Tuesday was expected to be an historic election, and it lived up to its billing. The House of Representatives is now firmly in Republican control, and the Democrats just barely held onto the Senate.
The punditry’s refrain has been that this is less a victory for Republicans than a loss for Democrats. The variety of Democratic losers — from moderates to extreme liberals, from clean campaigners to dirty ones — demonstrates this clearly.
Democratic incumbents who lost included Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, a progressive whose offensive campaign ads labeling his opponent Daniel Webster “Taliban Dan” made him a favorite topic on Fox News; Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, whose focus on humanitarian issues in Africa and the Middle East did not resonate with voters; and Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, a “Blue Dog” Democrat who, despite almost single-handedly killing the public option during the healthcare debate, was still soundly defeated by the Republican opposition.
Other Democrats were saved only by the perceived lunacy of their opponents; it is unlikely that Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, Senator-elect Chris Coons of Delaware or Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo of New York would have defeated Republicans who did not embarrass themselves so thoroughly during the campaign.
Regardless of one’s political positions or campaign strategy, being a Democrat was enough to lose an election this year. What this shows is that voters were more interested in repudiating the Democratic leadership, particularly President Barack Obama and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, than they were in choosing between two individual candidates.
This outcome is the result of a double failure by the White House: a failure in action and a failure in communication.
Obama surely could have done more to spur the economy. One major change he could have made would be to prioritize it over healthcare, putting the latter debate on hold until the economy was growing again. This would have created more avenues for cooperation between parties and made stimulus spending less controversial. More generally, his proposals were normally tailor-made for partisanship; he could have focused on more consensus-generating ideas first.
But the greater failure was in communicating with the electorate. The White House’s message has been that it inherited a large hole from the Bush administration, one that takes a long time to escape. Regardless of its truthfulness, that message was clearly not enough to gather support for Obama’s policies.
Somehow, the president — whose campaign was characterized by its inspirational message — ran a White House that was known for its blandness and lack of spirit. As a result, Obama now faces an angry country and a troublesome Congress.
Since there is no such thing as a gap between election cycles in the age of CNN, focus has now shifted to Obama’s ability to win a second term in 2012. Unfortunately, it seems that the next two years are bound to disappoint virtually all Americans; therefore, the major determinant of Obama’s chances will be who gets the blame.
The Republican leadership is saying all the right things. In a tearful, patriotic speech Tuesday night, new House Speaker John Boehner said, “The people’s agenda will be our agenda. That is our pledge to America.”
Unfortunately for Boehner, the people’s agenda is a bit schizophrenic at the moment.
A September USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 77 percent of Americans think that entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare will create major economic problems for the United States in the next 25 years, but only 42 percent thinks government should raise taxes to fix this problem, and only 31 percent thinks government should cut benefits.
Similarly, a July Pew poll found that 80 percent of Americans find it very important for Congress to pass legislation to create jobs, which would presumably require either lowering taxes or increasing spending, but 70 percent find it very important for Congress to reduce the budget deficit.
It doesn’t take an accountant to realize that this is a group of people that cannot be satisfied. Currently, the government spends more money than it takes in, which creates a deficit. Yet public opinion polls demonstrate that Americans somehow want government to increase spending, cut taxes and lower the deficit all at the same time — something that is absolutely impossible.
Alarmingly, even Wall Street doesn’t seem to understand this basic math; according to the latest Reuters poll, its two highest priorities for Congress to focus on are tax cuts and deficit reduction.
Whether Republicans or Democrats are in power in Washington, government will remain unpopular until peoples’ expectations enter the realm of possibility. Given this fact, it is no wonder that Boehner made sure to qualify his remarks with, “We must remember it is the President who sets the agenda.”
Let the blame game begin.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Wednesdays.