Midterm Postmortem—Have Your Say!
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The GOP made very impressive gains last night, picking up at least sixty seats in the House, giving the party a comfortable majority, although the Democrats retain control of the Senate by a narrow margin. As always, the punditry have been punching away at their keyboards throughout the night and into the morning. Below are excerpts of [mostly] historically-minded commentary.
Food for Thought
Prior to last night, the largest midterm shift against the party in power was in 1938, and it effectively ended the New Deal.
FDR was emboldened by his 1936 landslide reelection to expand his agenda and consolidate his control of government. This phase of the New Deal proposed the reform of the judiciary (his “court-packing” plan) and a controversial government reorganization bill that would have vastly expanded the power of the presidency. In response to the recession of 1937, FDR launched a campaign against the wealthy, abandoned his efforts to balance the budget and turned to stimulus spending, which was being pushed by some economist named Keynes. (It was $5 billion in 1938, or over $63 billion in current dollars.) Congress also passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing a national minimum wage.
As a result of all this, in the midterm following, Republicans picked up 80 seats in the House and six in the Senate.
For those who liked what they saw in the second half of the 1990s: Obama will have more trouble doing what Clinton did politically when he painted Republicans as right of center. After all, the nation doesn't have divided government, it has a divided Congress....
We should hope that the United States is not about to live through a repeat performance of what occurred after 1994. The nation faces too many pressing economic and foreign policy problems to have that happen again.
There have been three major Republican/conservative takeover elections in recent history: 1980, when Ronald Reagan carried 12 seats and control of the Senate; 1994, when Newt Gingrich's Republicans took both houses; and 2010. The first, while in many ways a reaction to the incompetent presidency of Jimmy Carter (a conservative Democrat whose flaws came to symbolize liberalism) unquestionably carried a mandate for conservatism. The second, 1994, was in many ways a reaction to congressional corruption, combined with a long-postponed rejection of Southern Democrats, but Gingrich and his allies took it very seriously -- perhaps too seriously -- as an ideological mandate.
This year, though, right-wingers barely even pretended to have a comparable program-cutting agenda. Their main talking point about health reform was that it would cut Medicare benefits. They railed about TARP and the auto bailout, but the former originated in the Bush administration, and they will not attempt to repeal it. They talked about creating jobs by reducing the deficit, which is economic nonsense. Moreover, not one of the policy plans the Republicans produced would reduce the deficit by a penny. Tea Partiers ranted about constitutional and economic schemes that they probably won't even introduce, much less pass.
After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the phrase was on the lips of progressive prognosticators everywhere. A permanent alignment had arrived. The growing ranks of Latinos, the reliably liberal voting patterns of blacks, the Republican party’s longstanding problem with single women, plus the fact that surveys found young people — a.k.a. “millennials” — to be the most liberal generation in decades all proved that the aging, white GOP was destined for near-eternal rump status. In a Time magazine cover story featuring Obama as a Photoshopped FDR, Peter Beinart wrote that the “coalition that carried Obama to victory is every bit as sturdy as America’s last two dominant political coalitions: the ones that elected Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.”...
Identity politics can poison demography’s predictive power. Knowing how many women there will be in 2050 won’t tell you how they’ll vote. For instance, today we assume that white Christian male voters yield conservative politics. But if that truism were a political constant, you would never have gotten the Progressive era or the New Deal.
Republicans can certainly make the case that this election cuts short the kind of Democratic majority that Ruy Teixeira and I foresaw in our 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. But they would not be justified in suggesting that it revives the older Republican majority. The Republicans remain (as they were after the 2008 election) a bitterly divided party without an accepted national leadership. You essentially have Karl Rove, Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney, and Mitch McConnell on one side; the Tea Parties, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Glenn Beck on the other. The Republican National Committee is virtually defunct....
Where does that leave American politics? If the downturn continues unabated—and it might—and if the Republicans can control their radical right (the way that Reagan co-opted the Christian right in 1980 and 1984), and if they nominate and unite behind someone like Mitt Romney in 2012, and if Obama doesn’t revive the movement that carried him to the White House in 2008, the Republicans could win back the presidency. But if I am right about the fundamental problems that this nation suffers from at home and overseas, then any politician’s or political party’s victory is likely to prove short-lived. If you want to imagine what American politics will be like, think about Japan.
