LOOKING BACK EVEN
WHILE LOOKING FORWARD
A 'First Read' of the political
"tea leaves" coming out of Election 2014
Sunday, November 9, 2014
by RICHARD E. BERG-ANDERSSON
Well, Election 2014 has now come and gone: seems like not all that long ago The Green Papers was first dealing with the returns from the first Primaries of the year (in Texas, some eight months earlier on Tuesday 4 March)-- but, by now, the dust kicked up by yet another election campaign "season" is beginning to settle as the results of race after race are canvassed and, ultimately, certified by the election authorities in each State of the American Union and, therefore, it is now time to take at least a cursory- where not also preliminary- look at what it all has meant.
So, like, what happened here?
Much has been made- by Democrats, of course- of the relatively low turnout overall in this past Tuesday's elections (especially the lower turnout [as compared to 2012] among those the Democrats tend to think of as "their" voters). This may fairly be seen as the all too common jeremiad of the losing candidate and his/her most ardent supporters- to the effect that 'If only more people had come to the polls to vote, we- more than- likely would have, instead, won'. The core problem with a lamentation such as this, however, is the altogether fallacious assumption that, had the turnout actually been higher, most of those who would have voted- but didn't- would have been appreciably different from those who actually did!
I myself care not all that much, truth be told, about turnout in elections (and I have been poring over election statistics- with no little knowledge as to how best to interpret this kind of data- for well over four decades now): seems to me that some 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, at least, casting votes in any given election is, in fact, a fair sampling of the Will of the Community (the best, and most accurate, tracking polls use samplings far less in percentage than even this!)- so, as long as the turnout in any given election is not appreciably lower than that, the result of same can then be said to reflect the general wishes of the jurisdiction in which the election has taken place (regardless of what the losers of said election might, thereafter, think!) and this, of course, applies regardless of Party or ideology.
But even assuming what I have postulated in the previous paragraph be wrong (it's not wrong, of course; but let's just say, if only for sake of this discussion, it is), one cannot possibly know for whom those who didn't vote would have otherwise voted (and, in addition, any answer- truthful or not- these might give one who so inquires has to be taken as being altogether self-serving, if only because those giving said answer already know the outcome of an election in which they did not even participate!)
We are, therefore, here well within the realm of former political consultant and (admittedly controversial) radio talk show host Jay Severin's dictum that "If you don't vote, you don't count". Now, *I* don't take this to mean that, somehow, the non-voter is at all unimportant in comparison to the voter in terms of his/her Privileges and Immunities deriving from his/her American citizenship (after all, the Constitutions of the United States [plural here because I am also including the Constitutions of the several States of the American Union] themselves make no distinction between voters and non-voters where they note who is entitled to, say, Equal Protection of the Law or Right of Trial by Jury and such)-- but the fact remains that, if you don't vote, *I* can't discern your own electoral intentions within those very election statistics I might, after the election, so peruse (unless, of course, you did, in fact, go to the polls and then not vote for any candidate for any given elective office on the ballot: in which case, the total votes cast for that particular office will be less than the total number of voters who went to the polls in the jurisdiction electing said officer and that, at least, is an election-related statistic that can be discerned!)
If someone out there isn't motivated enough to have voted in the first place, then whining that they hadn't done so is of no effect nor any real purpose. We, then, have to look elsewhere- away from all that much worry about who turned out to vote and who did not- to find out why Election 2014 turned out the way it did.
Hell hath no fury like an Electorate scorned
A number of pundits leaning conservative/Republican saw this election purely as a repudiation of President Obama and his Administration: one going so far as to call this past Tuesday the "Furious Election"...
OK, point taken-- but each of the previous 4, at least, Federal Elections could also have been so described!
2006, which saw the Democrats take back control of both House and Senate for the first time in a dozen years was clearly an election fueled by such "fury" directed against the Administration of George W. Bush and his Party; likewise, 2008- despite President Obama's first presidential campaign (the one that many of Obama's detractors still, now six years later, mock as "that Hopey-Changey thing")- this "fury" continued to be vented on a Republican Party seen most responsible for the financial meltdown that, at least in part, had already- by Election Day in '08- led to the so-called 'Great Recession'. In 2010, the election was driven by much "fury" against Barack Obama's own Administration; but, by 2012, the "fury" of the average American voter was again directed at that Republican Party which had most benefited from the "shellacking" so given the Democrats but two years before...
