This past Tuesday, Americans hit the polls to vote in the 2010 midterm elections. At stake were 37 Senate seats, every House seat, 37 governorships, and a majority of state houses. Two years into his presidency, the elections were seen by many pundits (and confirmed by voters in exit polls) as a sort of referendum on Barack Obama. Democrats lost control of the House (GOP +61 seats for a 240-187 majority), held the Senate (GOP +6 for a 53-47 Democrat majority), and ceded the majority of governor’s mansions (GOP + 7 for a 29-18 lead). The election was the worst for Democratic state legislators since 1928. So what to make of it?
The following is meant to serve as a high level overview of the midterms for the average, non-political reader, and is broken into three sections. The first will focus on what exactly happened…i.e., how did Democrats go from historic victors in 2006 and 2008 to recipients of one of the biggest beatings in congressional history? The second section focuses on what we’re likely to see in the coming years because of this election. The final section will be the only one in which my biases rear their ugly heads, as I will expound upon what, as a libertarian, I’d like to see from here.
Democratic pundits have already come up with a laundry list of reasons as to why the GOP scored such a massive victory: lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic base, mismanaging of communications efforts, economic turmoil, etc. Before we discuss the real reason, let’s address these explanations. First, Democratic turnout may not have been stellar, but registered Republicans didn’t outnumber registered Dems by all that much. And an enthusiasm drop off for the party controlling the White House occurs in just about every first midterm election, so why this is being cited as a factor driving such an historic blowout is beyond me. Secondly, the White House didn’t miscommunicate their policies. Instead, they advanced major legislation that always polled terribly. To argue that the health care bill, stimulus, and bank bailouts (not to mention bills that Democrats attempted to pass but failed, such as card check, cap and trade, etc.) would have had better reviews if it weren’t for bad messaging is blatant cognitive dissonance. Democrats had both houses of Congress and a stellar communicator in the Oval Office messaging these policies; whatever your thoughts as to their merit, they were quantifiably unpopular. As for the economic argument, it is certainly to some extent true. Also true is the fact that Obama was polling 6-8 points behind John McCain before the September stock market crash. As Jay Cost noted for RealClearPolitics, it works both ways. The putrid economy saved Democrats in 2008 and hurt them in 2010; thus is the nature of politics.
The driving force behind GOP gains in 2010 was the independent vote. Democrats carried it in 2006 and 2008. This allowed them to win congressional (Nebraska, Wisconsin) and electoral college (Virginia, North Carolina) votes in more conservative states. For Democrats, this was a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that they were able to construct a geographically diverse coalition and attain large majorities in Congress, in addition to winning a near landslide presidential election. The curse was that these new congressmen were doomed from the start: they were elected on moderate, often even conservative platforms, but part of a Democratic majority that sought to enact a historically ambitious liberal agenda. Thus, folks such as Blanche Lincoln of Nebraska and Tom Periello of Virginia were constantly asked to support the President on bills that they knew would hurt their reputations back home. Independent voters in the South and Mountain West hadn’t voted Democrats into power to pass these bills; they voted them in to avoid a repeat of George W. Bush’s evangelical, confused conservativism. Come 2010, both of the aforementioned (in addition to a large chunk of socially liberal, economic conservative Democrats…the “Blue Dog” coalition”) thus found themselves out of work.
Republicans, meanwhile, were invigorated by Tea Party activists who sought to shrink the size of the federal government. Economically conservative, socially apathetic GOP candidates showed their potential in a series of pre-midterm elections: Chris Christie (New Jersey governorship), Scott Brown (US Senate-MA), and Bob McDonnell (Virginia governorship) all won close races by touting their small government philosophies and shying away from social issues. The midterms were more of the same. GOP candidates seen as outside the social mainstream (Christie O’Donnell, Sharron Angle) were beaten handily. Candidates that ran as social centrists (Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Rob Portman) fared much better.
But perhaps the most devastating blow to Democrats came in the state houses. Although state legislators have little to no say in some of today’s most widely publicized issues (foreign policy, monetary policy, etc.), they do work in tandem with governors to re-draw congressional districts every ten years. The process of gerrymandering allows parties with more power at the state level to create artificial boundaries that help their parties’ chances. And Republicans now have a majority of governorships and state houses. As Sean Trende noted, Republicans could use these gains to further cement their new found Congressional majority.
The resulting Congressional makeup all but ensures that the next two years will be marked by progress on easy issues and gridlock on the tough ones. There are two major reasons for this.
First, the makeup of Congress is now more partisan than it was previously. Tea Party activists in many cases bucked the Republican establishment by helping small government loyalists win nominations and elections. Lost in the process were moderates such as incumbent Utah Senator Bob Bennett and former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, both former GOP establishment picks who were defeated in their primaries. Democrats, meanwhile, saw most of their Congressional losses come from toss up districts that have historically leaned Republican. In order to have won these seats in the first place, the Democrat incumbents holding them were moderates. Democrats that held onto their seats tended to come from safer havens, where votes for controversial bills wouldn’t hurt them. They’re not going anywhere.
Second, neither party has enough control of Washington to propose tough solutions. Doing so could infuriate subsets of voters…and the responsible party likely couldn’t even advance the bill! Most difficult problems require not just innovation but also sacrifice (read: votes that would put a congressman on the chopping block in 2012). Take the deficit. For all the talk of “eliminating wasteful spending” (a frequent Obama-ism) and cutting earmarks (a GOP rallying cry), there simply isn’t enough easy spending to cut. The low hanging fruit is mostly gone. Making meaningful reductions to the deficit must include entitlement reform and defense cuts. When Democrats propose cutting defense budgets, Republicans will block them; ditto for when the GOP proposes cuts to entitlement programs. And in this example, Democrats have already hurt themselves in the South and Mountain West, while Republicans have alienated senior citizens.
At the same time, both Republicans and Democrats will want Americans to think that they did something. So, you could very well see a deficit reduction bill pass, but it would likely be a token measure that doesn’t actually solve anything. Additionally, the parties will probably pass bills that don’t offend major voter blocs for either party.
The past seventy some years have seen a vast expansion of the federal government. For the first time since the Reagan administration, we have an electorate that seems to be willing to at least slow, if not completely stop, this growth.
As the government inserts itself into more of our affairs, more of our liberties are necessarily lost. On balance, I believe this to be an extremely negative development. I fight the left’s thesis that a globalized world requires increasingly centralized power and solutions. Instead, as the world becomes less predictable, so too become the source of its solutions and innovations. Heavy subsidizing of preferred government industries and technologies assume a prescience of mind that humankind has never, and will never, possess. And the taxes used for these subsidies rob individuals of future opportunities and decision making sovereignty.
I also fight the right’s thesis that the threats facing America are of such a dire nature as to necessitate the constant abrogation of individual liberty in the name of security. America was created on a largely unknown continent with enemies both on the westward frontier (various Indian tribes) and the eastern seaboard (French and British navies). These threats were far more existential than terrorist organizations who kill less people per year than lightning strikes. And yet it did not prevent the Founders from building in myriad protections to individual liberty in the Constitution. While America should continue to ruthlessly persecute its enemies, it should not do so at the expense of its citizenry’s inalienable rights. Furthermore, the Right cannot honestly continue to claim Americans’ right to be protected from unnecessary taxation while simultaneously denying their right to adhere to their own moral code. The culture war must be abandoned.
2010 was a tumultuous political year; do not expect 2011 and 2012 to be any steadier. While politics will look dirty and ineffective, I urge the readership not to overstate the significance of the moment. This has happened before. And America will continue to prosper.