November 8, 2010

What We Learned on November 2nd

by Hal Gershowitz

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Blessedly, the cacophony of political attack ads on every television station is over.  Democrats and Republicans will all agree that the peace and quiet is welcome.  As to the result, we all know the numbers:  The GOP takes over the House; the Democrats hold the Senate.  Most major highly watched races went to the Republicans, but Democrats hung on in California and Harry Reid survived in Nevada.  Before discussing what this portends, let’s consider what history will say about the 2010 mid-term elections:

Independents did a complete swivel.  After embracing candidate Obama in ’08 largely due to unhappiness with Bush policies, both domestic and foreign, and seeing a looming economic and banking disaster, they turned to then Senator Obama in whom they saw extraordinary intelligence, charm and a message of unity … as he put it … “only one America.”  So why the complete reversal in 2010?  There are numerous reasons, but one towers over all the rest: the president squandered his popularity by misreading the 2008 mandate.  He saw it as an opportunity to put a radical new stamp on the country and solve our problems, social and economic, as if he were the second coming of FDR.  But this was not the 1930s and he forgot that America is essentially a centrist country, sometimes veering a few degrees to the left and more often a few degrees to the right.  President Obama veered hard left and jammed through a health care bill when it was obvious there was no consensus for it, and he did so using tactics that, from his campaign rhetoric, he disdained.  Similarly, his cap and trade legislation had no public appeal, but he went forward anyway and got it through the House without a single Republican vote.

In pursuing his legislative agenda, he lost focus on the three issues most pressing to the electorate:  jobs, jobs and jobs.  His trillion dollar stimulus package to create jobs and bring down the unemployment rate from 8 percent didn’t work, the unemployment rate having increased to almost 10 percent, and no amount of spin this year could convince the voting public otherwise.

The president made it his mission to travel the globe asking friend and foe alike for forgiveness.  Americans resented that.  No country in history has spilled more blood in the defense of freedom and been more generous with its economic resources than the United States.  As Shelby Steele stated in an op‑ed in The Wall Street Journal of October 28, where he likened the objective of the president as wanting to “redeem” America:

“He is simply the first president we have seen grounded in [the] counterculture [of the 1960s] …When he bows to foreign leaders, he is … displaying … the counterculture Americanism of honorable self‑effacement in which America acknowledges its own capacity for evil as prelude to engagement.

Bad faith in America became virtuous in the ‘60s when America finally acknowledged so many of its flagrant hypocrisies:  the segregation of blacks, the suppression of women, the exploitation of other minorities, the “imperialism” of the Vietnam War, the indifference to the environment, the hypocrisy of puritanical sexual mores and so on.  The compounding of all these hypocrisies added up to the crowning idea of the ‘60s:  that America was characterologically evil.  Thus the only way back to decency and moral authority was through bad faith in America and its institutions, through the presumption that evil was America’s natural default position.”

Not only is that characterization of America obnoxious to most Americans, but also in the last two years, the president’s outreach has proven to be a complete failure; most notably the repeated slaps in the face he has taken from Iran.

The president gave the impression of being out of touch with ordinary Americans.  He talked about Americans, because of their fears, “clinging to their guns and their religion.”  He famously claimed that the political opposition the Democrats faced this year was because they rejected and didn’t understand the science and facts he presented and were hard wired not to think clearly when they are scared.  It is ironic that the politician who spoke of there not being either a red America or a blue America could now campaign with an objective of punishing “our enemies” and suggesting that Republicans, who might be helpful in getting some of his programs enacted, would have to sit “at the back” while he and the Democrats drove the car safely away from the ditch into which he accused the Republicans of driving the economy.  Democratic pollsters Pat Caddell and Douglas Schoen who described themselves as traditional liberal Democrats in a recent Washington Post op‑ed piece made this unbelievable statement about the President:

“We can think of only one other recent president who would display such indifference to the majesty of his office:  Richard Nixon.”

All that said, what do the November 2 elections tell us about the future:  Over 90 million people voted.  All of those separate constituents in every county and every state did not send a single comprehensible message.  What we know is that voters are very upset at whoever wields the levers of power in the nation’s capital.  While many of the most liberal Democrats have expressed unhappiness with Mr. Obama for not pursuing with greater vigor a more statist agenda (many of whom likely stayed home last Tuesday) others, both centrist and on the right, saw the Obama Administration approach as not working and not likely to work because it was leading to America’s insolvency and the loss of its position as the leading world power.  In many respects this was simply based on an instinctual sense rather than some specific events.

But we also know that the electorate can be unpredictable and impatient.  They seem fed up with government intrusion in their lives through increasing mandates and confusing, labor producing regulations.  And yet it remains to be seen whether they will rebel if less government, or a desire for reducing government programs, spending and debt means giving up some of their benefits.

