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A failed strategy cost the Democrats

The party, too focused on interest groups, has failed to speak to the nation as a whole

November 14, 2014 2:00AM ET

After dramatic Democratic election losses, everyone seems to have a theory. Different theories point in different directions — to geography, to the unpopularity of the president, to low voter turnout, to attack ads funded by an influx of money from unidentified sources. Few of these theories point to a failure in strategy, as if the Democrats had available a winning strategy but mistakenly went down a different path.

However, a failure in strategy is exactly what Election Day marked. Democrats are thinking tactically — how to increase their appeal to particular groups — but not strategically. They don’t think they need a strategy because they think the facts speak for themselves.

Democrats are astounded that, after just six years, voters would want to return to power the party that brought about the greatest recession since the Great Depression and pursued the worst foreign policy debacle in living memory. Who would turn to the party that opposes regulation of the banks, that wreaked havoc on Main Street and that is already speaking of a more robust intervention in the Middle East? True, Republicans did not run on this record. But why did none of this count? Can voter memory really be so short?

Democrats are equally astounded that President Barack Obama’s record seemed to count for so little. After all, despite its troubled rollout, the Affordable Care Act has now brought insurance to more than 9 million uninsured, while recalcitrant Republican governors have prevented another 3 million needy individuals from gaining access to expanded Medicaid. The economy has steadily, if slowly, improved, with unemployment at the lowest point in six years, a substantially reduced deficit and the stock market at record highs. Our regulatory regime is finally extending to big banks, and the higher mileage requirement for automobiles is a significant environmental achievement. On foreign policy, the president has managed for the most part to keep the United States out of ground wars in the Middle East, even as he has had to deal with the collapse of Iraq and Syria.

Given the problems Obama inherited, our complicated times and the poor performance of other nations, this does not seem such a bad record. Why was it not embraced and celebrated as the grounds for continued progress under the Democrats? To answer that question is to begin to understand something about the state of the American electorate.

Despite the progressive character of their accomplishments over the last six years, Democrats campaign as a party of various interest groups, rather than a party for the whole nation.

We hear a range of excuses, beginning with the fractured character of our electoral system. There was not one national election but many state and local elections. In each, local conditions might figure more prominently than the overall state of the nation. Yet obviously the sweeping results suggest that something of a national nature occurred. Other excuses point to the unrelenting negative advertising making false claims with regard to many of these successes. Yet it was not as if Democrats did not run responsive advertisements. Still other excuses point to the limited extent to which the economic recovery has reached the average voter. Yet most people take their public responsibility seriously when the vote. They don’t simply look at the balance in their checkbooks; they try to do what they think is right for the nation.

This last point gets to the heart of the problem for the Democrats. Despite the progressive character of their accomplishments over the last six years, they campaign as — and allow themselves to be painted as — a party of various interest groups, rather than a party for the whole nation. They are the party of women, of Latinos, of blacks, of gays. They celebrate their character as a rainbow coalition. Under some circumstances, in California, for example, this can be a winning theme. What we saw on Election Day, however, is just how dangerous it can be. It can breed distrust, with voters feeling “This party does not represent me.” Worse, it stands opposed to a very fundamental idea that the national interest is something other than the interests of these different groups.

Every Democratic candidate who chose to keep his or her distance from the president, who declined to have the president make a campaign appearance, contributed to this sense of alienation. Each was saying to his or her constituents that this president and this party represent someone and some interests of which we are not a part. The party died by a thousand such cuts.

Of course, some people will rightly respond that it is the Republicans who stand for special interests. The great revival of the party in the South, upon which their present strength so much depends, was built on race. The GOP is the party of white people. It is also the party of wealth and corporate interests. No doubt this is true, but it is not what the Republicans say of themselves. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would never have uttered his infamous 47 percent remark in front of a general audience. Only in the privacy of a closed Republican fundraiser would he say that it wasn’t his job to worry about the 47 percent of the public who “pay no income tax,” “are dependent on government” and “support [Obama], no matter what.” More surprisingly, Democrats do not easily make reciprocal charges against the Republicans. They are too polite or too scared to, as their critics characterize it, play the race card or engage in class warfare.

Democrats somehow became convinced that the path to electoral success is to celebrate difference and to campaign as a coalition of interest groups. Republicans, given the groups they actually represent, better understood that they had to offer a message to the whole nation. The good news is that many voters still put an idea of nation ahead of personal interests. The bad news for the Democrats is that their likely presidential candidate in 2016, Hillary Clinton, falls exactly into this pattern of coalition politics. Already the tacticians are asking how she can add to her base among female voters. If Democrats are to have any hope of succeeding in two years, they are going to have to learn to speak the language of nation in place of the language of interests.

Paul W. Kahn is the Robert W. Winner professor of law and the humanities and the director of the Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School. His tenth book, “Making the Case: The Art of the Judicial Opinion,” will be published this spring by Yale University Press.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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