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The Sweep: What went wrong for Democrats

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
President Obama's ambitious agenda fed into a Republican narrative designed to reflect the public's overwhelming view of government as ineffective and untrustworthy.
President Obama's ambitious agenda fed into a Republican narrative designed to reflect the public's overwhelming view of government as ineffective and untrustworthy.
  • In 2008, Dems appeared to have a majority built to last a generation, Borger says
  • Maybe Obama overestimated his personal capacity and appeal, Borger says
  • Obama's ambitious agenda fed into the GOP narrative, she says
  • Dems attempts to change the conversation show they haven't changed D.C., Borger says

Editor's note: In "The Sweep," CNN dives deep into issues that are making news and explores why they're in the headlines.

Washington (CNN) -- The House has just adjourned -- a week early -- to go home so Democrats can run for their political lives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ardent as ever, calls in a group of journalists to make her pitch about the productive Congress -- and begins with a list of achievements (health care, Wall Street reform, stimulus, small business jobs act).

"I'm so proud of it," she says, sounding like a parent examining a brilliant report card, beaming.

But near the end of the session, the tough, pragmatic Pelosi -- the one who has the uphill battle to keep her speakership, the one Republicans boast they want to "fire" -- let something slip through her relentlessly upbeat analysis. The unemployment rate, she admits, is a tough reality -- and manna for the Republicans.

"Any political party that can't exploit 9.5 percent unemployment ought to hang up their gloves," she says, knowing full well the GOP is punching, and hard.

Publicly, at least, Pelosi won't even nod to the possibility of losing the speakership.

"I would rather be where we are than where they are," she says, as if looking at some alternate universe of a united Democratic Party unthreatened by polling numbers. And what about that dispirited Democratic base? "I am the base," she declares, predicting Democrats will turn out and vote, once they fully understand the stakes (or choice, as the Democrats now put it) in this election.

It was easier to explain those stakes when Pelosi first took the gavel in January 2007. It was easy to campaign with a bumper sticker given the potent foil the Democrats enjoyed in George W. Bush. And it was so successful, in fact, that they gained an astonishing 55 House seats in the elections of 2006 and 2008, not to mention the presidency.

It looked, in many ways, like a majority built to last a generation.

Obama was elected as the corrective to the Bush years. Yet when you're the winner, the temptation is always there to see yourself as something more than just an alternative -- something larger, like a paradigm-changer or a transformational political figure. And Obama wanted nothing less than a change from conservatism to his own brand of 21st century activism.

"When you win an election," says political scientist Bill Galston, "you are always inclined to believe you won for the reasons you wanted to win."

In other words, you believe you won for the big stuff, not just because the voters didn't like the other guy.

And when you win with a large majority, it's more enticing. If the political control is universal -- as in, the White House as well as both houses of Congress -- the power is an aphrodisiac, feeding both the agenda and political ambition. There's a sense there may never be another chance to do what needs to be done, and that may be rational.

The question, of course, is always the time frame. In other words, did Obama need to do it all at once? And, in the end, was the overarching ambition -- no matter how understandable -- ultimately self-defeating?

Think back to the beginning. There's an economic crisis, which the public believes Obama inherited. Then there's his bucket-list of things he wants to get done. He has a choice: Handle the crisis or do the campaign to-do list.

And what does Obama decide? To do both. That is, the economy plus the rest of it -- including health care.

"The irony is he didn't even run on health care," says one Democratic pollster. "In truth, it wasn't a large part of the general election campaign."

Even so, Obama became convinced that solving the health care mess was key to solving the nation's economic problems, especially bringing the deficit under control. In fact, when he first spoke of the importance of health care reform, it was all about "bending the cost curve," a slogan lost on most of the public.

Still, for whatever reason -- given his majorities in the Congress -- it was now or never.

Maybe he overestimated his personal capacity and appeal. Or his mandate. Or the extent to which the nation is actually divided on both principle and policy. Some, including his own pollster, according to knowledgeable sources, counseled caution. People wanted the president to focus on the economy, some told the president: Don't go for it all now.

But he did, precisely because he was riding high, ready to use his political capital.

Remember, just five months into his presidency -- in May 2009 -- Obama's popularity was in the stratosphere, at 62 percent. The Democratic Party was so resurgent, in fact, that Republican Sen. Arlen Specter decided to leave the GOP and join Obama's team as a way to get re-elected. Not surprisingly, Time magazine was posing the political question du jour: "Are the Republicans going extinct?"

And why not ask it? The Democrats were flush. The GOP was in a funk, if not suffering from full-bore depression. "We were certainly diminished," recalls one GOP operative. "We were reduced to a small, Southern, white male party."

So small -- and fearful, in fact -- that GOP congressional leaders were unsure how to behave. At first, they were afraid to fight health care. "It's going pass, we can't stop it," was the initial thinking, according to one senior GOP House member. And then there was that seemingly invincible president: "His numbers were so high, we had these orders: Attack the policy, but don't attack the man," says one GOP strategist. He saluted and followed orders.

