A vote against Democrats, not for Republicans

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Congratulations to all the winners of the 2010 elections.  May they serve honorably and well.

I spent the election evening with kindred Republicans, celebrating (most of) the election returns, and particularly savoring some, such as the defeat of Alan Grayson of Florida and Bob Etheridge of North Carolina.

Sobriety was not our primary object yesterday evening, though it must become so now.  Which puts me in memory of a dear friend who once shouted defensively at me, “I am not an alcoholic.  I’m a drunk.

Americans love voting for divided government because political thought so pleasantly reduces to “a plague on both your houses.”  Republicans enjoyed two plague-free years, and the scourge is now upon us — if not in equal measure, at least sufficiently to take tremendous care with whatever “mandate” we may perceive.

I see the results, the mostly Republican victories and certain significant Democratic victories that would not have happened in a true electoral sea change, taken together, as a net distaste for Democratic overreaching.  That is very different than a surge of affection for Republicans.  In exit polls, only about four in ten had a favorable impression of either party.  Republicans have been given no free pass; we’ll be held to account.

The 2010 results eerily mirror the 1994 results.  In 1994, independents went 55 percent Republican, 41 percent Democrat.  Yesterday, according to the CBS exit poll, they went 55 percent Republican, 39 percent Democrat.  The net Republican gains are very similar, though Republicans did not regain control of the Senate as they did in 1994.

President Clinton parlayed that electoral disaster for Democrats into a handy victory over Bob Dole in 1996.  If President Obama has anything like Clinton’s triangulation skills, then Americans may well vaguely perceive the president as trying to get something done in the teeth of a polarized Congress.  And 2012 will look eerily like 1996.

The Republican inability to retake the Senate looms large here.  The Democrats — and Harry Reid himself, speaking of 2010’s unlikeliest winners — still control the Senate, its agenda, its hearings, and its nominations advise and consent.  Republican gains ensure that Democratic overreaching is done.  No massively unpopular health care bill and no pork-ladled anti-stimulus package could now pass Congress.  But whether that negative power translates into a message that resonates with an irritable electorate is a very large open question.

Republicans campaigned themselves into a bit of box.  What exactly does “taking back our country” mean?  Is there an affirmative obligation, such as repeal of the health care law, which will not happen?  Or, as Boehner told the president when the latter called Boehner to congratulate him, must Republicans spearhead the creation of new jobs?  If so, how will Washington orchestrate this economic recovery now that Republicans have a little bit of power, and how will Republicans be able to take credit for any economic uptick?

The Democrats remain in control.  Every essential macro-economic lever has Democratic fingerprints all over it.  Certain symbolic legislative activities — like the basic House task of passing a budget, which Democrats skipped — will likely happen now.  But to what end?  The insistence upon cutting spending — a prominent Republican campaign talking point — applies to a narrow sliver of the budget.  Spending cuts achieved by Republicans, at this point, can be mostly cosmetic.

Republicans can take some credit for economic recovery if they’re resolutely responsible for restoring business confidence.  The untapped liquidity in the business community is astounding.  Who wants to invest in capital expenditures — much less additional labor — in this environment of punitive taxation and pro-union regulation?  If Republicans set themselves resolutely toward giving the business community the confidence to invest their resources, knowing that those resources will not be confiscated or squandered in regulatory battles, then the little bit of Republican power in 2010 might translate into an economic uptick that Republicans visibly helped happen.

And that is a smaller-government, more-liberty message that might indeed resonate with an irritable electorate.

Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C.