It was a historic session -- one of the most productive since the New Deal -- but in the end, it was brief. Four years after taking over Congress with the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives, Democrats lost control of the chamber in a devastating, wipeout election.
And as the political practitioners and election pundits take stock of what happened, perhaps the one conclusion all sides agree with is this: if government seemed stalemated and futile before, the next two years will bring new meaning to deadlocked.
"There are going to be confrontations, subpoenas, demands that people testify, efforts to undermine the things the president has done," said Norm Ornstein, a student of congressional history and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "The question is, if you get a shutdown of the government or disruption of government, do you get the public backlash? And then, do you get Republicans reacting the way [former Speaker Newt] Gingrich did, when he and his colleagues said, 'Oops, if we want to win a second majority we have to work with the president.' If that is what [incoming GOP leader John] Boehner decides to do, does he have the clout to get his colleagues to do that? I'm skeptical."
Not since 1938, when Franklin DeLano Roosevelt's Democrats lost a net of 72 seats to Republicans, has a party bled so badly in a midterm election. Newt Gingrich, who spearheaded the last Republican sweep in 1994, called Tuesday the "biggest repudiation of a White House since 1932," when Herbert Hoover's GOP lost 100 seats.
Not that the size of the victory mattered in practical legislative terms. In an era of an institutionalized filibuster, all that was needed to ensure gridlock was for Republicans to grow their numbers in the Senate. And while Democrats scored some impressive victories -- chief among them, holding on to the seat of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- by the end of the night, Republican numbers in that chamber seemed likely to settle at 47 or 48. If Americans wanted the GOP to serve as a legislative check on White House power -- and Ornstein predicted they would cooperate on "symbolic measures" -- they had succeeded.
The most direct result of the election, rather, seemed to be in the change of committee control in the House, which granted Republicans the power to schedule and dictate the timing and content of legislation and, more importantly, launch investigations into matters involving the White House. Some analysts have suggested that the president would benefit from GOP control of the "people's chamber," giving him a political foil. But Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican who will soon grab the oversight committee's gavel, will be a powerful White House foe with the power of subpoena at his fingertips.
Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella told HuffPost that "there is no set agenda" for how investigations would play out. But in a conference call on Tuesday night, the congressman himself laid out a host of topics that he wants to tackle, including granting inspector generals at various agencies greater investigatory powers and looking into the issue of "unconfirmed czars."
"We are going to ask for the president to make those necessary changes and reforms," he said.
Other lessons to be drawn from the elections are bound to be a subject of intense and prolonged debate. 2010 was a cycle in which a Democrat with racy Halloween photos lost (Krystal Ball) and a Republican who admitted frequenting prostitutes won (David Vitter); where a Tea Partier who once copped to dabbling in witchcraft got drubbed (Christine O'Donnell) and one who deified an "Aqua Buddha" won in a landslide (Rand Paul); where a Democrat who pitted himself against the president came up short (Rep. Chet Edwards) and one who aggressively defended the Obama agenda (Rep. Tom Perriello) faltered as well.
Democrats got hammered. Many of them were progressives. But an even larger chunk were conservative Blue Dogs. Those who supported health care reform lost. Those who opposed it lost as well. And, not surprisingly, each faction claimed that the election's lessons nevertheless vindicated their failures. While former Clinton pollster and consummate triangulator Mark Penn urged the president to move "back to the center," Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee insisted that Democrats lost because "party leaders never truly fought for popular progressive reforms." Another Clinton-hand, Paul Begala, preached a more confrontational approach.
But while the process of introspection began with haste on the Democrat side of the aisle, not everyone was willing to cede an era of Republican transcendence. Even the centrist Third Way, which earlier in the morning had called for moderation in the Obama platform, chose on Tuesday night to direct its punches across the aisle.
"The striking thing is how badly the victorious Republicans are misreading the will of the voters," said Matt Bennett, the group's Vice President for Public Affairs. "They are manifestly not demanding, for example, huge tax cuts, and they don't want these guys to shut down Washington. They want their representatives to act like adults, work together, grow the economy and make their lives better."
Even Republicans conceded that for all of the night's confetti the path ahead was a choppy one. Well before the results were settled, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) -- the defacto leader of the incoming Tea Party faction -- had penned an oped in the Wall Street Journal urging the freshmen class not to trust Republican leadership. Ornstein, likewise, insisted that the "real challenge" in the months ahead fell on the shoulders of the GOP. Even members of the Republic operative class were willing to damper the festive mood.
"Obviously the GOP had a big night tonight, maybe historical," said Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and longtime GOP adviser. "However, they ran largely as anti-Obama, which is not a governing philosophy. I say 'maybe historical' because the voters went for the Republicans for what they opposed and not what they proposed. History is made by what you do and not by what you won't do.
"Beginning on Wednesday, the GOP will have to decide what it stands for and what it will offer the American people. It will also have to decide what direction they will go in, Reagan populist or Big Government Republicanism."