Now, in 2014, we have seen the electorate's "fury" once again directed at the Obama Administration a second time-- but why?
In reality, American elections- when examined 'across the board' nationally (even Midterm Elections for each house of Congress, as well as State Governorships [let alone Presidential Elections])- are ever decided by the "bell curve" of the American electorate, made up of those within that broad Center in which most Americans live (to here, once again, adopt the formulation given, before the 2012 Democratic National Convention, by now-outgoing Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee). Neither Party operatives (whether Democrat or Republican) or devoted ideologues (whether conservative or liberal) ever want to hear this, but the average American voter- who is, far more often than not, part of a plurality not all that attached to either Major Party or principal ideology- gives not a rat's left [bleep] for either conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats per se.
Yet these voters are ever obliged to choose between just these (except in the rather rare case in which a moderate of one Party or the other- one who can, despite his/her moderation [which 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater called out as "no virtue" all the way to a stinging defeat at the hands of Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson]- avoid too much alienating the less centrist/moderate faction[s] within his/her own Party [often as not because the other Major Party is seen as being too liberal (in the case of Democrats) or too conservative (in the case of Republicans)-- whatever those admittedly rather loosely used terms (Conservative and Liberal- each of which have long lost their original, as well as most useful, meanings from back when such political concepts first emerged in the West during the 19th Century march toward Republican Democracy) might mean, to the "bell curve" voter, in any given American election cycle]).
Over the past decade- if not even longer! (the 'warp' in American political/electoral History created, back in 2002 [with the GOP doing quite well in a Midterm Election held while a member of that Party occupied the White House], by the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks notwithstanding)- the average "bell curve" American voter has, therefore, found himself or herself bouncing between two (albeit only to said voter) undesirable alternatives: yet they are not at all equally undesirable in any given election-- thus, the majority of the "bell curve"- however inadvertently (since everyone is, ultimately, making their final decisions on for whom to vote in the privacy of the voting booth unaware of exactly how their individual vote might [or, for that matter, might not] combine with the myriad of other individual votes for a given elective office to produce either victory or defeat for a given candidate for that office)- mixes with one side of the ideological and/or Major Party divide to produce the kind of aggregate results about which I have already written in the previous section of this piece.
Yes, there is- indeed- such "fury", but it is not fury that stays itself against one side or the other for very long (at least it has not through the last several two-year election cycles)-- which well explains how a President of the United States, so repudiated in both of what (given the Term Limit enshrined in the 22nd Amendment to the Federal Constitution) will be the only Midterm Elections of his Presidency, could still be re-elected (with not all that much of a change in the Electoral Vote totals from those of his first election) in between!
Therefore, it remains to be seen (and only the 2016 Elections will tell us) whether or not 2014 was, indeed, a repudiation of the policy options put forth by the Democrats in general- and President Obama in particular- or if, instead, 2014 was yet just another swing of the political "yo-yo" that has been so swinging here in America for at least eight years now.
A Victory of Historic Proportions... NOT!
There were also more than a few pundits who, as more and more results came in during this most recent Election Night, called the Republicans' victory across the country "one of historic proportions" (one even went so far as to call it "the greatest defeat ever suffered by the Democratic Party in modern History")...
WHOA!!!... hold on, there!... or, as was said in one of the earliest commercials involving 'modern' "cavemen" shilling a national insurance company on TV a few years back now: "First-- do a little research".
Yes, 'tis true that the Republicans will almost certainly ('almost' only because now less than ten US House races remain uncalled as of this typing) surpass their, up till now, post-WW2 number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (which was 246 out of the total 435 coming out of the 1946 Midterm Elections); but, of course, a lot depends on how one defines this "modern History"!
