Governing Better Would Have Helped Democrats

Markos Moulitsas pushes back on claims of liberal overreach:

Assuming big Republican gains this November, the media narrative will claim Democrats overreached and governed too liberally. Yet actual progressive policies polled well and continue to poll well. If anything, it’s been failure to act on popular legislation that helped put them in this hole.

Brendan Nyhan notes that conservatives made the same claims after 2006, and that Moulitsas’ theory is unlikely:

The role of ideological positioning is often overstated in American politics — presidential elections are largely driven by the economy, and Congressional outcomes are closely related to the number of seats held by the president’s party, whether it is a midterm election, and the state of the economy. However, to the extent that ideological positioning matters, it’s unlikely that the Democrats would be helped by shifting in a more liberal direction — the public tends to move in the opposite direction of the party in power, demanding less government under Democrats and more under Republicans.

It is always worth beginning this conversation with a recognition that given where things stood in January 2009, large House losses were essentially inevitable. The Democratic majority elected in 2008 was totally unsustainable and was doomed by basic regression to the mean.


Beyond that, I think it’s worth distinguishing between first-order and second-order claims about whether being more liberal would have helped or hurt. What Democrats needed, according to the evidence, is policies that were more effective at turning the recession around. According to me, the policies that would have achieved those goals were “more liberal” than the policies that were in fact adopted. But if Paul Ryan is right and draconian spending cuts paired with a green light to polluters and the financial industry would have produced more growth, than what they needed was more conservative policies. The problem with a lot of the discussion around this issue is that people who cover politics don’t like to make judgments about disputed policy issues. But given the connection between economic performance and election outcomes, you can’t assess political strategy in slack economy without forming some view about what would cause the excess capacity to come into use.