The American public didn't go from being socialists to Reaganite conservatives in the past two years, any more than their ideology radically transformed from 2004 to 2006. The lesson of recent elections, thus, may not be that the American people are right of center, or left of center, or dead center, but that many of them aren't terribly ideological. This means that political power is ephemeral. No matter how popular one party is, they could be only one election away from embarrassing defeat. No matter how badly one party is defeated, they could be on the verge of a historic comeback. In this environment, reports of the demise of any political party, at any time, are likely to be greatly exaggerated.
We are a nation of swingers. In the last 16 years, each party has had a presidential victory and taken control of Congress in what was heralded as a realignment of American politics. Now it's happened again. House Republicans got the car keys back, to borrow Barack Obama's overused metaphor. But it wasn't a victory. The exit polls suggested the country threw them at the GOP in disgust: Here, you drive. Polls don't show much affection for the new co-leaders of American politics. According to exit polls, 41 percent of voters have an favorable view of the Republican Party, four points less than President Obama. Even Tea Party members said the GOP was on"probation."
It's The Economy, Stupid
This economic downturn structurally resembles the depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s rather than the cyclical recessions that have recurred since World War II. The American people, mired in debt, with one in six lacking full-time employment, are not spending; and businesses, uncertain of demand for their products, are not investing no matter how low interest rates fall. With the Fed virtually powerless, the only way to stimulate private demand and investment is through public spending. Obama tried to do this with his initial stimulus program, but it was watered down by tax cuts, and undermined by decreases in state spending. By this summer, its effect had dissipated.
The Republicans may not have a mandate to repeal health care, but they do have one to cut spending. Many voters have concluded that Obama’s stimulus program actually contributed to the rise in unemployment and that cutting public spending will speed a recovery. It’s complete nonsense, as the experience of the United States in 1937 or of Japan in the 1990s demonstrated, but it will guide Republican thinking in Congress, and prevent Obama and the Democrats from passing a new stimulus program. Republicans will accede to tax cuts, especially if they are skewed toward the wealthy, but tax cuts can be saved rather than spent. They won’t halt the slowdown. Which leads me to expect that the slowdown will continue—with disastrous results for the country.
[T]he economy remains, by far, the most important factor. The polls bore this out: Voters overwhelmingly cited it as the number one reason for their decision. (Health care was a very distant second.) And it's important to be clear about what that means. As Paul Krugman notes again today, the problem wasn't Obama's failure to focus on the economy. It was his failure to improve the economy (or improve it enough).
A Referendum on Obama
Unwilling to delay until tomorrow mistakes that could be made immediately, Democrats used 2010 to begin losing 2012. Trying to preemptively drain the election of its dangerous (to Democrats) meaning, all autumn Democrats described the electorate as suffering a brain cramp, an apoplexy of fear, rage, paranoia, cupidity - something. Any explanation would suffice as long as it cast what voters were about to say as perhaps contemptible and certainly too trivial to be taken seriously by the serious.
Nancy Pelosi's Legacy
As a public faces of America's most chronically maligned institution, congressional leaders are never really that popular. Even Tip O'Neill, whose Irish charm and gruff, grandfatherly demeanor won him his share of fans, was a useful tool for Republican ad makers in the early 1980s. So when it comes to mass opinion, the best advice for a speaker of the House is probably this: Keep quiet and let your lieutenants do the talking -- then maybe your image will be as benign as Denny Hastert's....
Asked shortly after Obama's 2008 victory (in an election in which the Democrats' majority in the House expanded to 255 seats) what she wanted to achieve in the next two years, Pelosi identified"growing the economy, expanding healthcare, ending dependence on foreign oil and ending the war in Iraq" as her priorities. And she largely delivered.
Where To From Here?
The loudest warnings sounding now are the ones the Democrats are, remarkably, still refusing to hear. They continue to assume that the public will come to its senses and the Republican resurgence of the last two years will prove to be an aberration. For the Republicans, that fact is a better portent for 2012 than any of Tuesday’s election returns.
