Hart: To begin with, he failed to live up to his covenant, and that was change we could believe in. The public was looking for a change agent for the average person. They didn't like that all the special interests and the banks were bailed out, the auto industry was bailed out, and at the same time unemployment and the economy got worse. At the end of the day, the president lost the middle of the electorate, he lost the suburbs and he lost blue-collar America. He lost seven of the eight Midwest states, from Pennsylvania to Iowa, that he carried in 2008. The Democrats lost all six Senate races there, and at least five governorships.
Taibbi: I agree with Peter. There was a moment right after Obama got elected where he had an opportunity to really distinguish himself from the policies of the Republican Party. Instead, he essentially continued the Bush policies, and even retained some of the same people who were the architects of the Bush bailouts, most notably Timothy Geithner. Democrats could have stood up and explained how financial interests had taken advantage of people — why everyone was losing their jobs, why there was this credit crash and mortgage crash — but they didn't do that. What they did instead was invest all their political capital in rescuing the financial sector, hoping it would trickle down to ordinary people. Blue-collar people were craving an explanation for why their economic situation was so bad, and the Democrats just didn't give them that explanation.
Gergen: Had the president's fundamental approach for the past two years been about jobs, he would have been a lot better off coming into the election. People would have felt that he was on their side. He helped to stabilize the major banks, which prevented us from going over a cliff, and he deserves credit for averting another Great Depression. But he clearly made a strategic miscalculation in assuming that the stimulus would keep unemployment under eight percent. In retrospect, it was a blunder to spend so much time on health care instead of jobs. If Franklin Roosevelt's most important accomplishment of his first two years had been a health care bill, we'd have all said that was nuts.
People were also upset that he compromised on every single thing that came up, cutting backroom deals rather than standing up for his core principles. It was easy for voters to say, "Throw the bums out — and he's just another one of the bums."
Gergen: We're all mystified by the fact that this was a fellow who was able to make both the liberal base of the party and the moderates believe that he was their great hope, yet he wound up making both of those groups disappointed. It's very surprising.
When we met to assess the election two years ago, it seemed that the Karl Rove tactic of playing to the extremes might be a thing of the past. How did riling up the base make such a comeback so quickly?
Taibbi: A lot of it has to do with the vacuum of power in the Republican Party. After the 2008 election, the party had no leadership, no coherent message and no ideas that had any kind of traction. Bush's presidency was completely discredited, and they suffered this terrible defeat with a conventional mainstream Republican, John McCain. That created an opportunity for all these more radical ideas to step to the forefront, and it turned out that they were perfectly suited to the moment.
Gergen: I think it's more complicated than saying that the Republicans went to their base. The media has spent way too much time on the Tea Party and Christine O'Donnell and far too little time on the emergence of moderate-right Republicans like Rob Portman and John Kasich in Ohio. There are as many traditional conservatives coming into office on the Republican side as there are Tea Partiers. You have to remember, this was not a vote for the Republican Party — it was a negative election about what was going on in Washington. That's why the Republicans are smart to be humble about this election. I think both parties are now on probation. The voters are basically saying, "We'll put you guys in there, and if you don't solve this, we'll throw you out."
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