wrote:

Was the 2010 election about big government? Health care? Cap-and-trade? Democratic arrogance? An anti-elitist surge? Sure, these motivated some voters. But a few lines in the exit polls tell the big story about this year’s campaign. Sixty two percent of voters on Tuesday said the economy was the issue at the top of their minds. Fifty percent of voters said they were “very worried” about the national economy. The Republicans carried the “very worrieds” by large margins. The Democrats punched their weight among all others.

On the west coast, Los Angeles Times columnist Marshall Ganz had some familiar advice for the president in a well-written “you need to be more inspirational” piece that sounded very sophisticated because of all the big words.

Obama and his team made three crucial choices that undermined the president’s transformational mission. First, he abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education. Next, he chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy. And finally, he chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in “yes we can” — he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in “yes I can.”

In his transactional leadership mode, the president chose compromise rather than advocacy. Instead of speaking on behalf of a deeply distressed public, articulating clear positions to lead opinion and inspire public support, Obama seemed to think that by acting as a mediator, he could translate Washington dysfunction into legislative accomplishment. Confusing bipartisanship in the electorate with bipartisanship in Congress, he lost the former by his feckless pursuit of the latter, empowering the very people most committed to bringing down his presidency.

Ganz’s paper offered a fine editorial offering a deep understanding, and an articulate explanation, of the connection between the economy and the voter frustrations it has spurred.

The change in mood is not only understandable but predictable: No nation where millions want work but can’t find it will be a settled one. Unemployment today stands at 9.6%, with many additional workers in jobs that underemploy them; one result is that President Obama’s approval rating has plummeted from 80% shortly after his inauguration to 44% today (though it is still healthy compared with the 21% of Americans who approve of Congress’ work).

The anxieties spurred by the recession have given way to a broader unease, an inchoate sense that government is too big, too intrusive, too demanding. Federal deficits, enlarged first by the long and ill-advised war in Iraq and then by the efforts to stimulate the economy, symbolize to many a government detached from the consequences of its policies. The federal deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was $1.3 trillion. Voters are angry and are sending a sharp rebuke to Democratic incumbents and to the Obama administration, one that may not be cause for them to panic but that they would be foolish to ignore.

Great. But just one piece of advice for the west coast Times: give readers more of that and a whole lot less of this.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.