It may seem rather strange to many readers that, in the wake of the Republicans picking up almost as many seats in the U.S. House of Representatives as the Grand Old Party ever has, that I would be terming such an apparently decisive victory (one in which the overall GOP gains will, in the end, be some 20 per cent of the seats in that body) "indecisive" in the subhead to this piece-- but that is exactly how this one looks to me (and, in the end, "I calls 'em as I sees 'em"). Certainly, this most recent election does not have the same "feel" as did the Republican sweep back in 1994-- and in more ways than one!
Let's start at the very top of the national "power grid"... with the President of the United States.
Put quite simply: Barack Obama blew the moment.
Back on Wednesday 9 November 1994, a clearly shell-shocked President Bill Clinton, in a post-election news conference, seemed more conciliatory (and in a seemingly less contrived manner) to the victors, stating that he perceived the voters' "clear message"- and famously stating that he, indeed, "got it"- while pledging to do his "dead level best" to work with the newly minted majority that would be taking power (in both houses of Congress) under (he being the very "face" of that new majority) then-incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich. For his part, Gingrich, at the time, talked about somehow still being able to put together bills that President Clinton "can sign while he is vetoing some others" (this last being, yes, something of a Gingrichian verbal swipe at Clinton- to be sure, but at least the new Speaker of the then-104th Congress was correctly seen as, at the start, at least trying to find ways to work with a White House in the hands the opposing Party, even on such dicey issues of the time such as Welfare Reform)-- Gingrich might well have been giddy about the GOP victory of '94, but he was not (at least in the immediate aftermath of the '94 elections) being heady with it (Gingrich spent more of his own immediate post-election analysis chiding the countercultural currents still flowing from the 1960s than the Clinton White House).
In contradistinction, the first public reactions to this most recent election from the two "opposite poles" coming out of this year's version of a thrashing of the Democrats at the hands of the Republicans- these being, of course, President Obama and Speaker-presumptive John Boehner- merely looked like, at best, the proverbial "calm before the storm". Conciliatory to a point, both-- but only just!
For the President's part, he seemed to be more immediately concerned about many a long-time Democratic lawmaker having lost their seats in either house of Congress than the fact that this election was, in no small way, a reaction by ordinary American voters to the fact- as much as the fear- that they very well might lose- assuming these were not amongst those who had already lost- their jobs, their homes or, at the very least, their feeling of well being! Obama did quite a bit better in his comments during a "photo op" of his meeting with the full Cabinet come the morning of Thursday the 4th but the damage had already been done and the opportunity to at least immediately set the right tone- as Clinton had done 16 years before (whatever one might think of all the political wrangling during the ensuing 104th Congress thereafter)- was, thereby, lost.
Thus, whatever the reader might think about the reality as regards Bill Clinton's sincerity 16 years ago (whether on that day itself or as a result of that testy- where not also stormy- relationship Clinton would actually have with the "Contract with America" Republicans throughout the rest of his Presidency), Clinton did not make the political mistake of seeming, on the first full day after the election, not to so "get it".
Not so President Obama, however!
Sometimes we lose track of the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place, the current President said this past Wednesday... the contrast with post-'94 election Bill Clinton could not be starker.
Now, to be fair (and I alluded to this in my most recent Commentary, where I wrote about the prospects as regards the House of Representatives and referred to my own failure- back in 1994- to foresee the GOP taking control of the House, as opposed to the Senate), President Clinton clearly didn't see a "Speaker Newt Gingrich" coming; therefore, Clinton didn't really have all that much time to really "spin" an electoral debacle for his Party his way (just like myself going into November 1994, the Democratic leaders, yes, thought they would do badly-- just not that badly!). By comparison, we all pretty much knew- days, if not weeks, in advance- at least the type of "hit" that the Democrats were going to be taking in the 2010 Midterm Elections (only the precise scope of impending Republican victory [just how big would the GOP House majority be? would the GOP also gain control of the Senate?] had yet to play itself out) and, as rehearsed as President Obama might have seemed in his own post-election news conference, the problem may very well be that he even could be so "rehearsed"...
at least it certainly came off that way!
