There will, of course, be pundits by the dozens attempting to dissect today’s election results. Obviously, a large segment of the American public was not happy with the Democrats’ record over the past two years. Obviously also, Obama’s mantra that the Republicans drove the economy into the ditch and now they’re complaining about us trying to pull it back out didn’t really wash (or, at least, not on a national level). What went wrong? and can the Democrats do better over the next two years?
My personal opinion is that the Democrats’ majority in Congress was really a ticking time bomb that finally blew up today. Ever since the 1992 election, Democrats have attempted to win over “red” states by running candidates who were slightly less conservative than their Republican opponents. The tactic was at least somewhat successful, so the Democrats had, until today, nominally impressive majorities in both the House and Senate. However, many of those nominally-Democratic seats were held by profoundly conservative people; people who had little use for the agenda of more liberal Democrats, and voted at least as often with the Republicans, especially on key legislation. As a result, given the unified opposition of the Republicans, Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership were forced to repeatedly water down their legislative initiatives in order to capture enough votes in their own party to get the legislation passed.
It is, to my mind, only poetic justice that some of the victims in today’s rout of the Democratic party were the very conservative Democrats who were most effective in obstructing Obama’s legislative agenda. Democrats like Blanche Lincoln lost, even though they fought against Obama at almost every turn, because why would conservative red state voters choose someone who looked like a Republican when they could, instead, vote for someone who was a Republican?
Of course, with the shift in the House majority, we’re going to have, as in 1948 with Harry Truman’s presidential campaign, a “do-nothing” Congress. While the Republicans will control the House, they will probably not gain control of the Senate. More importantly, the Democrats will have sufficient reliable votes in the Senate to maintain a filibuster and block Republican legislation. Even more importantly still, Republicans will have nowhere near enough votes in the House or Senate to override the vetoes that Obama will almost certainly use against any conservative legislation the Republicans might happen to be able to push through.
If the Republicans were inclined to look for bipartisan “deals”, they might still be able to put through a watered-down Republican program, as happened during Clinton’s second term on issues such as welfare and tax reform. However, the Republicans have themselves been pushed to the right by their Tea Party wing. As a result, I would expect no compromises and that almost no substantive legislation will make it into law over the next two years.
At that point, what happens next will depend on what the effects of a stalled legislative agenda are, and who gets blamed for it. If Obama is lucky, the legislation he pushed through in the last two years will have some positive effects, enough that people will start looking back on the 2008-2010 years as a time when some good things happened. Meanwhile, if, as most economists seem to predict, the U.S. economy remains in the doldrums until 2012, Obama may be able to blame that stalled economy on the “do-nothing Congress” and run a re-election campaign based on letting Obama be Obama again by giving him the Congress he needs to do something.
If, on the other hand, the economy recovers without any further help, that may bolster the Republicans’ argument that government intervention was unnecessary and support a push to further “unleash” American capitalism by electing an anti-regulation president — dare I say, like Sarah Palin. While I’m not an economist, I find it hard to believe that a rudderless American economy will do anything but bob around helplessly for the next two years while other countries with more effective legislative programs steam on ahead. However, only time will tell.