About a third of all the votes have already been cast, and the 2010 midterm election will soon be in the history books. Look for more than 80, and perhaps 90, newly elected House members and at least 17 or 18 new senators when the 112th Congress convenes in January. If those of us in the pundit class are right, House Republicans will recapture the majority they lost in 2006 but Senate Republicans will come up a bit short.
In 2006, as I watched congressional Republicans vainly try to hold onto their majorities in both chambers, I likened them to rodeo riders desperately trying to stay atop bucking broncos. In 2008, when the Republicans were in the minority, they were on the ground getting trampled by those same wild horses. Now, the Democrats are the ones trying to hold on for dear life. And if the Republicans take the House, they could be in the same situation in 2012 that Democrats are in today—trying to keep from being thrown by ornery broncos that most definitely seem to have a mind of their own. Given what is happening in 2010 and what happened in the previous two elections, Republicans will have every reason to fret.
It should be noted that Senate Republicans will have little to worry about in two years (at least in terms of the general election; primaries are another story). After all, just 10 GOP senators are up for reelection in 2012, and all 10 of them survived 2006, a horrible year for the party. Democrats, on the other hand, will have 23 seats up for grabs, including a number held by freshmen who were elected under fairly unusual circumstances.
We could be heading into the next election with a jobless rate around 9 percent.
Nobody has a crystal ball in this business, and we can only speculate about how the politics of the next two years will play out. However, everything indicates that we’re in for a tough time. Washington is likely to stay as dysfunctional and as partisan as ever. Economic growth looks to hover around 2 percent through the end of 2011, and some think even that might be too optimistic. Growth in the gross domestic product needs to be at least 3 percent to drive any meaningful job creation. We could be heading into 2012 with an unemployment rate somewhere around 9 percent, a horrifically high level. The last time that unemployment was under 8 percent—still exceedingly high—was in January 2009. Through the end of September, 6.1 million Americans, 42 percent of the unemployed, had been out of work for 27 weeks or longer.
The economy will be creating some new jobs, but most will be low-paying. The large numbers of mortgages that are underwater and the unsold stock of new homes in places such as Arizona, California, and Florida will keep this recovery very slow and difficult. It is most unlikely that the United States will enjoy the kind of economic rebound that benefited President Reagan coming out of the 1982 recession and allowed him to run for reelection in 1984 on a theme of “Morning in America.”
The sour economy will only turn up the pressure on Washington and on anyone who holds public office, Democrat or Republican. Incumbents in both parties should be worried about the political implications of the nasty downturn lasting so long. Voters have demonstrated very little patience with their elected officials and have developed itchy trigger fingers, ready to dispose of any politician who doesn’t deliver what they are looking for.
People have become increasingly pessimistic and anxious about what is happening in this country. The political turmoil preceded President Obama’s election in 2008 and Democrats’ takeover of Congress in 2006. It began during the Bush administration and shows no sign of waning.
A late-August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff demonstrated the depth of the public angst about where the country is heading. The survey asked a cross section of Americans nationwide, “Do you feel confident or not confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us?” Sixty-six percent said they did not feel confident; just 27 percent said they did. The adults sampled were then asked, “Do you think America is in a state of decline, or do you feel that this is not the case?” Sixty-five percent said they thought that the U.S. was in a state of decline and only 31 percent disagreed.
This country was settled by people seeking greater opportunity. It’s a nation built on hope, optimism, and the belief that our children and grandchildren will have a better life than we do. But Americans don’t believe that now. Whether it’s because of the financial turmoil we are experiencing or because of America’s challenge to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world, we’re troubled.
On Tuesday, for the third consecutive election cycle, voters will behave violently, venting their wrath on Democrats just as they punished Republicans not so long ago. There’s no reason to think that this violent conduct is behind us.
This article appears in the October 27, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.