But by spring 2009, something was in the air. Over at the Senate leader's office, where polls are watched very closely, they knew something was up when the July polls were tallied: For the first time, the president had negative responses of 40 percent or more on his job approval, his handling of health care, the economy and the stimulus package.

"Anytime we defined the issue, we won" says a top Senate leadership aide. "We didn't have to have an alternative. All we had to do was explain why his plan was bad for the country."

By August, it exploded. Then came Arlen Specter's August town hall meeting.

The senator who had joined the Democrats was under attack. Newly minted Tea Party activists -- joined by a mutual distrust of government -- had found oxygen in every component of the financial bailout and the health care reform debate. And they came to attack Specter -- who eventually lost his primary -- as the embodiment of all that was wrong with Washington.

At the Republican National Committee in Washington, the TV sets were turned on.

"I remember it as a crystallizing moment," says Doug Heye, the RNC's communications director. "The Tea Party had always been there, but this gave it a direction and a raison d'être. Watching it live made one thing clear: The voters were frustrated and angry." Suddenly, the Republicans had a voice.

And they never stopped talking. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell gave 107 floor speeches on health care, and 25 speeches on why we shouldn't close the prison camp at Guantanamo. It was the first executive order -- a promise that was not kept, because it became messier than anyone thought. It was supposed to be a hugely popular idea, but within a couple of months, it just flipped: going from an 80 percent approval rating to an 80 percent disapproval rating.

"Once we beat him on that, we knew there was a chink in the armor," says a top Senate GOP leadership aide.

That chink emboldened Republicans to attack more frontally -- on everything. It's easy to blame Obama for the lack of bipartisanship in Washington, but he's not alone.

"If we had been cutting deals [with the Democrats], our base voters would have deserted us," admits one top GOP campaign operative. "We had to prove who we were to get back on the map, and back in their good graces."

So they did. If conservatives were disappointed that Bush was a big spender, these Republicans would unanimously oppose spending, including the stimulus package. If voters were wary of big government, they would rail against any new government, especially health care.

"This was a matter of proving to our base that we could be trusted again," says this strategist.

So even when Congress debated financial reform, the GOP felt no danger in opposing it. And in the end, Obama got little credit. Why? The populism that fueled the 2008 campaign has been replaced with the anti-government sentiment of 2010. They don't trust the government to fix anything, even evil Wall Street.

The GOP frontal attacks were relentless. The Obama White House was wary of allowing its "post-partisan" president to get too partisan. "[Obama] let the Republicans beat him up for far too long without counterpunching," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. "That's not happening anymore, but we let them [the GOP] get away with framing the debate for too long."

The problem for Obama was twofold: His ambitious agenda fed into the GOP narrative. And the GOP narrative was designed to reflect the public's overwhelming view of government -- ineffective and untrustworthy.

So at the time the president was proposing government solutions to problems, the nation's view of government was bottoming out. Only 20 percent trusted government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Even after Watergate, that number was at 36 percent.

When Dwight Eisenhower was president, trust in government was at 73 percent. Nowadays voters wouldn't trust the government to walk the dog.

Obama proceeded with a full-bore health care plan anyway, allowing Congress to spend nine months trying to work its will.

"Imagine what the New Deal would have been if FDR had only two years?" asks Bill Galston, who served as a domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton. "He didn't even put Social Security on the table until his third year in office."

Maybe FDR knew what Obama did not: The system can't function on overload. Besides, Obama had delivered a promissory note to the American people that he would overcome partisanship. Health care only fueled the toxic atmosphere in Washington.

What's more, in the new-Obama-open-secrets-Washington, voters felt like they weren't even part of the conversation. Meetings were held behind closed doors. Democrats battled each other. Republicans complained they were left out.

"Health care seemed like a totally inside-the-beltway deal," says a Democratic pollster. "That went against his own brand."

And that's a dangerous thing for any leader, especially one whose persona was tied to a different way of doing business.

After spending nine months debating health care, the Democrats had no choice but to try and pass something. Yet instead of going for a scaled-back version -- as then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had counseled -- they went for the whole thing.

They won. But if there are any Democrats campaigning on the wonders of reform this cycle, they can all fit in one VW.

The latest goal: to make sure the Democrats themselves don't become a small caravan, reduced to a minority in the House and maybe even the Senate. The president is finally out there, swinging away at Republicans. And Democrats -- who once aligned with the campaign of hope and change -- are now, race by race, engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

Sure, they may brag about their achievements that make Nancy Pelosi so proud. But this is about survival. So they're busy hurling character attacks at their opponents, in nasty ads, looking for any opening to change the political conversation.

And all because they haven't changed Washington.

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