But fortunately for those of us who didn't sleep through 2014, we know a lot of things today that we didn't know a year ago. And the midterm elections, while narrowly predictable, may have reshaped the political landscape in subtler and more interesting ways than a simple binary transfer of power from one party to another. In other words, what we witnessed in 2014 wasn't just a swing of the ol' pendulum; it was the end of the Obama era in American politics.
One major hallmark of the Obama era was the rise of the Tea Party, a far-right faction driven to conspiratorial derangement by literally anything Obama proposed. But in 2014, its power began to wane. In 2010 and 2012, it had hamstrung Republicans by toppling incumbents and establishment-backed candidates in primaries and by preventing the party from articulating a positive agenda beyond obstruction and Obama-bashing. In 2014, however, the GOP got its act together. No Senate incumbent lost a primary (though Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, was toppled in a stunning and unexpected upset), and virtually all the party's nominees were either handpicked by, or palatable to, the party establishment. Party operatives put their candidates through intensive trainings to prevent another gaffe-prone contender like Todd Akin from dominating the airwaves and making the whole party seem crazy; fresh faces like Joni Ernst, in Iowa, and Cory Gardner, in Colorado, helped resuscitate the party's image in blue states—aided by unimpressive Democratic campaigns.
Democrats had proved extremely skilled in recent years at exploiting Republican divisions and tying GOP candidates to the worst tendencies of the party fringe. But these tactics ran aground when confronted with these upbeat, sanitized Republican opponents. In this way, 2014 may have marked the year when the Obama-campaign playbook—both in message and tactical terms—stopped working. Democratic campaigns banked on their ability to reshape the midterm electorate using the technological advances and mastery of data that Obama's team introduced to politics. But in too many cases, Democrats now acknowledge, their candidates failed to articulate a message that might have actually motivated their core voters. In addition, many formerly reliable Obama constituencies—like single women and Latinos—seemed to tire of the party's insistence that Republicans were out to get them, and either stayed home or crossed the aisle.
Most of all, of course, the midterms were a backlash against Obama's leadership and policies. Some of this was deserved—the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, for example, seemed to trigger an irrevocable loss of trust in the White House's competence. The fact that health-care reform went on to be implemented pretty smoothly after that did little to rescue the policy's, or the president's, reputation for effectiveness. Critics also argued that crises on the border and in the Middle East could be traced back to Obama's policies. Some of the president's political burden was more the function of horrendous timing, like the Ebola outbreak that flared in late summer and died down just after Election Day, or the good economic news that waited until right after the election to announce itself. And some was Republicans' fault, as their systematic obstruction first contributed to the president's reputation for not being able to get anything done—and then, when he began taking unilateral action to go around the reluctant Congress, helped paint him as a power-mad executive tyrant.