Two questions, one right answer

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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Had it been a prizefight, the referee would have stopped it. Because it was a political fight, it went on round after round. Of course, I am talking about the recent election. Now something of even greater importance confronts both parties: What do they infer from it?

The election results were deep and sweeping. Republicans picked up six Senate seats and at least 61 House seats — the latter being the largest gain by a party in over 60 years. Of the 46 House Democrats running in districts carried by McCain in 2008, 36 lost. Of the 37 freshmen House Democrats, 20 have lost so far.

Exit polling is even more revealing. According to National Journal, Republicans gained nine percentage points among men and six among women between 2008 and 2010. In terms of ethnicity, Republicans gained 15 points among whites, four among blacks, and four among Hispanics. In terms of party identification, Republicans gained six points among their own party loyalists and an incredible 12 points with independents. They gained seven percentage points in urban areas, seven in the suburbs, and 11 in rural areas. And Republican advances were nationwide. They gained six percentage points in the Northeast, eight in the Midwest, eight in the South, and nine in the West.

Liberals were the only significant group that Democrats did better with in 2010 than they did in 2008: they picked up three percentage points. However, this gain was swamped by Republican gains of five points among moderates and nine points among conservatives.

However, these results are only as important as the inferences drawn from them. For centuries, people believed the sun revolved around the earth. The truth was just the opposite. Yet all observed the same occurrences; they just drew different conclusions.

The specific questions facing both parties are: Did the Democrats lose because the public rejected their policies?  Or did the Republicans win because they successfully obstructed Democrats’ policies and largely caused them to fail?

How each party answers these questions will determine the outcome of 2012. Both parties must ask themselves these questions if they are to profit from 2010.

For Democrats, while painful, 2010 could still be a lesson — one not to be repeated, echoing the old adage that there is no learning from a mule’s second kick. What would make this setback worse would be to compound it. If it is the Administration’s policies that are at fault, there must be a sea-change midway through the voyage. Democrats must quickly plot a new course.

If it is Republican obstructionism that is to blame, then Democrats should stick to their policies and give Republicans a taste of their own medicine. The Democrats are in a perfect position to do so. Their Senate majority can defeat anything the Republican House sends them. Should something still slip through, Obama can make any veto stick — Democrats have more than enough votes to uphold vetoes.

Either course is open to the Democrats. Despite their large defeat, they retain formidable political resources. The election outcome will not dictate their course. Their inferences from it will.

Republicans face the same questions. Do they reach out to the Administration to see where agreements can be reached? If so, their own fate will be tied to a great degree to their antagonists of the last two years.

Or do Republicans believe that their opposition was successful because the Democrats’ policies were rejected by the electorate? If so, the means are there for them to not merely continue that opposition but strengthen it. They now hold a large House majority — larger than any of their recent previous majorities — and filibuster-ready numbers in the Senate.

So these questions apply to both parties. If they are doing what they should be doing strategically, both should be asking themselves these questions.

While the election results might seem clear, to the acute observer they actually reveal a fork in the road. In contrast to Yogi Berra’s advice, when the parties come to this fork, they cannot simply take it. They must choose.

If right, Democrats could quickly reverse their midterm losses. If right, Republicans could compound their gains — potentially creating the same overwhelming majorities that Democrats had coming out of 2008.

Two choices but only one right one. It is a fateful choice indeed. And one that must now be made quickly.

JT Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 -2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987-2000).