Republican candidates rode a wave of voter discontent to reclaim control of the U.S. House of Representatives in Tuesday’s midterm elections, but that anger also produced a backlash that enabled Democrats to keep control of the Senate. Divided government will assure those who believe that “he who governs best, governs least.” Unfortunately, inaction — if not paralysis — does not bode well for Americans as Washington grapples with crucial challenges.
Historically, the party in power loses seats in midterm elections. Two years in office invariably leads to disappointment among voters. This year was no exception. After claiming the White House and both houses of Congress in 2008, the Democrats were swamped in this week’s voting, losing at least 60 seats — and their majority — in the House of Representatives and at least six seats in the Senate.
The reckoning was bigger this year for two reasons: First, the economic downturn and persistent 9.6 percent unemployment raised voter anxieties and a sense that the Democrats were not focused on or unable to deal with the country’s most pressing problems. Second, the scale of the 2008 Democratic win meant that the inevitable swing to the opposition would be jarring.
Much has been made of the “enthusiasm gap” among voters. The Republican base was fired up for this election, and exit polls suggest that the failure of Democrats to light a similar fire under their supporters — younger voters in particular — produced the GOP win. Senior voters, who are typically more conservative, were 23 percent of the vote, up from 16 percent in 2008; voters between the ages of 18 and 29 fell from 18 percent to 11 percent.
No group claimed more attention this election than did the Tea Party. It still is not clear who Tea Party members are. Attempts to examine Tea Party organizations produced more questions than answers: In many cases the groups were made up of just a few individuals. But thousands more claimed to be Tea Party members, and all that seemed to unite them was anger and disillusionment. That sentiment was unfocused and sometimes incoherent — witness the signs that demanded that “the government take its hands off my Medicare” (which is a government program). This anger crystallized in an anti-incumbent mood that even put Republicans in its sights.
As a result, several “mainstream” GOP candidates were defeated in primaries, despite impeccable conservative credentials. Their chief offense seemed to be a willingness to work with Democrats. The hardline views of the new nominees alienated many independent voters, allowing Democrats to prevail in races that a more moderate Republican might have won and thus keeping the Senate in Democratic hands.
The day after the election, Republican leaders pledged to reshape national priorities and roll back the size of government. Ohio Rep. John Boehner, the next speaker of the House, made his party’s thinking clear: “Change course we will.” Their first goal is to undo the health care reform that was passed this year. Conceding that the results were “a shellacking,” a somber President Barack Obama agreed that he has “a better job to do.” But he vowed to stick with health care reform, saying it “was the right thing to do” and warned that “no party will be able to dictate where we go from here.”
Republicans would do well to heed those words. The GOP won a bigger victory in congressional elections in 1994 — taking control of both the Senate and the House — two years after Mr. Bill Clinton claimed the White House. It then proceeded to battle the president on every front, eventually shutting down the government budgeting process. That overreach produced its own backlash and guaranteed Mr. Clinton a second term in office. Ominously, some Republicans claim that the lesson of that experience is that they compromised too much when dealing with Mr. Clinton and that they lost sight of their real goal — recapturing the White House.
That maximalism may appeal to Tea Party supporters, but it is likely to alienate the majority of U.S. voters. Getting the economy back on its feet should be a priority, but just saying “no” is not a strategy for recovery. While it made sense during the campaign for Republicans to avoid detailed explanations of how they would cut the deficit and get the economy growing again, there is a fear that the GOP has no strategy other than extending the Bush-era tax cuts. More significantly, a number of polls taken in the waning days of the election campaigns showed overwhelming majorities of voters wanted the next Congress to “compromise to get things done” rather than “sticking to principles.”
There is a lot to do. The first priority is getting the U.S. economy back on its feet. Then there is a desperate need for leadership on climate change and global trade talks, Middle East peace negotiations, as well as the efforts to cap various nuclear programs and ratify the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia.
The prospect of gridlock in the U.S. Capitol may appeal to some people, but it brings the world no closer to solutions for any of the most important concerns. Anger rarely is the answer.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.