Indeed, the Republicans will not (even if it were to be discerned they had swept all House races still undetermined at this time) surpass the 267 (again, out of 435) seats the Grand Old Party held in the House after 1928 (the same Federal Election in which Herbert Hoover was elected President-- by the way, just a little unsolicited advice here: if I were the GOP, I would drop that effusive "this will be the most seats we have held in Congress since the Hoover Administration!" I heard at least twice from Republicans during the course Election Night-- such a direct connection to the Hoover Administration would not be all that good a thing to bring up going into 2016!)-- and, of course, if we define "modern History" as 'since the U.S. House of Representatives was permanently set at 435 members [in 1912] and/or since U.S. Senators have been elected by Popular Vote [first done a century ago now, in 1914]', the Republicans have had House seat totals- during such a "modern" era- even higher than that [300 coming out of 1920 (an election in which the GOP gained 63 seats [comparable to the Party's gains in 2010, as will soon be seen], by the way)]!
Yet, even if we give the GOP its due, what they did in Federal Elections this past week was not all that "historic":
In the Senate (re: which 2 races remain undetermined as of this typing), the Republicans will- most likely- but match the outright 9-seat gain in that body they achieved back during the 'Contract with America'-driven so-called "Gingrich Revolution" of 1994...
but at least it can be fairly argued that Newt Gingrich's Republicans might have actually had such a "revolution"!...
for, back in 1994, Republicans seized the House majority from the Democrats by winning 54 seats (turning a 176-258 GOP deficit coming out of 1992 into a 230-204 Republican advantage). Four years ago, the Republicans- led by John Boehner- did even better, also seizing the House majority from the Democrats with a gain, this time round, of 64 seats (turning a 178-257 GOP disadvantage coming out of 2008 [thus, one statistically comparable to the disadvantage the Grand Old Party had had in the House going into 1994] into a 242-193 rout!)...
yet, rather few talked about a 'Boehner Revolution'-- because 2010 was, instead, widely seen as the so-called "Tea Party"'s "coming out party".
At his post-election press conference in the White House, President Obama was reminded that he had called 2010 (from the perspective of his own Democratic Party) "a shellacking" and he was then asked what, then, 2014 was, to which he responded by merely saying "the GOP had a good night". Several conservative/Republican pundits seemed, given their own reactions to this, quite miffed at what they perceived as a rather derisive dismissal of their then-still so recent big victory (one even called the President "clueless")...
except: 2010 was a shellacking!
What, then, is 2014 in contrast? The Republicans will, simply, hold onto a majority in the House they've enjoyed since 2010: they had lost 8 seats in the 2012 Elections concomitant with Obama's re-election and will now (if we, again, project 'circa 250' as the final total of House seats the GOP will have won in 2014) have gained but some 16- give or take- all told.
But let's go even deeper, especially as regards the United States Senate:
Assuming the Republicans end up with a +9 net again in this upper house of Congress, where did those gains actually occur?
In a table of Congressional Political Party Breakdown by Section and Region posted to this website earlier this year, we postulated- for purposes of extrapolation of such data- an America divided into the following 'politicocultural' (if you will) Regions (and we also explained why such Regions in the lower portion of the page accessible via the link in this paragraph):
If we simply (and, yes, it is- admittedly- rather simplistic, yet it suffices for such a general Commentary as this) measure relative Party-'friendliness' merely by the difference between the Major Parties in House seats in each such Region (that is: going into the 2014 Elections [obviously, if updated (post-4 Nov 2014) versions of the tables on the page linked to above were produced, these differences would change (however slightly)]), we can so easily discern that the most 'Democrat-friendly' Regions are, respectively, the Pacific Coast [W2] and New England [NE1], followed by the Mid-Atlantic [NE2] and the most 'Republican-friendly' Regions are both the Lower (Deep) and Upper (Border) South [S1&2], along with the Interior West [W1]... the Upper Midwest [MW1] leaned towards the Democrats going into 2014 (though no longer with Republican gains in House seats in Illinois this past week), while the Lower Midwest leans towards the Republicans (and even more so with a House seat pickup by the GOP in Iowa)-- thus, the Midwest as a whole (and as defined above) is truly the "Swing Section" of the United States of America.