[T]he GOP is now in about the best imaginable position to gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives as a result of the 2010 census. House-district lines will soon be drawn in about 17 states, almost evenly split between states that will lose seats and states that will gain them due to population shifts since 2000. Republicans now appear set to control the governor’s mansion in 13 of them. The governorships of New York, Massachusetts, and perhaps Illinois proved beyond the GOP’s grasp, but the redrawing of lines will be heavily influenced by Republican chief executives in Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Nevada, and elsewhere. This matters especially because several of the affected states have Democratic majorities in their legislatures, including New Jersey and Nevada. There, GOP governors will be weighing in for their party; in other states, Republicans will dominate the process. While we’re at it, the same census results are going to shift Electoral College votes to generally Republican states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and Utah, making it less necessary than ever for GOP presidential candidates to win Northeastern and even Midwestern states like Ohio.
Stephen Colbert opened his interview by rolling tape from 2 years ago, on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. There I was, warning that the GOP had no future as the party of Palin. And here we are, 2 years later, the party of Palin – and winning a crushing victory. Colbert pointedly asked, “So how does it feel to be completely wrong?”
But it was true then, and true now.
Tonight’s results are an opportunity and a challenge: an opportunity to rebalance and redirect American politics – but also a challenge to do a better job governing than Americans have experienced these past 10 years. From 9/11 to the stimulus, almost everything Washington has done has gone wrong: stagnant incomes, unsuccessful wars, financial crisis, unemployment, foreclosures.
Now it’s again a Republican turn, or partly a Republican turn. What do we have to offer? Tax cuts plus Medicare spending? More angry accusations? Investigations? Gridlock? Shutdowns? Impeachment?
Hold the celebration. Most voters expected Republicans to win control of the House of Representatives on Election Day, but nearly as many expect to be disappointed with how they perform by the time the 2012 elections roll around.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds, in fact, that 59% of Likely U.S. Voters think it is at least somewhat likely that most voters will be disappointed with Republicans in Congress before the next national elections. That includes 38% who say it is Very Likely.
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Elizabeth Cregan - 11/6/2010
Is anyone really surprised? We are still an economic mess in America. Midterms elections simply expose the discontent of the people with their personal struggle. If people had a better understanding of politics, looked more closely at individual voting records of legislators, or simply paid more attention to fact as opposed to marketing schemes, things might be different, but that is not the way of the American system. Anyone who was shocked by the outcome of the midterms, I would guess, has been living under a rock for the past 5 years.
EDR - 11/5/2010
I expect more of the same. The middle class is going to continue to be squeezed financially. The rich will get richer.
The right wing will be attacking Obama constantly for the next two years.
Things are not as simple as the American people think they are. We have a lot of problems that need everyone to work on together and I don't see that happening.
Fred Hubner - 11/4/2010
First of all, left leaning folks seem to forget that the Republican campaign, for the present elections, began as soon as the new President was announced ... and this anti-president campaign, widely financed by undisclosed sources, simply became omnipresent by the media ... and frankly speaking, given all the money they have spent 'til now, their final results, although hurting our President (and we'll pay dearly for that), was somewhat electorally irrelevant ... a total disparage in between cost and effectiveness.
Secondly, you seem to have forgotten what had been the congressional practices undertaken by Republicans and some self-destructive Democrats since President Obama came to Office ... What has led you into believing that things would change if they achieved the majority !!!? ... Do you really believe they care being responsible for the endangerment of the well being of regular citizens. From now on, they'll really try strangling the present administration into total inactivity... that's their obvious goal... they have the means and their usual big-business supporters endorse it. Apart from that, expect two more years of teabagging lunacy ... it's part of their campaign for 2012...”
Thirdly, so what's new !!!? ... nothing more than the usual pandering of the Republican party with their bosses ... they'll maintain outsourcing and they'll drive our infrastructure to the Middle Ages ... which, by the way, we never experienced ... not even when still a British colony ..."Several of them Boehner, Paul.... have stated this as the only sure thing to come from their election following Tuesday's results."
Fourthly, actually there is a very effective, cheap and easy way out ... public confrontation of the President in charge against the proposals forwarded by the Republican Party and its teabagging attachments ... public confrontation of the Democratic Party against the political lunacy running amuck in this country ... it's not a deal to handled by snub-nosed couch leftists ... whether liking it or not, we have to stick our hands into the the Republican bullshit, clean up the place and restore good old common sense everywhere ... so you see, I'm actually a left-wing conservative ... I want common sense back ...
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