Well, it was truly a comprehensive victory. OK, perhaps not comprehensive – that would have required the retirement of Harry Reid. But certainly a good solid shellacking.
So let’s see where we stand after Election Day 2010. In the House of Representatives, the GOP took 63 seats- perhaps more, when all the late counting is done. But even at that, it gives them the largest majority in some 70 years. Even in the big Gingrich revolution of 1994 they took 54 seats. Control of the House is hugely important. It means that the GOP has a power base from which to propose and to oppose legislation – nothing further can happen now on the Obama agenda without active participation from the Republicans, which means by definition it will have a more centrist, even conservative, cast. Even more – all spending bills must originate in the House. In an election in which promiscuous government spending was the principal issue, the fact that the critics of that gusher are now in charge of the checkbook is a vital turn of events.
In the Senate, the pickups were fewer, but the Republicans still have a solid minority of 47. But even here, given the Senate rules, this is a much stronger position than the one they were in just weeks ago. When the Democrats had a near-filibuster-proof majority, it took steely GOP discipline, plus the pickoff of a reluctant Dem or two, to be able to influence legislation at all. Now, as Mitch McConnell says, he has much more wiggle room. Plus, given the electoral prospects of 2012, many Democratic Senators may be unwilling to go down the Obama road (see below).
If anything, the results are even more profound further down the ticket. The GOP captured governorships in key states, including Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. And at the statehouse level, they picked up an astonishing 640 seats – nearly 50% more than in 1994, and flipped 14 chambers at the state level. They even turned Maine from pure blue to red, and might end up with the New York State Senate! This is significant enough from the standpoint of state politics, and Lord knows, many of our states are further down the path of insolvency than the Federal government, so they sure could use some Republican fiscal discipline. But it puts the GOP in an even stronger position for 2012; having a swing-state governor working his or her electoral machine on behalf of a presidential hopeful is of enormous consequence. Plus, what fortuitous timing – these are the legislatures that will draw the redistricting lines for the next Congress, including those states that gain seats due to census changes (all of which are in Republican hands). All this puts the GOP in a very strong position for the next contest.
How much of this was the Tea Party in action? There’s no question that the Tea Party came to be the voice and the image of a lot of people who found themselves alarmed at the spending and debt that was fast accumulating in this administration. Without them, the election would not have been such a clear referendum on business as usual in Washington, an indictment of the insider mores of government as much as it was a rejection of the Obama ambition. But, as one ought to expect from an amorphous, non-organized group such as the Tea Party, the candidates they handed up were not universally modern Pericles, and some of them were pretty handily crushed. But that doesn’t really matter. The principle that gave them such an impact on races across the country was felt across the board, and the Republicans who were elected heard the message loud and clear.
This was not an endorsement of Republican leadership in government. The numbers of voters who declared themselves Republican, Democrat, or Independent barely budged between the last election and this. What made the difference was that a) the Republicans came out to vote while the Democrats stayed home, and b) the independents broke solidly red. By swings of as much as 17%, independents who had been enamored of the promise of Obama two years ago, turned thumbs down on where he wanted to take the country. As Marco Rubio said so eloquently, this is a second chance for Republicans. They know they owe their majority to the ones who are mad as hell at the way things are going, and they know that if they don’t respond, the pendulum could swing as quickly away from them.
A quick word on Marco Rubio. Not only is he instantly a front runner for the 2012 VP slot (young, charismatic, articulate, Hispanic, principled), but he also represents a gradual shift among Republicans that is so far inadequately remarked. All of a sudden, the new crop of young accomplished Republicans is looking a lot less like an old white men’s golf club: Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Hispanic governors; Nikki Haley in South Carolina, an Indian-extraction American to stand with Bobby Jindal of Lousiana. Add to that further Latino and African American Congressmen who were elected in the Class of 2010, and it starts to look like the long-anticipated demographic shift among conservatives is taking root. The day is not too far off when the Democrats will no longer be able to take key ethnic group support for granted.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, they are licking their wounds and putting a narrative together to explain the loss without it seeming too damning. The economy took too long to recover, they say – the Bush mess was just too deep and convoluted to be resolved in just two years. That, plus we didn’t do an adequate job of bringing the general populace along with our policy initiatives, and we let those demons over at Fox and on talk radio infect the public mind with lies and misrepresentations (death panels! nowhere is that term to be found in the health care legislation!). We lost control of the message.
At its heart, this is so much arrogant bunkum. What it is saying is that the American people are so credulous that they can’t see the truth even when we lay it out for them. Obama, after all, made more than fifty speeches and presentations on health care. Far from not trying hard enough – the folks figured out “the lady doth protest too much,” and the more he talked the less they believed him. And he was supposedly the marvelous communicator, the Democratic Reagan, whose visionary uplifted chin and non-threatening words could inspire millions to adulation. The problem was not with the message, but with the policy.
Over at the House, the Democrats are planning to re-elect Nancy Pelosi, the architect of their calamity, as their Minority Leader. No surprise there, really – half the caucus of Blue Dog Democrats were washed away on November 2, so what remains are those of the liberal wing whose seats were safe no matter how much they supported Obama. But it just goes to show how irrelevant the House Democrats are going to become. For two years, Pelosi froze out all attempts by Republicans to participate in policy development, and now that they are in charge, any co-operation will be on GOP terms. They know they have to deal with the President and an iffy Senate, but I don’t see them leaning their efforts to the left to get Nancy on board.
Calculations in the Senate will be exquisitely nuanced. Of the 33 Senators up for re-election in 2012, 23 are Democrats, many of them, like Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad, from states painted various shades of red. Their policy choices will be as much influenced by the demands of their constituents as by the appeals from a weakened Majority Leader Reid. Indeed, one could make the argument that Republicans are likely to be more successful establishing a “coalition of the willing” to promote legislation with a conservative cast than Harry Reid will be in pushing through the next steps of the Obama Plan.
Then there is President Obama. In his post-election press conference, he seemed a bit detached from the reality of what befell. He probably could do little else. To acknowledge that the voters had turned their backs on his signature legislation, for example, would be too much to admit for a man as confident and proud as he. Moreover, if he did bite that particular bullet and promise to dedicate his remaining two years to reforming his reform, it would not be, shall we say, the strongest position from which to run in 2012. But I think the signs are stronger that he really doesn’t get it. “We don’t need to re-litigate the arguments of the last two years,” he said. In other words, we got health care done, nyah, nyah, nyah. That’s a big win in my column, leave it alone. Let’s dispute over the next issues. Maybe he was just talking, trying to lay down some markers, but he’s got to know that re-litigate the arguments of the last two years is exactly what the Republicans plan to do.
This is why Obama is not Clinton, and why his chances of emulating that comeback are not great. Once Hillarycare failed, Clinton was free of it, and he could pivot successfully to the middle, where his heart probably was anyway. Obama will be defending his health care achievement for the next two years. If it is as good as he believes, then he will succeed and the GOP will be left in the wilderness.
But a lot of folks, and a lot of folks who voted on Tuesday, are thinking that two more years of explanation and “messaging” will not make it good policy.