Friday, November 05, 2010

Midterm election thoughts

There's no way for the Democrats to spin this one. They got their butts kicked. Voters, angry at the sluggish economy, high unemployment and a perception of out-of-control spending in Washington, handed Republicans sweeping victories at the federal, state and local levels. Perhaps Democrats can take solace in the fact that they held on to the Senate, or that voters rejected a handful of the nuttiest Tea Party candidates, but given their losses at all levels, they really don't have much to hang their hats on. They lost because the party in power gets blamed for the economy. But they also lost on their message, as Time's Joel Klein explains:
Still, the Democratic performance this year was one of the more mystifying, and craven, in memory. Usually, a political party loses when it has failed to do its job. These Democrats lost because they succeeded in doing what they've been promising for decades. They enacted their fantasies, starting with health care reform, and then ran away from their successes. Why on earth would a political party enact major pieces of legislation and then refuse to take credit for them?
If you believe in the adage that "the government which governs least, governs best," then you're going to be happy for the next two years, because absolutely nothing substantial is going to be done in Washington from now until the 2012 presidential election. With a Republican House, a Democratic Presidency, and a Senate that is nominally controlled by the Democrats but which cannot break a filibuster from either side, there is nothing but two years of partisan gridlock in this country's future.

But isn't that a good thing? You might argue. Look at the era of reform and prosperity that occurred after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 and forced Bill Clinton to curtail his liberal agenda! Well, as former Reagan and Bush 41 staffer Bruce Bartlett explains, things were a bit different back then:
It should be remembered also that Republicans had the very good fortune to take power right on the brink of the 1990s technology boom, which raised the real gross domestic product 4.7 percent in 1995, 5.7 percent in 1996 and 6.3 percent in 1997 — which sent tax revenues cascading into the Treasury.
But today the situation is quite different. The economy is in the tank and the budget is clearly on an unsustainable path, in large part due to actions taken by Republicans when they were in power. They completely dismantled the deficit controls put in place by the elder Bush and Clinton so that they could cut taxes willy-nilly without paying for them, and in the process thoroughly decimated the government’s capacity to raise adequate revenue to fund its essential functions. Adding insult to injury, Republicans enacted a massive new entitlement program, Medicare Part D, without paying for a penny of it on top of every pork barrel project any Republican ever imagined.

The point is that gridlock under today’s circumstances will not be benign, as it was in the late 1990s, but toxic, preventing our political system from grappling with problems that demand action and will only get worse the longer it is delayed.

Which is why I personally think that the next two years are going to be two of the ugliest years, in terms of venomous political rhetoric, grandstanding, finger-pointing and obstructionism, that this country has seen in recent memory. And this is going to occur even as our nation's worst problems - the economy, unemployment, the ever-increasing debt - continue to fester.

(And while we're here: where was the Tea Party when a Republican-controlled Federal Government was passing the budget-busting Medicare Part D, anyway? It's really interesting how this movement only appeared after a Democratic African-American was elected President...)

Now that the Republicans are in control (of the House, at least), they face a daunting task as well: they need to be able to actually govern - i.e., propose and pass laws - as opposed to simply be the "party against Obama" that they were for the last two years. Will they rise to that challenge? If they're concerned about the national debt, what, exactly, will they propose to cut? Bartlett continues:
Some Republicans delude themselves that they can enact legislation that will reduce the deficit on their terms — 100 percent spending cuts with no increase in taxes. In particular, every Republican believes that the Affordable Care Act adds massively to the deficit, despite repeated statements from the Congressional Budget Office and Medicare’s actuaries to the contrary — which means that repeal would be scored by CBO as adding to the deficit.
Of course, considering that the Democrats still control the Senate and that Obama is still in the White House, repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") is simply impossible until at least 2013. So what else do they have? Bartlett thinks the Republicans should celebrate while they can, because come 2011 the realities of Washington - as well as the party's own fault lines between the "establishment" and the Tea-Party-empowered "insurgents" - will make things difficult for the GOP:
Republicans should savor the period from Election Day to the first day of the new Congress on January 3, 2011. That will be as good as it gets for them; afterwards, it’s all downhill once they have to act, take responsibility, and can no longer blame Democrats for everything bad that happens anywhere. That goes for their allies in the business community, who naively assume that every action of the last two years that they opposed will magically disappear. And it goes double for the Tea Partiers, who have never had to take responsibility for anything. It’s a whole new ballgame in January.
Furthermore, anybody who thinks the results of this election cycle spell certain doom for Barack Obama in 2012 should remember recent history. In 1982, the Democrats handed Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party a huge setback. But in 1984, of course, Reagan was re-elected in a landslide. Similarly, the Republicans handed Bill Clinton and the Democrats huge losses in the 1994 midterms. But Bill Clinton handily won re-election in 1996. What happens in 2012 will depend on a lot of things - the economy, Obama's overall approval ratings, whomever his Republican opponent is - but history makes it clear that midterm elections are not a predictor of presidential elections two years off.

Closer to home: Rick Perry was re-elected to a third full term as Governor of Texas; this comes as no surprise given that his opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White was a Democrat in a Republican state during an election cycle that favors the Republicans. Locally, voters rejected Houston's further use of cameras to fine red-light runners. Having mixed feelings about these cameras myself, I can't say I'm really sorry to see them go.

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