As of this typing, the GOP took Senate seats from the Democrats in the 2014 Midterms as follows: 3 each from the Upper (Border) South and Interior West (both 'Republican-friendly' Regions) and 1 from the Lower Midwest (already leaning Republican); of the 3 Senate seats still undetermined, as of this typing: 1 is in the Upper (Border) South, 1 is in the Lower (Deep) South and 1 is in the Interior West (as defined above)-- all very 'Republican-friendly' Regions... thus, rather than being such a big surprise, we may have merely seen areas of the country in which Democrats have made inroads over the past few 2-year Election Cycles going, more or less, back to "normal" as Republican bailiwicks!
Where the Republicans did have a great night was in the races for Governor: but, even here, one must analyze with caution-- for instance, very Democrat-friendly Massachusetts elected a Republican Governor this past week; yet, 4 of the last 5 elected Governors of Massachusetts have been Republicans, so this is not all that unusual. In addition, if ever there was an arena in which the late Tip O'Neill's dictum that "Politics is Local" should be taken all too seriously, it is that involving elections to Governor's chairs!
Yes, the Republicans' overall victory this past week is significant: but it is certainly not as significant as other, recent victorious GOP Election Nights across the country (most notably, 1994 and 2010- as already explained above). And, in the main, 2014 seems much more a readjustment of the American electoral map according to the long-standing political dynamic between 'Yankee' and 'South' that goes back- in American History- to even before the Civil War, perhaps well back into that Colonial Period before the United States of America had even first declared their Independence! Certainly, we are not talking about a so-called "sea change" election here.
Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it
Perhaps, in the end, the most notable success of the Republicans this past Tuesday might well have been their convincing enough of the above-described "bell curve", throughout the Nation, that the Democratic Party-controlled U.S. Senate was the more responsible for most recent political "gridlock" in Washington than has been the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Obviously, with Republican control of both houses of Congress now guaranteed, this is no longer a luxury of which the Grand Old Party can avail itself going into what is now, already, the 2016 Election Cycle.
What the Republicans have to do now, most of all, is avoid the mistakes made so shortly after the 'Contract with America' Republicans first took control of Congress twenty years ago now: soon-to-become Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell certainly struck the correct tone with his flat-out pronunciamento, the afternoon after the election, that there would be "no Government Shutdown" such as that which only served to derail then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (as well as make then-President Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996 virtually a "sure thing")-- though one wonders just how well this sits with those GOP factions/wings thinking to themselves 'Hey! We won the election!! Let's kick some ass!!!'.
But, despite Senator McConnell's express willingness to so "take one for the [GOP] team", the spotlight now turns even more towards current Speaker of the House John Boehner.
As the 2012 Republican Presidential Nomination campaign was just about to get underway with the Iowa Caucuses in early January of that year, I wrote a piece for this website in which I had to offer a disclaimer- simply because Newt Gingrich was one of those, at the time, seeking that nomination- noting that Gingrich, if nothing else, gets my own vote for 'worst Speaker of the United States House of Representatives since at least 1900' and I then went on to explain why, contrasting Gingrich with later Speaker Nancy Pelosi- whom many conservatives despise [p]rimarily because she successfully rammed through the Federal House of Representatives many an element of the Democratic Party agenda they so disdain, the very thing, so I immediately thereafter noted, a Speaker of the House (regardless of Party or ideology) is supposed to do!
For, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this website, the Speaker of the House (and the same could also be said of any Speaker of the lower house, or even President of the upper house [unless the constitutional President of a State's Senate be the Lieutenant Governor of that State], of the legislature of an American State) is the closest thing we have, in our American system of governance, to a Prime Minister (or Premier, if we here analogize an American State to either a State of Australia or a Canadian Province) in a system of Parliamentary Government-- with the most obvious difference being that the Speaker (or President) of an American legislative body has none of the executive functions a Prime Minister (or Premier) enjoys (because, here in the United States, the President- or, for that matter, a State's Governor- is, constitutionally, his own 'Head of Government': such is the American doctrine of Separation of Powers within a Sovereign Government).
