The 2010 election will be remembered as the Seinfeld of American politics. With one exception, the election results are a lot like the sitcom which was famous for being about nothing. The one exception is the economy where voter discontent is "real and spectacular" but there was no mandate as to how to remedy the problem.
While the results caused a historic gain of 64 House seats for the Republicans, voters did not embrace their policies. There was no groundswell for Republicans, as a majority of voters viewed the party unfavorably including nearly one in four Republican voters. Nor is there a majority for the top Republican priorities -- extending the Bush tax cuts and repealing Obamacare. If you think this is merely Democratic spin recasting the party's electoral "shellacking", check out George Hawley's "The 2010 Elections: Huh?" in The American Conservative.
The Seinfeldesque results are evidence of both the Republicans' success in making the election about the economy and the White House's failure to define the narrative the past year. The White House would be wise to study President Reagan, the last president to come into office under such dismal economic conditions, since from the beginning Reagan and the Republicans repeatedly invoked Jimmy Carter as the poster child for economic failure to the point that President George H.W. Bush was still running against Carter during his debates with Bill Clinton twelve years later. In contrast, President Obama never mentioned George W. Bush during his final rallies in key cities such as Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia.
The results also raise the question as to why we have nationally televised debates for presidential elections but not for the midterm congressional elections that follow since arguably debates would have yielded a more clearly defined result.
While the election results may be Seinfeldesque, everything that happens in Washington from November 3rd forward is very much about one thing -- the 2012 elections. We will soon see the first battles of 2012 when Congress returns to finish its business to address spending bills (which includes immigration reforms and a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"), expiration of the Bush tax cuts, lifting of the debt ceiling and extension of unemployment benefits.
In response to the election results, President Obama is waving the banner of bi-partisanship, stating in his 60 Minutes interview that while Democrats are proud to be Democrats they are even prouder to be Americans and he was certain Republicans were no different. There is nothing wrong with the president seeking bi-partisan solutions where possible, but keep in mind that this is the party whose Senate leader (Mitch McConnell) was described by his leading local newspaper as "a partisan before he is a patriot" and who has listed the president's defeat as his principal objective for the new Congress. This is the party whose record use of the filibuster has resulted in the lowest rate of judicial confirmations ever and blocked 420 bills passed by the House. This is the party whose past leadership has referred to bipartisanship as "date rape" and has a number of new members itching to shut down the government.
In addition, there remains a wide gulf between the parties on a number of these issues that will make compromise difficult, if not impossible. The president might be wise to use this time to draw a line in the sand on an issue such as the extension of unemployment benefits since, not only is he more likely to succeed with the current Congress, but it allows him to define the Republicans as anti-middle class, send a message of resolve to the incoming Republicans and energize a dejected base -- all of which should improve his standing with the voters.
For Republicans, the downside of their Seinfeldesque victory is that absent a clear mandate they must tread cautiously especially since they have 55 new members from districts carried by Obama in 2008. This is the result of their decision to ignore the opportunity created by their stinging defeats in 2006 and 2008 to redefine the party in the post-Bush era, choosing instead to become the party of "No" and count on voter discontent over the economy to return them to power.
The fleeting nature of this Republican moment is illustrated by Winston Churchill's famous response to a rebuke by an opposing member of Parliament (Bessie Braddock) over his drunkenness in which he simply said "Bessie, you're ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober." Tomorrow is on the horizon for the GOP since as the economy recovers, discontent will dissipate just as it did in 1996.
So close the book on 2010. The 738-day mulligan that is the 2012 election has already begun (not that there is anything wrong with that).
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