So, to start with, we have seen indecision within the President himself as to just what to do in response to these most recent election results...
contrition competes with mere conciliation which, in turn, conflicts with compromise...
as for the United States Senate:
The other thing that makes what would otherwise be a decisive election at least somewhat indecisive is the fact that the Democrats managed to retain political control of the Senate. While it might be argued that this was something of a pyrrhic victory (considering that the chamber is no longer "filibuster-proof" from the still-Majority's perspective), it does make the overall "feel" of this most recent election somewhat different than that back in 1994. Besides, at least 51 of 100 is still more than the opposing Party can possibly have!
Even so, the fact is that there were a number of very close calls in many of those Senate contests where the Democratic candidate actually won: Harry Reid could have gone down, but didn't; Patty Murray might have lost, but didn't. Couple this with the fact that the Republicans (as had been the case back in 1994) "ran the table" as far as the Senate seats they already hold are concerned (losing not a single one: for even if Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign yet proves to best Republican 'Tea Partier' Joe Miller in Alaska, she would still be an Independent Republican [as well as a returning incumbent to boot]) and, where the Democrats lost seats to the Republicans (whether the loser be an incumbent or no), it was most telling: in Arkansas, in Illinois, in Indiana, in North Dakota and in Wisconsin (Pennsylvania's election of a new Republican Senator is something of a special case, as Arlen Specter- retiring from the Senate as a Democrat- had been most recently elected as a Republican).
But while the bath the Democrats took in this past Tuesday's Senate elections was quite hot, indeed: it was not all that scalding... nor did it ever really produce second-degree burns...
now on to the United States House of Representatives:
There is- quite obviously- no denying that, when it comes to the newly elected House of Representatives, the Grand Old Party just enjoyed a great victory. Now comes the hard part for the winners in the election: actually running things instead of merely nipping at the heels of those in opposition who do (and I will have more to say about what the Republican leadership in Congress now must deal with later on in this piece).
If only as at least something of a balm with which to salve the frayed political nerves of Democrats, however, let me simply say this: nonetheless, the outright drubbing could have been much worse!
As I suggested in my Commentary immediately preceding this election, how the Dems did in the Northeast would be a key to just how bad this election might be for them: I opined that the Democrats could not lose much more than 10 seats in what I have termed the "Northeast 'Confederacy'"; indeed, excepting New Hampshire's 2 House seats (about which, it can be argued, the Granite State has gone back to a voting pattern long associated with that particular State), all the House seats in the rest of New England were held by the Democrats (indeed: the dreaded "Scott Brown effect"- the notion, much discussed in the wake of Republican Scott Brown having been elected Senator from Massachusetts in place of the late, iconic Democrat Ted Kennedy back in January, that Brown's victory heralded Republicans taking a number of House seats, not only in Massachusetts, but also in Connecticut and Rhode Island- never, in the end, materialized). As for the Mid-Atlantic region (again, that in which I happen to reside), the Democrats lost one seat in Maryland that was offset by a pickup in Delaware and then lost, all told, a total of 10 in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania combined.
Meanwhile, as for the rest of the country outside the Northeast, most of the House seats lost by Democrats this time round were, more or less, "give backs" to the Republicans of gains made by the Democrats in either 2006 or 2008. Much is being made of how badly the Democrats did in key battleground States that will, almost certainly, play a role in the upcoming 2012 Presidential Election-- but, in truth, wasn't this really more (such as I have already opined as regards New Hampshire) a return to a kind of status quo ante? After all, in both Florida and Ohio (both of which seemed to be "ground zero"- if I may be permitted to here use that term in its original, uncapitalized sense- as regards the outcome of this latest election), as well as in Wisconsin, the Republicans will have but 1 more House seat in each State than they held going into the 2006 Midterms which gave the Democrats control in the first place; in addition: in Michigan and Pennsylvania- the Republicans and Democrats will have the very same political breakdown in their respective House delegations as these States had going into 2006.
