After all that, it turned out to be a big old status-quo election.
President Obama wins. The Senate barely budges. The House stays about the same.
Those rambunctious House freshmen and the president are still standing.
Sure, there are lots of new faces, like Sens.-elect Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz, who will have to endure endless will-they-run-for-president speculation before they get their orientation handbooks.
But for the most part, we wound up where we started: with the status quo.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. Americans were said to be angry about everything from high gas prices to high unemployment. They’d take it out on someone: the “socialist Kenyan,” the tea party, incumbents of any stripe. But a funny thing happened. Voters who said we were on the wrong track decided to stay on the train anyway.
How come? We won’t know for a while whether it was the unprecedented $6 billion spent, or flukes, or Hurricane Sandy, or anything else. Had two GOP Senate candidates, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, not decided to opine on the toxic combination of rape and baby-making, the GOP might have come tantalizingly close to taking the Senate. Is there an unhappier man than Sen. Mitch McConnell, the almost majority leader? Maybe Mitt Romney, whose long march to the White House ended, almost certain never to resume.
After a night like this, everyone is likely to take away the wrong lessons. Lots of Republicans will think they could have won the White House with someone more conservative than Romney and a few more mariachi bands. Santorum-Rubio 2016! Lots of Democrats think the president has been cheered rather than cautioned. They forget that he’s the first president since the 19th century to win with a lower percentage of the vote in his second-term victory than in his first. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all expanded their margins of victory. FDR’s 1932 landslide became wholesale realignment in 1936. Obama held the White House but lost ground. Presidents always make mistakes in their second terms, from Watergate to Monica to Katrina. Obama needs to be unduly cautious.
We won’t know what the right lessons are for some time, and in a way it doesn’t matter. Each party will spin what the night meant. The press releases are already out. Meanwhile, most voters did what they do—voted party-line. Enough split and jostled to leave us where we are: a nation where most blue-collar whites vote Republican while most minorities and affluent suburban whites go with Democrats. It’s a nation, as Ronald Brownstein notes, of “the brown and the gray,” with older voters, who are more white, clinging to the GOP despite Democrats playing the Medicare card. The next America of minorities seems to belong to Democrats, at least until Republicans have something more to offer minorities other than self-deportation.
Now that it’s over, the absurd speculation about 2014 and even 2016 will begin. But the truth is that this anticlimactic ending wasn’t predicted just a few months ago. We can’t really predict the future when the present keeps surprising us.