Yesterday’s midterm election was nothing short of a catastrophe for the Democratic party. The combination of the worst economy since the Great Depression, a jobless rate stuck at 10%, a president and a majority party unable to make a coherent case for their agenda or to articulate their vision, and the surprising uprising of the Tea Party movement, conspired to deliver an unprecedented spanking at the polls.
To read this as an endorsement of the Republican party and its agenda, however, would be a huge mistake. This was the party that only two years ago received a similar rebuke. Let’s look back two years. Obama came in on a wave of optimism, promising Change, change in the way Washington works, certainly, but most important, change from what so many Americans saw as a slow, inexorable American decline. The expectations were enormous, and probably impossible to achieve, at least in the short term, especially given the dire state of the economy. Obama made a series of mistakes early on, misunderstanding the nature and scope of his mandate. He spent far too much time reaching out to an embittered Republican party, searching for compromises where none were possible. He appointed Wall Street insiders to head his economic team. He refused to pursue criminal prosecutions for Bush officials who created the torture policies that harmed this country so badly in the international arena. He failed to close Guantanamo, failed to make a clear distinction between his policies and those of the Bush administration in prosecuting the war on terror. And, in retrospect, he spent far too much capital on health care while ignoring jobs. Worst of all, he failed to make a forceful case for his agenda, failed to articulate his vision clearly and consistently, failed to rouse the American people in the pursuit of grand goals. He settled for half a loaf with the stimulus, extended TARP without restrictions on bonuses for bankers, and backed down repeatedly under the threat of filibusters instead of calling the Republicans out every time they blocked necessary legislation. The result was a massive defection from his base on the left, a dispirited disengagement from the independent middle, and an uprising from the right.
None of this should be read as a new electoral love for the Republican party. The GOP was perfectly happy to take the votes of dissatisfied voters without having to articulate a vision of its own. They sang the same old song of smaller government and lower taxes. Oh, and we’ll create jobs. Now that they have control of the House, we’ll see how that translates. It’s easy to say you’ll cut government, but government is the nation’s largest employer. Do you eliminate jobs there? How will you get the private sector to start hiring? Where will you cut? The proposals made so far result in modest savings of a few hundred billion dollars. Extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans adds some $700 billion to the deficit. Then there’s military spending, Social Security and Medicare, which make up the vast bulk of the budget. Do you make serious cuts in any of those? How will you work with a still-Democratic Senate and President to turn the economy around and solve our many other problems?
House Speaker-to-be John Boehner was hardly encouraging in his speech victory speech last night. He essentially invited Obama to kneel at his feet and throw out his agenda. Other Republicans say they’ll continue the so far successful strategy of fighting anything Obama tries to do. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell claims that his agenda for the next two years is to defeat Obama in 2012. In a disturbing echo of the Republican over-reach of the Clinton years, others talk of starting a round of investigations of the current administration or of impeaching Obama.Does any of this sound like a way to move this nation out of the mess it’s in? As we fall farther and farther behind in creating a renewable energy economy, in rebuilding our deteriorating infrastructure, in rebuilding an economy on principles that will sustain it in this century, do we really want another two years of partisan gridlock? Is that what the voters said when they threw the gauntlet down?
Rather, I believe that the last two election cycles were a repudiation of both parties and of the way business gets done (or doesn’t) in Washington. We have a two party system, and when we throw one out, we have no choice but to put the other one in. Obama and the Democrats may well have been badly out of touch with the electorate, but I hardly think the Republican party, based on what I’m hearing from its leaders, can make a greater claim to the hearts and minds of the American people, or to understanding the real meaning of this election. It’s ironic that John Boehner, of all people, the man who describes himself as “cozy with lobbyists,” the man who once distributed checks from the tobacco lobby on the House floor, is the new face of the voters’ revulsion with Washington. We’ll see where he leads.
I’m not optimistic.