It was just months ago that liberal writers, flush with Barack Obama’s presidential victory and Democratic control of Congress, were writing gleeful obituaries for the conservative movement and its Republican Party adjunct. In this triumphalist narrative, the Right had been repudiated in successive elections and the era of Democratic rule had begun. If this week’s midterm elections demonstrated anything conclusively, it is that both the Right’s decline and the Left’s resurgence have been greatly exaggerated.
Republicans were the obvious winners in this year’s “political tsunami.” Their Election Day rally – including a net gain of over 60 formerly Democratic seats – represents the largest single gain by a political party since the election of 1948. That sweep, as analyst Michael Barone puts out, leaves Republicans with a larger majority than they enjoyed even in their 12 years in charge of the House between 1994 and 2006. More significantly, regaining control of one branch of Congress will make it easier for Republicans to challenge the Obama administration’s agenda and restore the fiscal responsibility that was at the heart of their campaign.
Just as important as the GOP’s newly bolstered ranks is that the party won political converts in the country’s disaffected independent voters. After helping Obama capture the White House just two years ago, independents have beat a hasty retreat from Democrats, defecting to the GOP in record numbers. That backlash swept aside even those Democrats who once reliably counted on independent support. Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, whose support among independents dropped by almost 20 points since 2004, was the most prominent casualty. In addition to strengthening the party ahead of the 2012 election, the injection of new blood could help Republicans make good on their pledge to cut federal spending and shrink the deficit, both issues that resonated with independent voters.
In a complimentary development for the GOP, this week’s election has established the Tea Party as a genuinely popular movement. Democrats, including Obama, spent the weeks leading up to the election dismissing the Tea Partiers as an “astroturf” campaign, manufactured by wealthy foreign sponsors and lacking mainstream support from the electorate. The attacks could hardly have been more wrongheaded. According to exit polls from Tuesday’s election, 41 percent of those voting in House races said they support the Tea Party. (If exit polls are to be believed, Tea Partiers also ended up being more bipartisan than Democrats gave them credit for, with 11 percent supporting Democratic candidates.)
Tea Parties also justified much of the hype surrounding their political clout. Tea Party favorites like Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida won their respective races after pushing aside establishment Republican challengers in the primaries. In Wisconsin’s Senate race, Ron Johnson, an Oshkosh plastics manufacturer with Tea Party ties, scored an upset over incumbent and left-wing icon Russell Feingold. Tea Partiers also proved kingmakers in close races. Republican Pat Toomey’s victory over Democrat Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania’s tightly contested Senate race owed much to the fact that 39 percent of the electorate was made of up of Tea Party members.
The big losers on the night were, of course, President Obama and Democrats. Their collective defeat was made all the more embarrassing by the denial that greeted their final moments in control of Congress. As comedian Jon Stewart pointed out, this year’s pre-election forecasts depended greatly whether the one predicting “was a Democrat or anybody else in the world other than a Democrat.” It was left to the polls to restore sanity, as incumbent after incumbent was handed the electoral version of a pink slip.
To be sure, it was not all glory for Republicans and their Tea Party allies. Left-wing pundits have made a habit of mocking Sarah Palin and other Tea Party supporters for having the reverse Midas touch – that is, backing candidates who are ideologically simpatico but politically flawed. The argument has been repeatedly refuted – witness the success of Tea Party candidates like Paul and Rubio – but on occasion it has hit the mark. In Nevada, Sharon Angle lost a close election to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, helping Democrats keep control of the Senate. A perennial survivor, Reid’s political demise was nevertheless suggested by several pre-election polls. And it still may have come to pass, some have argued, had Republicans put forth a more astute and less polarizing candidate. In Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, written off from the beginning as a sure loser, proved to be just that as she lost by 17 points to Democrat Chris Coons. Likewise, in New York, Tea Party-aligned Republican gubernatorial challenger Carl Paladino suffered a heavy and much-publicized defeat. And while the New York race was never Republicans’ to win, many GOP strategists and pundits had argued that Delaware was very much within reach had Republicans followed the so-called Buckley rule by choosing a more electable standard bearer – in Delaware’s case, Tea Party nemesis Mike Castle. Whatever the reality, it’s fair to say that this election will not have convinced all critics of the viability of Tea Party candidates.
But if Republicans sometimes got the strategy wrong, the real comeuppance came to Democrats for passing the wrong policies. Most notably repudiated was ObamaCare. Although Democrats have argued, rightly, that individual elements of the legislation are popular with the public, the inescapable lesson of the election is that as a whole the legislation was a failure with voters. The Wall Street Journal points out that 33 of the 219 House Democrats who voted for ObamaCare lost their jobs this week, a mass eviction consistent with the attitudes of 48 percent of voters who favored the legislation’s repeal, according to exit polls. Those Democrats who believed that the merits of ObamaCare would convince the public in the end were pointedly disabused. In Virginia, Democratic Congressman Tom Perriello defied many of the constituents in his Republican-leaning district by voting to pass the legislation. The Left hailed Perriello as a true “conviction politician,” but those he actually represents disagreed. He went down to defeat on Tuesday.
The outstanding question of this election is whether the biggest loser not to actually lose his job understands the new political reality. On the evidence of his press conference this week, President Obama does not. Formally, at least, the president has struck a note of contrition, acknowledging the “shellacking” his party received and offering to work with Republicans. Yet there is no evidence that he is changing course. He hasn’t seemed to recognize the extent to which his policies – especially the $800 billion economic stimulus package and ObamaCare – have fueled the voter discontent that was on display this week. Instead, Obama insisted that the “American people” don’t want to see Republicans and Democrats refight the “arguments that we had over the past two years.”
In fact, the election results suggest the opposite lesson. If President Obama seems uneager to rehash the debates of his first two years in office, it’s because he recognizes that Americans have increasingly chosen sides. And they have not sided with him.