Generally speaking: Congressional Districts which- at some point (whether in 2004, 2006 or 2008)- abandoned the Republicans because of the prevalence of "neo-Con"s in the George W. Bush Administration simply "came home" in 2010. Thus, while there are, certainly, political and electoral lessons out there in the "Rust Belt"- as well as down in the Sunshine State- which the Democrats ignore only at their own peril (and, yes, thanks to pickups here and there outside these larger States, the GOP will hold more seats in the House of Representatives than it has since just after the end of World War II), this most recent Federal Election was not so much a repeat of 1994 as it was a return to 2004!...
for where the Republicans have so padded their new majority, it was at the expense of those Democrats holding House seats since at least the last Reapportionment kicked in back in 2002 in places such as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Illinois along the Mississippi River, the "arrow" of northeastern Minnesota (where Democrat Jim Oberstar- in Congress since first arriving as part of the wave of Democrats elected in the wake of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon's resignation- went down to defeat) and North Dakota's lone House seat. Except for a seat in Washington State and another in northeastern Pennsylvania (both which can fairly be described as still being in the very backyard of regions still relatively strongly Democratic), most of these kinds of seats Democrats so lost were in the Border and Deep South- a region of the country that has long become unfriendly to Democrats (as I have noted a number of times on this very website for now more than a decade, the one-time "Solid South" [so called because it was so solidly Democratic for generations, to the point where the Democratic Primary for most elective offices in the region was tantamount to election (the very reason, by the way, that the South became, as it yet remains, the core area utilizing the "Runoff"- in which the top two vote-getters face off in a second balloting where no candidate has received a certain threshold [usually a majority] of the Primary votes- as part of the nominating system)] is actually still quite solid, only nowadays it is solidly Republican!). The chief casualty of this seems to have been the white Southern Democratic Congressman (for African-American Democrats can still, so it seems, be elected to Congress from parts of the South).
In essence, then, what has now happened in the South merely mirrors what has happened- on the other side of the political spectrum- in New England (as noted above, the one region of the country in which the Democrats most minimized their Congressional losses): in the South, why vote for a Democrat who acts more like a conservative Republican when you can always vote for the real thing? Likewise, in much of the Northeast still (despite the GOP gains in the Mid-Atlantic States already cited above)- and especially in most of New England- why vote for a Republican who acts more like a liberal Democrat when you can, instead, simply elect a bona fide Democrat? Both the "blue dog" Democrat and the RINO (meaning "Republican in name only") are now both political animals very much endangered, where not already headed for extinction.
In retrospect, however: the conservative southern Democrat has been something of an anomaly for some time now-- thus, his/her demise, presaged by a significant period of decline, has been somewhat inevitable. Meanwhile, the moderate- even moderately liberal- Republican can still be found within the more upscale neighborhoods of urban America (to the point where some of these can even be elected Mayor in some cities within metropolitan areas).
All in all, then, it might well be advisable for Democrats to now climb down from that proverbial "ledge"! ;-)
Still... there is a bell tolling out there and it is, indeed, tolling for the Dems-- and that bell is Reapportionment of House seats (and, by direct extension, Electoral Votes for President) as a result of the 2010 Census and the electoral-caused loss of Democratic seats in "Sun Belt" States such as Arizona and Colorado in 2010- considering the certain Census-based loss of House seats by States in the "Frost Belt" between this last Federal Election and the next- are well worth pondering here as one begins to consider the prospects for both Major Parties going into 2012...
and, now, a few words about the State Governors:
Perhaps the most impressive success the Republicans had in this past Tuesday's elections was in the Governor's races (this despite the big GOP victory in the House): Republicans took over the Governor's chairs in Michigan and Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin- thereby continuing a trend of GOP gains in the more industrial States that can be said to have begun in my own State of New Jersey the previous November: these all being States that will likely loom quite large in the upcoming Presidential Election.
But here, too- as with the Senate- it could have been much worse for the Democrats. For instance, Republicans took the Governor's chair in Wyoming- but Wyoming having a Democratic Governor is not the more usual thing; meanwhile, Democrats took previously Republican Governorships in Hawaii (although here we have the mirror image of Wyoming), Vermont and California as part of a successful effort to offset at least some of the damage caused by such as the Republicans taking the Governor's chair in Maine.
Yes, it was a big night for the Grand Old Party this past Election Day but it was not as clear cut a "beatdown" as had been 1994's Midterm Elections. Democrats did, in fact, take a "shellacking" (as President Obama himself described it) but there are enough "tidbits"- more than the proverbial "crumbs falling from the table"- for Democrats to see here and there; again, 1994 had a whole different "feel" the morning after!
as former President George W. Bush himself might put it ;-)
The most important card in the deck for President Obama to play as we now enter the 2012 Presidential Election cycle is largely that once played by President Bill Clinton 16 years ago which is to simply let the Republicans beat themselves... or not.
