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ANALYSIS

Washington the Biggest Loser as Wave Sweeps Through Congress

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Residents turn out to vote in California.(MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated at 7:49 a.m. on November 3.

Who was the big loser Tuesday? The easy answer is President Obama and his fellow Democrats on this day of epic GOP victories in the House, the Senate, and U.S. statehouses.

 

But there is a bigger loser: Washington.

The wave of disappointment and disillusionment with Washington that swept Obama into office two years ago never went away. With the unemployment rate hovering near double digits, the president was unable to deliver the change that most Americans could believe in, so voters delivered a message of their own to the incumbent party: Get out.

And so Republicans won the House and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate. But even Republicans acknowledged that the results were more of a referendum against Washington than a vote for the GOP.

 

"We make a great mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party," said incoming Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. A rising GOP star, Rubio seized his new role as a party leader and potential presidential candidate, casting the results as "a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."

Even as he claimed the Speaker's gavel, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio said, "We're witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government, and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the American people." 

Recent polls support the theory that a cranky, anxious electorate, struggling through an era of extended unemployment and underemployment, has lost faith in government and its leaders:

  • More than 70 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.
  • Almost as many believe the nation faces a "leadership crisis."
  • Three quarters of voters disapprove of Congress, a near record low.
  • Nearly 6 out of every 10 voters are more willing to take a chance this year on a candidate with little political experience.
  • More than a quarter of voters are willing to back a candidate whose views "seem extreme."
  • Surveys consistently show Americans hold the Republican Party in lower esteem than the Democratic Party, even as the GOP stormed to victories.

“This election is kind of redundant frustration with America,” said Andy Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “I think there was frustration with Republicans. I think there was a lot of frustration with President Obama and the Democrats.”

 

“This is a redundant frustration election where [voters] were saying we want real change in Washington, not change to fit your ideology but change to include us as the American people,” Card said.

He seemed to be channeling Obama, who told National Journal last month that regardless of the outcome, "the most important message that will be sent by the American people is, we want people in Washington to act like grown-ups, cooperate, and start trying to solve problems instead of scoring political points."

Election night is the easiest time to act like a grownup. "I would absolutely advise Republicans to reach out to the president," said 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Usually a partisan flamethrower, Palin pointed to the nation's weak economy and declared, "We'll have to be on [a] unified team here to get the economy roaring again."

Newt Gingrich, the GOP firebrand who helped force Democrats from power in 1994, said Tuesday's results created "a dramatically weaker Democratic Party and a severely repudiated President Obama." He's right about that, of course. But does Gingrich really think Americans gave the GOP a full-throated mandate? He made that miscalculation a generation ago and overreached as the new House Speaker.

That mistake helped reelect Democrat Bill Clinton.

Obama is not on any ballot, but the votes cast are a reflection of how his first two years failed to meet the lofty expectations set in 2008. Liberals accuse him of accomplishing too little. Conservatives accuse him of turning too often to government as a solution.

His approval rating hovers around 45 percent, which is about where President Clinton's rating stood during the 1994 midterm elections. That was the year that Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time in four decades.

The "mad-as-hell" ethos powered the emergence of the tea party during Obama's first summer in office. Fueled mostly by older, white, middle-class Americans with little political experience, the movement sprang out of concern over the 2008 economic crisis and a sense by many conservatives that the GOP had abandoned them.

Most tea party activists consider Obama a big-spending liberal. Some even question his eligibility to be president.

Like a cowboy saddling a bucking stallion, Republican leaders tried to tame the tea party while riding it to victories. The new House majority must now try to govern while being ridden hard by tea party activists. The risk is that the GOP will be driven to positions that turn off the same independent voters who swung away from Democrats on Tuesday.

Still, it was a dramatic day for the GOP.

Republicans gained more than the 52 seats they picked up on Election Day in 1994. While the gains were growing overnight, they were unlikely to match the biggest year in recent memory: The 75-seat gain Democrats scored in 1948.

While Republicans fell short of taking control of the Senate, they did draw within four seats of a majority.

Democrats lost their slight edge in governorships, and also lost majorities in more than a dozen state legislative chambers. These are important numbers too, because state leaders will soon be redrawing congressional districts.

"We've come to take our government back," Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky told cheering supporters at a victory party in Bowling Green, Ky. He sounded, for a moment, like the Obama of just two years ago.

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