What we seem to have is a vote against the Democrats and a warning to the president, whose own personal popularity remains reasonably high.  Clearly the change in the number of House members, Senators and governors is not a vote of confidence in Republicans; it is a vote against the majority party that the electorate sees as steering the ship of state into seas that the collective wisdom of the people finds foreboding.

Michael Gerson, writing his column in The Washington Post on election day before the first votes were even counted, points out the folly of seeing any elections as the beginning of a new long term era.  He observes that there is a new velocity to political shifts propelled by information technology and a polarized media, to which we would add the phenomenon of 24/7 cable news slanted to advance a single philosophy rather than to simply report events while advancing no philosophy.  It is amusing that some columnists who wrote with certainty that the 2008 elections were the end of a period of conservative dominance had to completely reverse their view in 2010, and nimbly did so without so much as a nod to acknowledging their prior pontifications.  E. J. Dionne wrote on November 5, 2008, in The Washington Post:  “In choosing Obama and a strongly Democratic Congress, the country put a definitive end to a conservative era.”  But last week Mr. Dionne said:  “The classic middle‑ground voter who will swing this election … has always been suspicious of dogmatic promises that certain big ideas would give birth to a utopian age.”

Republicans are now on the spot.  As Eleanor Roosevelt famously opined to Vice President Harry Truman on the day FDR died, “you are the one in trouble now.” Will Republicans spend the next two years, as Senator McConnell suggested, pursuing as their first priority, policies to assure that Mr. Obama is a one-term president, or will they serve up a comprehensible program to implement new ideas to solve the nation’s structural problems?  Will they spend countless legislative hours trying to repeal Obamacare even though they cannot accomplish it while Mr. Obama wields veto power, or will they try to make changes to it so as to eliminate some of its most hated features?  Will they identify spending cuts where they will get the support of their full caucus (and probably bring some Democrats along)?  Can they promise to timely pass appropriation bills rather than ducking unpopular votes in favor of passing continuing resolutions to keep the government running?  And most difficult of all, can they muster up the courage to make the difficult choices necessary to reform Social Security and Medicare to reduce the trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities which will ultimately bankrupt both these programs.

The GOP must present pro-growth, pro-trade policies to unleash entrepreneurship in the industries of the future (e.g. high technology, supercomputers, innovative energy).  The nation has lost ground in the past decade, but our economy is still the largest and most diverse in the world.  China has made incredible gains, but we need to remember that from 1947 until Mao’s death they were a backward country.  The Great Leap Forward which Mao’s government constantly promulgated came only after capitalism was introduced.  And even under China’s one party form of managed capitalism, the business cycle has not been repealed, and, inevitably, they too will fall victim to a bubble that bursts.

In 2010, the Tea Party provided tremendous energy and enthusiasm for conservatives.  Can that energy be harnessed so it can help unify the party rather than tear it apart?  With all the help it provided to the GOP this year, it probably cost the Republicans critical Senate seats in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware.

An interesting and still to be developed story line will come from California.  There, strong GOP candidates for the governorship and the Senate lost.  Voters rejected a proposition to suspend the state clean air law until the unemployment rate drops and approved a proposition to permit tax increases by a simple majority vote of the legislature.  Obviously big tax increases are ahead.  The state is essentially bankrupt and is almost certain to look to Washington for a bailout.  How will the president and Congress respond?

Finally, these elections tell us that in 2012 the primary elections are likely to be very competitive, certainly among the Republicans, but even in the Democratic Party.  A year ago, a primary challenge to President Obama was unthinkable.  Now, it is a distinct possibility.  For the Republicans, Sarah Palin has become a true national force and is far more intelligent than her detractors believe or acknowledge (even though she was unable to deliver her hand‑picked candidate in her home state and saw half of her high-profile “picks” go down in defeat), but she also could prove to be their undoing.  Should she seek and capture the nomination she will lose most independent voters and more than a few Republicans thereby delivering the presidency to the Democrats and leaving a legacy of division in the Republican Party for a long time to come.  Stay tuned.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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5 responses to “What We Learned on November 2nd”

  1. Fred Mayer says:

    Very timely report!

  2. Brahm says:

    Please do some fact checking before publishing. Californians approved ” a budget with a majority” vote. Tax increases still require a 2/3rds majority.

  3. Hal Gershowitz says:

    a very appropriate correction. We appreciate the clarification and regret the error.

  4. marcia says:

    I learned on Nov 2 that the majority of voters in the “enlightened” 8th district of Va don’t care if the President calls his adversaries”enemies”, that the majority of voters here don’t care if thier chosen candidate says 24 years of military service is not public service qualifying one for a career in Congress”, that the majority of voters in my district will protect their government benefits above all.

  5. John Fairfield says:

    You ask correctly whether Republicans will muster the courage to propose needed changes in Medicare and Social Security. Despite aid from the Deficit Reduction Commission, my bet is that they won’t because re-election outweighs every other consideration. Term limits are becoming ever more appealing.

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