Back in 1995 becoming 1996, Bill Clinton played the GOP like a Stradivarius while Newt Gingrich burned and then ran against Gingrich and the "Contract with America" Republicans far more than he did against Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole to win a second term in the White House (for his own part, Dole left his longtime seat in the U.S. Senate [that is, once he was assured of his Party's presidential nomination]- ostensibly so as to not be distracted from necessary duties as a sitting Senator while seeking the Nation's Highest Office [something that didn't seem to at all concern either John McCain or Barack Obama two years ago, by the way]- but it also aided Dole's attempts [unsuccessful in the long run] to distance himself from his fellow Republicans serving inside the United States Capitol). Much of Clinton's ability to do so was actually the Republicans' own fault- as they continued to regard their own press releases as, instead, being critical acclaim of their performance, kept paying far more attention to the echoes of their own voices and- above all else- so very often confused Action with Accomplishment (something the Democrats in both houses of Congress also became rather good at during George W. Bush's first term as President, by the way).
However, a lot of President Clinton's so outdueling the GOP of the "Contract with America" era was Bill Clinton's own political skill for, more than any President since Lyndon Baines Johnson, Clinton applied- where he didn't necessarily believe- two basic adages of Politics in America: first, LBJ's own famous dictum (which Johnson attributed to his own father, a Texas state legislator) that "if you can't walk into a room and immediately tell who's for you and who's against you, you have no business in Politics" and, second, the notion that "one vote more than the other guy might as well be a Landslide". Bill Clinton well knew how to count the votes- a skill he the more honed while serving as Governor of Arkansas- and, like Kenny Rogers' "Gambler", he generally knew "when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em"... in contradistinction, Newt Gingrich and the Congressional Republicans either didn't know how to do so or, at the very least, didn't really want to (on grounds of alleged "higher principle"- conveniently [or, as regards the actual results of the 1996 Presidential Election and the ensuing political disaster that was Clinton's Impeachment (though, in the end, not for Clinton himself!), perhaps inconveniently] forgetting that the only purpose of Political Parties is to contest and win elections and, thereafter, hold power by continuing to so win subsequent elections: those who you who might think otherwise should best realize that I myself can sit around with my friends in a bar or with my family at Thanksgiving Dinner [as I am sure will happen this Thanksgiving] and well philosophize politically without at all founding a new Political Party... in short: Parties are not mere "debating societies"-- unless, of course, their members might wish them to be [in which case, why should *I* then vote for their candidates for elective office?: as you contemplate your respective navels, remember to always remove the lint! ;-)])
Basically, the "Contract with America" Republicans under Newt Gingrich's... (ahem)... leadership treated their big '94 electoral victory much in the manner of a guy who buys a luxury car only to later have the dubious pleasure of driving it directly, at rather high speed, into a utility pole (in this case, one plastered with 'IMPEACH CLINTON' signs): that the Congressional GOP didn't suffer serious electoral defeat until a dozen years later was largely due to the dumb luck of having the opposing Democrats run one of the most inept campaigns for the House in 2000, itself concurrent with the wacky ending to the 2000 Presidential Election (where the Democrats did do well a decade ago was in their Senate campaign that year: recall that the incoming Senate at the beginning of 2001 was a 50/50 split between the two Major Parties) and then the natural- as well as understandable- "rally 'round the flag: as well as the incumbent President" mentality following 9/11, this all being followed up by the Democrats then catching that 'our own press releases simply must be reality' syndrome (in the Democrats' case during the first half of the first decade of the 21st Century, it seemed to be very much along the lines of "dang, we should have won those elections: maybe this is all a dream and we really did win them after all!")
The question of moment, then, is this: does Barack Obama have the same political muscle- where not also moxie- as his most immediate Democratic predecessor? The jury is still out on this one: for one could well argue that the Health Care legislation itself (that which became such a major issue in this year's election campaign) showed at least some of this in the current President. However, for the most part, Obama seems to, much more, have the political mindset of the quintessential community organizer/neighborhood activist: very good at setting up a number of folding chairs around a couple of card tables and working out consensus among those so sitting in those chairs as to whether or not, after Alternate Side of the Street parking rules are being so rigidly enforced by the city, the streets are really any cleaner... not really all that effective at the presidential level, all told!