Like a Prime Minister, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives is primarily responsible to at least the majority of his own Party (if not far more than a mere majority of same, for he/she still has to be elected Speaker via roll call vote of the entire House when that body first convenes a new two-year-long numbered 'Congress': thus, in order to even become Speaker, a majority of the whole House- made up of those outside the eventually elected Speaker's Party, as well as those within his/her own Party- must approve [thus, one who wishes to become Speaker cannot afford to have, somehow, alienated a significant number of his/her own Party, even though tradition dictates- and it is only tradition that so dictates (for each Congressman ever retains that, however theoretical, independence that comes with being able to so directly cast one's own vote for Speaker)- that a candidate for Speaker supported by most of the members of his/her Party's caucus get the votes, on the floor of the House itself, of all the members of that Party])...
and, also like a Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House is responsible for moving his own Party's policy agenda (whether the occupant of the White House at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol be of that Party or no) through, in this case, his/her House of Representatives: significant failures in this regard count (as they well should) against the overall record of a given Speaker (as they do, in my own opinion, against Newt Gingrich during his time as Speaker back in the mid-to late-1990s).
So far, in his four years as Speaker of the U.S. House, Boehner's record is- at best- mixed. Now, with a Senate in control of the same Party as Boehner's own come next January, this is Boehner's opportunity to shine... or not!
Meanwhile, the tea grows ever colder
This past March, as the first Primaries of 2014 were about to be held in Texas, I wrote that the 2014 Elections would go a long way towards sorting out the ever-contentious relationship between the 'Tea Party'ers, the more moderate 'RINO's and the Establishment that actually runs (though one is here sorely tempted to type "owns") the Republican Party US (a GOP Establishment that leans far more 'RINO' than 'Tea Party') as we also look forward to 2016
One of the things that 2014 has, indeed, indicated is just how either marginalized or mainstreamed (depending on the issue of the day in play) the so-called 'Tea Party' movement has now become. Unlike the 2010 Midterms- in which the 'Tea Party' drove much of the "fury" (as described above) among conservatives that combined with that of the "bell curve" voter to give the Republicans their current control of the U.S. House of Representatives to begin with- this year's Midterms were not at all a great success for those GOP factions identified- in popular political parlance- as 'Tea Party'.
'Tea Party' challenges to incumbent Republicans did not do all that well during the 2014 Primary "season" (a notable exception being the ousting of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by now Congressman-elect Dave Brat [uh--- maybe-- as this was a rather unintentional 'Tea Party' "victory": for the movement itself did little, if anything, to help Brat in the Primary, instead- after the Primary- merely jumping onto a bandwagon already coming out of what was something of a political earthquake])- as has lately been more the case, the 'Tea Party' movement has done much better in open Republican Primaries (that is: where the incumbent is not running for re-election)- and, with the final number of GOP seats in the House of the incoming 114th Congress somewhere (as I've said) around 250 out of 435, Speaker Boehner now has enough Congressmen (if one includes the relative handful of more moderate Democrats who will support the GOP [where more liberal Democrats might not] on a number of key issues) to put together a House majority that can tell the 'Tea Party'-leaning (where not also 'Tea Party'-backed [unlike Congressman Brat of Virginia ;-)]) House members to, more or less, "take a hike" if these prove to be all too ornery.
But this does not mean the 'Tea Party' is at all going away soon and this is a reality that both Speaker Boehner and Senate Republican McConnell will have to wrestle with as the legislative agenda they will each have to put together beginning next January takes shape. For it is still true that, even with its lessened influence inside the Capitol itself, the 'Tea Party' is still, as I put it back in early March, nipping at [the GOP's] heels like some Border Collie. There may, in fact, be something of a 'reversal of roles' between the two houses of Congress over the next two years- with a more moderate House (for reasons already stated) and a Senate containing such as flamboyant Texas Senator Ted Cruz and newly minted Iowa Senator-elect Joni Ernst (who not only was 'Tea Party'-endorsed in her State's GOP Primary but who also used "castrating hogs" as a political analogy during her campaign and, in her victory speech, spoke of making Washington "squeal like a pig"): normally, by very constitutional design, the Senate was ever intended as being a quintessential "second chamber"- one that is intended to moderate the political passions heard within the first ['Are you really sure we want to do this?!'] but there may well now be times that it will be the Senate that will be under far more pressure than the House to take up certain legislation that an even more Republican (actually, a more 'RINO') House would then have to put the brakes on should the Senate (however unlikely) actually pass it.
