Friday, November 5, 2010

Jump ball

Was it all just a dream? Two days shy of two years ago, Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States and strode onto a stage in Grant Park in Chicago, where 250,000 of his fellow Americans waited to greet him in triumph.

Today, President Obama is a man under siege, his congressional majority having vanished last night’s midterm election, two years from when the president faces a vote for his own re-election. The pollsters and pundits got it right, but what they’d ventured for months was finally less wisdom than it was observation, less a matter of divining tea leaves and more a matter of paying attention — paying attention in ways, it turned out, the Democratic Party was not.

There’s no way to mitigate the degree to which the Democrats in Congress had their heads handed to them. On Tuesday about 9 P.M. eastern time, the House of Representatives returned to Republican control with a sudden and gravitational shift of congressional power not seen since 1948. When most of the counting was done, and still subject to change, the Republican Party gained 56 seats in the House, for a new total of 239, to the Democrats’ 187.

Insult to injury: The Democrats also lost six seats in the Senate, narrowing their majority there — and that with other contests still to be decided, probably not for days.

Despite everything thrown at the Democrats in the last two years from the birthers, the Foxes, the Limbaughs and Kristols; despite dodging fire from the loose Buchanans and being rhetorically imPalined, what doomed the Democratic Party was distilled by James Carville years ago. Now, as then, it’s the economy, stupid. What goes around comes around: The most potentially ruinous domestic financial upheaval since the Great Depression, the stage for which was set by the Bush administration, has claimed its latest victims, several of the Democratic officers of Congress who just got their pink slips in the dead of night.

◊ ◊ ◊

President Obama, doing his best to buck up the faithful in the wake of a devastating defeat for his party, offered reporters a postmortem in the East Room of the White House, consistent with his no-nonsense style. “We were in such a hurry to get things done, we didn’t change how things got done.”

That was just one part of what might as well be called Mea Culpa Obama, the president laying bare the throat.

“I think the overwhelming message that I hear from the voters is that we want everybody to act responsibly in Washington, we want you to work harder to arrive at consensus, we want you to focus completely on jobs and the economy and growing it, so that we're ensuring a better future for our children and our grandchildren," he said.

“And, you know, I think that there's no doubt that as I reflect on the results of the election it underscores for me that I have got to do a better job, just like everybody else in Washington does ...

“[T]his is a growth process and — and an evolution. And the relationship that I have had with the American people is one that built slowly, peaked at this incredible high, and then during the course of the last two years, as we've together gone through some very difficult times, has gotten rockier and tougher.

“And, you know, it's going to, I'm sure, have some more ups and downs during the course of me being in this office.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Analysis by the media, of course, was pretty much immediate. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow effectively blamed Obama’s loss on history, articulating the historical reasoning behind Tuesday’s losses. It was hardly anodyne for the nation’s Democrats and progressives, but it definitely put things in a longer perspective: More often than not, as a matter of the reliability of the political tides, the party in power has suffered congressional losses in the midterm vote after their own election to power.

But it’s just as true (if not historically durable) that, just as Obama’s election juggernaut two years ago broke with history at every turn, there was no reason to think the wheels would fall off that juggernaut this soon, no reason to think that the same populist forces Team Obama had unleashed and harnessed to win election couldn’t be sustained for two years, to help the Democrats in Congress get over.

The Democrats weren’t necessarily fated to lose big on Tuesday. History wasn’t on their side, it’s true, but they gave history a lot of help. Progressives’ distaste for the prosecution of two wars; their lingering disappointment over abandonment of the health-care public option; and a sense (or a suspicion) that Obama has walked away from certain of his deepest principles rooted in the rule of law— they all led to poor turnouts for Democrats, and votes for GOP candidates that were, really, not so much votes for Republicans as votes against Democrats.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Democrats did more than they got credit for. The Democrats also did more than they took credit for. That was part of the problem that led to Tuesday night. A matter of messaging.

With the recent past as evidence, that would seem to be impossible. Among the things that’s hardest to believe about the midterm election is the way the political machine that was Team Obama in 2008 — a campaign organization relentlessly on message, with legions of loyal supporters and volunteers and an Internet-based fundraising mechanism that was, for all practical purposes, a bottomless campaign ATM — has ground to a screeching halt in 2010.

The Democrats lost the messaging wars in the runup to the midterms, the same messaging wars whose terrain and terms they had dictated not that long ago.

◊ ◊ ◊

But still. Things could have been worse. Way worse. Democratic House losses fell short of the 72 seats lost under Roosevelt in 1936. There were surprises in the Senate contests: Democrat Michael Bennet won the Senate race in Colorado, one of the emerging political bellwether states.

And there were several downticket Democratic victories that can’t be overlooked. Deval Patrick won re-election as Massachusetts governor. Jerry Brown won his bid to repeat as California governor. Andrew Cuomo won the governors’ race in New York (not that difficult given his clueless opponent). Pat Quinn, caretaker Illinois governor in the wake of the Blagojevich debacle, won the gift outright on Tuesday.

Late on Thursday, Patty Murray, the incumbent Democratic senator in Washington state (an 18-year veteran), won re-election over GOP challenger Dino Rossi. Also late Thursday, the write-in campaign of Lisa Murkowski was pulling away slightly from Tea Party fave Joe Miller in the Senate race in Alaska, slightly widening the narrow lead that’s held since Tuesday.

And on an Election Night crowded with Democratic failures, Harry Reid won re-election in Nevada, defeating challenger Sharron Angle, whose campaign redefined incompetence. Reid, despite much wind in his face in Washington and at home, won a return to Capitol Hill as Senate Majority Leader.

In these days after the most chaotic, imagistically provocative midterm election in modern times (and maybe ever), the dust is starting to settle. The shock of losing will subside for the Democrats roughly the same time the frisson of victory starts to wear off for the Republicans. Some of the newspapers and Web sites are already asking the new current question, literally or indirectly: “WHAT NOW?”

◊ ◊ ◊

“All the old rules are gone,” Tom Brokaw of NBC News said Tuesday night. “Everything is now jump ball. Every two years it’s a different game and a different set of players coming in.”

And here come the guys and gals in red uniforms. The ball’s in their court in the House, coach Boehner presiding.

And guess what? The American people may have already decided they’re losers too. According to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey, some 59 percent of likely voters think it’s at least somewhat likely they’ll end up disenchanted with the Republicans in Congress between now and 2012. That includes 38 percent, who think it’s “Very Likely.”

The Rasmussen survey also finds that, by a hefty margin (50 percent to 32 percent), voters already think the GOP Pledge to America — a tax-cutting, stimulus-ending initiative led in September by the presumptive Speaker, John Boehner — is “a campaign gimmick rather than a serious policy document.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Brokaw’s right: For the next two years American politics is likely to be a nonstop case of jump ball, with the possession arrow flashing back and forth like a strobe light at a discotheque. Right now, in the House, it’s in the hands of the Republicans, and most notably in the hands of the Tea Party activists who’ve achieved unprecedented leverage on Capitol Hill.

But irony of ironies — the Tea Party Republicans are about to find out what they’ve got in common with someone they think they’ve nothing in common: President Obama.

The Tea Party loyalists soon to arrive in Washington are about to encounter the very thing that ensures their movement’s obsolescence: political reality.

And like Barack Obama discovered last year when he assumed the White House, the Tea Party Republicans (and the GOP leadership hoping to accommodate them) will discover something next year when they take Capitol Hill: there’s a big difference between campaigning and governing.

Image credits: Obama: The White House. Reid: Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...