Lyndon Johnson used to often quote Isaiah 1:18- Come now, let us reason together [KJV]; then, if one didn't happen to accept his reasoning, one got "the Treatment" (there is a well-known series of photographs showing LBJ- in his capacity as Senate Majority Leader- giving said "Treatment" to then-Senator Theodore F. Green [D- Rhode Island] in which Green looks every bit the schoolboy called down to the Principal's Office and not at all wanting to even have to be there with Johnson acting every bit the schoolteacher he himself once trained to be): President Obama, on the other hand, seems to most earnestly believe the biblical injunction quite literally.
All in all: Bill Clinton, for his part, was more LBJ than Obama... yet just how much Barack Obama might be more Bill Clinton over the next two years will, obviously, have quite a bit to do with whether or not we all get to talk about "President Obama's second term".
Let's all have a Tea Party!... or... maybe not:
For their own part, John Boehner's "Pledge to America" Republicans have to not allow themselves to fall into the same political trap into which fell Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" crowd.
Thus, the question of moment for the GOP members of Congress is: what is the appropriate role of the 'Tea Party' within the greater Republican Congressional caucus?
It is, first of all, most unwise to paint the 'Tea Party' with too broad a brush. Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell and Carl Paladino all became "face"s of the Tea Party movement in the media and, granted, their respective concession speeches each contained more than enough that was downright wacky about their entire campaigns (O'Donnell's reading a veritable "to do" list of what she now expected Senator-elect Chris Coons to do upon taking office was positively mind-boggling [as I watched it "live" on TV, I could only see it as being very much like a hostage giving his/her captors a list of demands!])-- but one must keep in mind that these three lost!
Senator-elect Rand Paul's victory speech was certainly strident but it wasn't at all ranting- even defiant, perhaps, but not all that harsh- certainly it was articulate and well imbued with a knowledge, where not also a sense, of American Constitutional History that I myself can well appreciate; and Senator-elect Marco Rubio clearly represents a "kinder, gentler" 'Tea Party': not in the sense that Rubio would be expected to be any the less conservative than he actually is, yet he is a far cry from the more-- well--- "entertaining" 'Tea Party'-supported candidates in this most recent election. Nevertheless, there are clearly going to be issues on which the 'Tea Party' Republicans- in both houses of Congress- and the Republican leadership- again, in both chambers (but with only the House of Representatives in GOP hands outright, a Speaker Boehner is the most important player in all this)- won't see "eye to eye" during the ensuing 112th Congress (and this is neither the time, nor the place, to go through these issues: for I am quite sure that I will have plenty of opportunity to address them in future Commentaries as the First Session of the 112th Congress proceeds during the calendar year 2011).
What happens then? Will the Republican Party hierarchy- both within and outside Congress- allow the 'Tea Partiers' to pull the GOP more to the Right (thereby, in turn, allowing President Obama and the Democrats to seize the Center) or not? Put another way: will the tail wag the dog or the dog the tail?
Which end of the "dog" does the wagging (which will also largely depend on who is the "tail"- the incoming 'Tea Partiers' or the greater Republican Party US itself) will not only determine whether what we saw in the 2010 Midterms was a "one time only" performance or, instead, the institution of a long-term trend at least able to survive a series of biennial election cycles, but will also have its concomitant effects on the ability of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee (whoever this might be) to eventually be the one sleeping in the White House come the evening of 20 January 2013.
Boehner- and, to a lesser degree, Senator Mitch McConnell (lesser if only because he is still the leader of the Minority in the Senate: Cloture be damned!)- now walks a political tightrope as the Republicans elected to the incoming House will have to struggle with who should be the next Majority Leader and Whip, the first sign of just how much clout the 40- give or take (as a relative handful of House races have yet to be called)- 'Tea Party' Congressmen-elect will actually have.
To President Obama, I must remind him of the "curse": May you live in the most interesting of times.
To Speaker-presumptive John Boehner, I here remind him of another "curse": Be careful what you wish for: you just might get it.
Meanwhile, the two fundamental components of Murphy's Law (Whatever can go wrong, will)- the Law of Unintended Consequences and the Law of Unforeseen Circumstances (in this case, in their respective political guises)- ever lurk within the shadows of ongoing Time that ever accompany the hills and vales of ever-marching History.
As I said prior to this most recent election, so I now say about the two year run-up to the next:
Bring your popcorn!