A Government We Deserve? The Meaning of Tuesday’s Elections

Posted by at 3:01AM

Tuesday's elections are widely seen as a referendum on President Obama and his policies.

Repudiation. Denial. Shellacking. These words have resounded throughout the media echo chamber following Tuesday’s elections, which have dramatically altered the American political landscape.

Now that most of the results are in, and most of the celebrations and lamentations are on the wane, two key questions have emerged: 1) Who were the big winners and losers? 2) How will the results shape our country’s future?

The first is largely straightforward, with a few caveats. The Republicans gained 60 seats in the House, as expected, and the Democrats managed to hang on to the Senate with a 53-47 majority. Although some governor races remain too close to call, including that of my native CT, the GOP has clearly made huge gains on the state level, picking up at least nine executive seats. Some other major developments:

  • Wealthy, self-financed candidates lost in spectacular fashion. Standout examples include Meg Whitman, who spent $142 million in her bid to become California’s next governor, and Linda McMahon in Connecticut, who paid about $103 per vote for a total of over $50 million during her failed senatorial campaign. Republican Rick Scott was the most prominent exception; he spent $73 million of his own money to win Florida’s gubernatorial race.
  • Harry Reid (D-NV) clung to his Senate seat despite a nasty race against Sharon Angle, whom he trailed in the polls for most of the fall. He will remain Senate Majority Leader.
  • Tea Party-backed candidates had mixed results. On the one hand, they enjoyed some serious victories, such as toppling liberal icon Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and electing Marco Rubio in Florida. However, their successes seemed to stop at the borders of densely populated areas, including New York and California. Other high-profile candidates like Christine O’Donnell, who once claimed to have dabbled in witchcraft, endured a drubbing at the voting booths.
  • Democrats were destroyed in many regions they carried in 2008, especially in the Midwest. They lost ten house seats between Pennsylvania and Ohio alone, and they lost governorships and control of both state legislative houses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
  • Crucial California ballot measures…. Prop 19, which would have legalized and taxed marijuana, lost by about an 8% margin. Voters also rejected Prop 23, which would have repealed many of California’s environmental laws. Other measures include Prop 20, which tasks a non-partisan commission with re-drawing congressional district lines, and Prop 25, which requires only a simple majority to pass a state budget. For more information on propositions, click here.

Rand Paul, Kentucky's new Republican Senator, declared during his victory speech, "Tonight, there's a Tea Party tidal wave."

The implications of these results are trickier to determine. According to one popular outlook, Tea Party radicals will make the House more partisan and the Senate more dysfunctional, assuming both are possible. I disagree. Fresh Tea Partiers lacking political experience will look to Republican leadership for guidance and be rewarded for their loyalty with committee memberships, RNC money, and so on. Those who don’t may exercise influence, but not necessarily deciding influence. The Republicans are notoriously good at getting their rank and file to line up behind general policies. The GOP may be less inclined to collaborate with Democrats due to a lack of moderates, but that would play to the Democrats’ advantage if they took centrist positions.

Central to all of this is the Obama administration, which is currently bearing the brunt of the blame for Democrats’ defeats. Of all of the criticisms against President Barack Obama, the most legitimate likely include the following: he has poorly communicated and advocated his policies, he has been hostile to business, and he has failed to address systemic problems in our economy and national budget. The healthcare bill, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, gay rights, education reform, the expiration of tax cuts, the national debt, and the host of other issues on Americans’ minds pretty much fall into those three categories. Obama now has a clear choice moving forward: he can take a centrist line like Bill Clinton after 1994 and seek reform in some badly needed areas, such as entitlements, incentives for small businesses, and energy security. Or he can assume that Speaker Boehner’s House and a gridlocked Senate will produce a stalemate, and use his presidential pulpit to reject Republican initiatives as too extreme, which Harry Truman successfully did after 1946. Neither strategy lacks risks, but if Obama seeks to be the transformational President for whom America voted in 2008, the former is his best shot.

In state governments, the vast scale of Republican victories will have long-term implications. Republican-controlled state legislatures will be able to re-draw district lines next year, ensuring the creation of districts with more favorable ideological demographics. (My current favorite is Illinois’ gerrymandered 17th District, commonly known as “the rabbit on a skateboard.”) The commission created by California’s Prop 20, if successful, could become a model for less partisan districting, but don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.

Ultimately, though the odds are slim, November 2 could prove the jolt that the Obama administration and Congress need to fix some of the country’s biggest flaws. Both parties, beneath their façades of triumph and steely resolve, have reason to be scared. In the past four years, the country has experienced swings in political power not seen since the early 1950s, indicating that increasing numbers of Americans are no longer loyal to either party. These fickle voters expect results, and they will punish the responsible ruling party for not following through on its promises or demonstrating that it has their interests, and not just Washington’s, in mind. Now that they have their coveted opportunity to balance the budget, Republicans are faced with the daunting task of deciding what to cut. Democrats need to find their moderate colors or face inevitable deadlock. Obama has to begin preparing for 2012 against confrontational GOP leaders who are set on denying him a second term. Expect a shake-up in the executive branch, and get ready for the 112th United States Congress.

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