Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Color Them Underwhelming: Why The Mid-Terms Weren't A Hinge Moment

Things this morning seem pretty much what they were yesterday morning: The sun still came up in the East, the San Francisco Giants still were the world champions of baseball, and Christine O'Donnell still didn't have a job.

As someone who has covered a slew of elections over four decades, the big takeaway from the mid-term elections is that despite the sturm und drang of recent weeks, the news media's obsession with the Tea Party, and the self-flagellation of many Democrats, things are pretty much what they were despite a supposed outpouring of anti-government and anti-incumbent anger.

Indeed, the vast majority of incumbents were re-elected and it pretty much will be business as usual for the 112th Congress -- fulfilling promises made not to voters, but to lobbyists for special interests, and continued fealty to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. This is because people didn't vote for or against a broken system on Tuesday, but rather for or against candidates, most of whom depend on that system's perpetuation.

In other words, most of the clowns responsible for the train wreck that is Congress were sent back to the Big Top with a pat on the back, while the Republicans would have taken the Senate had their nominees in Connecticut, Delaware and Nevada not been fruitcakes. Is American democracy a beautiful thing, or what?

And so on to some random thoughts on the most depressing election cycle in memory:

* Expectations do not win elections; votes do. It is not surprising that while the Republican Party picked up 60 House seats and six Senate seats, the long-promised tsunami turned out to be a large wave not unlike mid-term elections in 1938, 1946 and 1994, and not exactly a hinge moment in American history.

* The Republican takeover of the House and Senate gains were largely undeserved, which is to say that the very establishment Republicans who enabled George Bush's failed agenda will still be running the GOP show in the House. Does anyone not in the thrall of two-party politics believe that John Boehner and Harry Reid are good for an America in deep distress?

* The large wave was, of course, in part because of the emergence of the Tea Party, a movement chockablock with contradictions save for one -- its members' sense of grievance and self pity. Indeed, the party (which asserts that its congressional victors will caucus separately from other Republicans) may be a one- or two-election cycle wonder because its values will become co-opted even if the Jim DeMints and Michele Bachmanns are not.

* As it is, Tea Partiers prevailed in only about half of closely watched races across the country in what was decidedly a mixed bag: Marco Rubio and Ron Paul clobbered their opponents in Florida and Kentucky and Mike Lee won in Utah, but O'Donnell lost badly in Delaware, Sharron Angel lost to Reid in Nevada, and Joe Miller may have gotten toasted by an . . . eek! incumbent old school write-in Republican in Alaska.

* Meanwhile, two of the Republican Senate pickups -- Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin -- went not to Tea Party anti-establishmentarians but big friends of Wall Street. Labor unions, which had been so successful in get-out-the-vote efforts in 2006 and 2008, failed to deliver in these states and elsewhere.

* Compared to 2008, turnout was much smaller, somewhat whiter and much older, all of which played to Republicans. And while the voting demographic this time around was less representative of America as a whole, it should be a reminder to Democrats that turnout wins elections. And the accomplishments that accrued as a result of the 2008 landslide may turn out to be pyrrhic.

* This voter demographic came with bonus points in a state like Pennsylvania, which with GOP pick-ups across the board will mean that the party will have the final word on the next round of redistricting. Meanwhile, Republicans made modest comebacks in New York and New Hampshire.

* The Republicans, who long decried the rise of identity politics, practiced it so successfully during this election cycle that they created a beleaguered minority out of a comfy minority -- the well-to-do who believe their economic well-being is imperiled by "shiftless" Americans such as the unemployed and poor, and voted accordingly.

* The orgy of nostalgia for George W. Bush did not manifest itself on the campaign trail, in part because many Republicans consider him a traitor to the conservative cause and others understood that bragging on the president who drove America into an economic ditch was not smart politicking.

* The orgy of nostalgia for Bill Clinton did manifest itself, and even some Republicans became dewy eyed over Bubba, who again showed a proclivity for tone deafness, notably in Florida where he tried to strong-arm the Democratic candidate out of a hotly contested three-way Senate race.

* A record 106 openly gay and lesbian candidates nationwide were elected, including the fourth gay House member, as anti-gay rights activists scored a major victory in Iowa, where the three state Supreme Court justices who had ruled in favor of same-sex marriages were defeated.

* Then there was Barack Obama. The inchoate communication skills of he and his administration at this late date are confounding, notably their inability to articulate the fact that the vast majority of Americans got tax cuts in the last two years and make the case that health-care reform is good for what ails the system.

* Completing a process that began several cycles ago, rhetoric and gamesmanship pretty much replaced reality, which in the short term gave the GOP some seats but in the long term will morph into a monster that the party won't be able to control when . . . heaven forbid, it has to get serious and even return to governing.

* Whether the Republicans are capable of governing is an open -- and disturbing -- question. The GOP has not been serious about policy, and while it asserts that deficit reduction is its highest legislative priority, it has not provided a clue about how this is to be accomplished.

* The election was a triumph for the corporatocracy and super wealthy, who poured the equivalent of the gross national product of Tajikistan into candidates' coffers, much of it anonymously or through shadow groups. Republicans were the biggest beneficiaries, but many big donors shared the wealth with Democrats, too.

* But in the end, money wasn't everything. Gadzillionaires
Meg Whitman in California and Linda McMahon in Connecticut and together spent over $200 million of their own fortunes only to get their big egos crushed. Health care fraudster Rick Scott, who dropped $60 million, won Florida governor's race.

* And finally, although the Republicans will do everything in their power to try to make Obama a one-term president, as opposed to trying to do anything of substance with their new . . . uh, mandate, he still wins hands-down in projected match-ups with GOP wannabes. In fact, exit polls showed that the president is still more popular than Republicans generally.

Like I said, the mid-terms were not exactly a hinge moment.

Sources for this post include The Associated Press, Will Bunch at Attytood, CNN, Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight, Gay Politics, The Guardian, Dick Polman at National Interest, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal.

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