The midterm election turned out to be of little real consequence to Virginia state government. I have just returned from Richmond, where, over tea party objections, we repaired the serious damage inflicted on the McDonnell Transportation Program during the first part of the 2014 legislature session. I refer to the “first part” of this session because we have not yet adjourned this year. Rather, Republicans have found a creative way to prevent executive action by Governor McAullife after adjournment. This year we recess instead of adjourn. Remember the creative offer made to Democratic Senator Puckett to encourage his resignation from the seat in his Republican-leaning district. Republicans claimed a Senate majority following the election to fill the open seat.
In my humble opinion, Republicans should not be celebrating victory, nor Democrats mourning defeat based on these mid-terms. Clearly, the overwhelming majority this year was apathetic. I am mystified by the confidence displayed by the media, their designated pundits and legions of politicians in discerning what the election results mean.
To me, what they mean is that when you pare down the electorate to fewer than 4 out of 10 registered voters, you enhance the power the voters who the merely angry: those who feel exploited, disrespected and abused by a black president; or those who feel insulted by sanctimonious politicians who undermine women’s reproductive health care choices; or those who feel disgusted by the massive waste of life and treasure as America attempts to rescue a non-compliant world. The repulsive ads dominating the airwaves this fall reflect the fact that negative ads are the tools of choice when you’re trying to motivate angry voters.
Why do politicians not focus more on non-voters? For Republicans, I think the reason is clear: the lower the turnout, the higher the probability that their angry voters will prevail. What’s more, the essence of Republican strategy for a generation has been to make government the problem.
They dismantle government through program and funding cuts and then run against it when it fails to work. Governance by subtraction. Many talented, hard-working people advocate this view. Some of these emerge from humble origins, but disproportionately, they come from relatively comfortable backgrounds.
For Democrats, the problem is far more complex. To appeal to non-voters, Democrats have to define an agenda that offers real value. Then, they have to deliver. A successful Democratic agenda would reduce the disparity of wealth and income that the current system perpetuates. Those at the top would lose some of their relative advantage. Programs intended to have this effect – such as Obamacare – inevitably face vehement opposition.
For Democrats these mid-term results should underscore the fact that we must not and, in fact, cannot play an angry voter strategy. Ours is a longer game that must begin with clearly articulating our values: community, equal opportunity, public investment, competent governance, accountability and the environment, among others. We need to put forth programs that have been proven effective and to fund them at levels that will produce tangible results. Our programs will certainly require increased revenues. Tax reform must be on the agenda, as will a substantial increase in funding for public education – especially pre-K and technical training – for infrastructure investment and for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.
I am a proud advocate for a progressive, Democratic agenda. But, I understand that Democrats must not perpetuate and/or create government programs or government bureaucracies for their own sake, or to protect public unions. Democrats must be driven by actual performance based on business metrics, as we were, for example, under Mark Warner’s term as Governor.
During his 2001 election campaign, he put forth a strong, positive agenda for his term. Such an agenda did not seem to be a key driver of his senatorial re-election campaign. I do not know if a more positive campaign would have produced a better election result. However, I am confident that this is the way forward for Democrats over the long term.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]