OK, the Republicans won big in a "wave" election. What happens next? I have two scenarios
The Optimistic View
Both parties recognize that they have to compromise in some matters of policy. There are two obvious ones from which each side could gain something.
Health Care. The Republicans have to realize that they will not "repeal Obamacare." The systemic conservative (small "c") rules of the game that made it so hard to get healthcare reform passed in the first place will now operate to preserve it. They might take a symbolic vote or two to repeal healthcare reform, but they will lose.
There could be common ground in one area, if both sides would agree not to demagogue the issue: cost controls. The Democrats really punted on this after the Republicans started screaming about death panels and killing grandma. If both sides would sit down in good faith, they might be able to work with Democrats who recognize that there is unfinished business in the area of cost controls; no one really believed those assertions that health care reform as passed would really save money. And one of the early proponents of bringing efficiencies into the health care system was Newt Gingrich. He used to lament that Democrats would call an "X billion dollar cost efficiency" in the health care system an "X billion dollar cut" in benefits. He was right back then (before he decided to demagogue the issue. Republicans could get some cost savings and deficit reductions and Democrats could benefit from making their program work at lower cost.
The Budget/Deficit. If there was a single resonant issue in tonight's election it was that the public is very concerned about runaway spending. Any honest and rationale person knows that with 80% of the federal budget spent on defense, interest, and entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) that the budget can only be brought into anything close to balance by some combination of major cuts in these programs and/or tax increases of some sort. While cuts in other programs may be warranted, they are chump change: no serious discussion of the budget will start with them. But any politician who admits this publicly is toast since these are the most popular programs (that is why they are so large. And way too many have gotten great mileage by lying on this issue, pretending that there is some magic "free lunch" solution. There is not, and every serious adult knows this.
The Simpson/Erskine budget commission will report its findings in a month or so. This commission could provide enough cover that politicians who cared to do so could work cooperatively towards seriously addressing these monumental long-term issues. But to make this work, the commission's proposals have to be endorsed simultaneously by both Democrats and Republicans. They won't be pretty and can only be acted on with bipartisan support. Should either party get out in front on this issue, they will be demagogued mercilessly. This is all or nothing, since the proposals will certainly involve hard and painful choices.
OR. . . .
Sadly the more likely scenario is complete gridlock: the Presidential veto pen and Senate super-majority provisions can prevent any reversals in the Democratic legislative accomplishments of the last two years. But a Republican House and a more conservative Senate can undermine almost any additional Presidential initiatives.
Mutual posturing and recriminations. A possible government shutdown. Total gridlock. And posturing for the 2012 elections. And it could start tomorrow morning.
Not pretty. And more likely than the co-operative scenario outlined above.
But one can always hope. Especially very late on election night.
Follow Michael J. O'Neil on Twitter: www.twitter.com/michaeljoneil