Columns » Ernest Dumas

No matter real progress, midterms change hands

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Any postmortem of a midterm election, like Tuesday's, must begin with the president of the United States. This time it must focus on a narrower question, the one issue that most Americans associate with President Obama, the notorious health care law to which his enemies appended his name.

The president has been the central issue in the big elections on the ballot — for Congress and governor — in nearly every midterm election for a century, at least in two-party states, which now include Arkansas and the rest of the South.

Much has been written about how the president's low approval ratings — indeed the deep hatred for him in a few Southern and Plains states — was dragging Democrats down this month, likely strengthening Republican control of the House of Representatives and perhaps giving the party a majority in the Senate as well. I write before those results are known.

But if none or little of that did happen, it would be rare indeed. The president's party nearly always loses Senate and House seats in midterm elections like this one, and more dramatically in presidents' final terms, when foreign crises and domestic scandals always seem to swarm on presidents, and the public — well, it just gets weary of him. It's rarely the economy that drowns him — the country has been experiencing a relative boom this year, but to no avail for either Obama or his party.

The U.S. economy was finally beginning to hum for both Ronald Reagan in 1986 and George W. Bush in 2006, but weariness with the scandals of the Reagan administration and frustrations with two wars that the lies of the Bush presidency produced and his bungling of Hurricane Katrina cost the party congressional control. In 1986, Republicans lost the Senate and Democrats sharply increased their majority in the House. Bush cost his party even more dearly. Democrats in 2006 won control of both houses and most governorships and state legislatures.

It needs to be pointed out that the big exception to the midterm blueprint was Bill Clinton's second term, in 1998. Although he was harassed by congressional and congressionally inspired investigations and the Republican House had initiated impeachment proceedings, the president's party defeated Republicans in both the Senate and House of Representatives — the only time in the past 190 years that the other party did not increase its seats in Congress in the president's second term.

The year 2014 clearly was not going to be the second exception to history's rule. Obama's image has not been besmirched by scandals like Reagan's and, unlike Bush, he pulled the country out of two wars and kept its troops off the battlefield in the sectarian firestorm that has spread across the Middle East. Still, Obama has been a drag on the party across most of the country. Even so, he was not the albatross for his party that Bush was in 2006, Reagan in 1986, Nixon-Ford in 1974 (their party shrank by 49 seats in the House), or Truman in 1950.

What history may distinguish about this election, aside from the extreme bitterness and the gargantuan amounts spent, much of it secretly, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's serial decisions that put elections up to the highest bidder, is the narrow exploitation of the president's declining approval ratings.

In the battleground states, typically the South and Midwest, Republicans ran for nearly every state and national office by linking their Democratic opponents with Obama. The cookie-cutter theme was that their opponents would implement "the Obama agenda." Except for the Affordable Care Act, they were never more specific. In Arkansas, the Obama agenda meant Obamacare and a vague sense that he wanted to socialize the country somehow.

Arkansans have had two experiences with the Obama agenda — the health-care law and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the infamous stimulus, which ended the Great Recession when the money began flowing to state projects in the fall of 2009. It repaired bridges and highways all over Arkansas and pumped $825 million into the state health budget, which, with a little help from Obamacare, saved state tax dollars and gave Governor Beebe a budget surplus for four straight years.

You know what else Obamacare did. It extended health insurance to nearly 300,000 Arkansans. By the end of this year, it will have lowered the state's uninsured rate to single digits. It has put tens of millions of dollars into the pockets of the insured through rebates and Medicare drug savings.

The good news keeps coming, though always unremarked. "Uninsureds' costs plunge," said the lead headline in Saturday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where the editorial page has kept a drumbeat of declarations about the horrors of Obamacare. The article said that thanks to Obamacare, which kicked in fully the first of the year, unreimbursed care at Arkansas hospitals had fallen by 56 percent by midyear. Those are expenses that won't be passed on to you in the form of higher premiums. The number of people joining the federal disability rolls has fallen because they are getting medical treatment and staying in the workforce. The Congressional Budget Office and the Medicare trustees' forecast of future Medicare spending — the thing that has inspired horrors of a future fiscal cliff for 20 years — has fallen sharply each of the four years since Obamacare became law. Did you see the story about the big national advance in mental health treatment this year as a result of Obamacare? Oh, of course not. It wasn't printed here.

But you won't be hearing much about Obamacare in the next election. That's over. Nationally (but not in Arkansas) Republicans largely stopped promising to repeal Obamacare. Its chief foe, Kentucky's Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, fighting for re-election, told Kentuckians over the weekend that if Obamacare was repealed they could keep all the insurance they got under Obamacare and others could get it, too.

It was, of course, a lie. In an election, that's permissible.

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