ANALYSIS

Washington the Biggest Loser as Wave Sweeps Through Congress

Residents turn out to vote in California.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Nov. 3, 2010, 3:49 a.m.

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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