Looking forward now to 2016
This is not the place for me to opine about the prospects- for either person or Party- of gaining the White House two years from now (a Commentary from me along such lines will be posted on this website in all good time, the reader of this piece can be sure); however, I do want to here note at least a few observations related to the upcoming US Presidential Election coming out of the results of the 2014 Midterms.
First of all, there was the all too obvious attempt (along the lines of conservative pundits, as noted earlier in this piece, seeing this most recent election solely in terms of a repudiation of the Obama Administration) to link former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presumptively the leading (however unannounced) candidate for the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nomination, to Obama (thus, a concerted effort- on the part of many a Republican appearing on the cable news channels as the returns came in- to have the GOP's "good night" re: Election 2014 be seen as a repudiation of both Barack and Hillary)...
once again (as was the case eight years ago), the Grand Old Party seems poised- to here use an analogy a political commentator much better known than I am put forth back then- to see Hillary Clinton as 'Moby Dick', to which they then seem all too willing to play the role of 'Captain Ahab'.
During the week prior to Thanksgiving 2007 (thus, the equivalent- in the current Presidential Election cycle leading into 2016- of more than a year from now!), there were two statements generally accepted as being true at the time: 1. that Arizona Senator John McCain's quest for the 2008 Republican Presidential Nomination was dead in the water and 2. that Hillary Rodham Clinton's gaining the 2008 Democratic Presidential Nomination was a sure thing... neither proved to be true within but a few months of these assumptions!
Mrs. Clinton still has much the same "baggage" she had with her during her last quest for the Presidency: for she comes off, all too often, as the quintessential "schoolmarm"-- nice and smiling at one point; lecturing- even snarling- at another. But this put aside: neither she, nor the Republicans making ready to take her on in the 2008 General Election, really saw Barack Obama coming.
Republicans have to be careful, this time round, to not pay so much attention to Mrs. Clinton that they then fail to take seriously enough other Democratic presidential contenders who are sure to- for whatever reason (realistic expectations of success or no)- challenge her for their own Party's presidential nomination...
no, Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democratic Party standard-bearer is not at all a sure thing!
Meanwhile, on the Republican side of things, we have Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey- a potential GOP presidential contender who has been credited (and, frankly, has not been all that above having such credit heaped upon him) with the good showing Republican gubernatorial candidates made this past Tuesday. Problem is: not all of Christie's campaigning for GOP gubernatorial hopefuls was successful (and one has to seriously question whether Christie's frequent trips to both Iowa [in which incumbent Republican Governor Terry Branstad was virtually assured of re-election] and New Hampshire [in which GOP gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein was having an uphill battle in any event] were, first and foremost, about electing Republicans to the Governor's Chairs in those States in the first place).
But there is a further complication within any attempt to read into the success or failure of Christie's helping out various and sundry Republicans seeking Governor's Chairs in this most recent election any indication as to the efficacy (or not) of a Chris Christie presidential candidacy and that is that Christie is still, no matter what, that which the 'Tea Party' movement considers a 'RINO' (again, "Republican in Name Only")- as are many of those Christie is so credited with helping to elect (such as the aforementioned Charlie Baker in Massachusetts).
In this regard, then, the potential success of a Chris Christie presidential candidacy may well hinge upon that over which he himself has no control: the success (or failure) of Senate Republican Leader McConnell and Speaker of the House Boehner in their own respective efforts to keep the more hard-core 'Tea Party'ers within their own respective caucuses in each house of Congress at bay (something I have already touched upon earlier in this piece)...
no, the 'Tea Party' vs. 'RINO' dynamic within the Grand Old Party is not yet dead!
On to 2016!!