WASHINGTON — For all the turmoil, the spectacle, the churning — for all the old bulls slain and fuzzy-cheeked freshmen born — the great Republican wave of 2010 is simply a return to the norm. The tide had gone out; the tide came back. A center-right country restores the normal congressional map: a sea of interior red, bordered by blue coasts and dotted by blue islands of ethnic/urban density.
Or to put it numerically, the Republican wave of 2010 did little more than undo the two-stage Democratic wave of 2006-2008 in which the Democrats gained 54 House seats combined (precisely the size of the anti-Democratic wave of 1994). In 2010 the Democrats gave it all back, plus about an extra 10 seats or so for good — chastening — measure.
The conventional wisdom is that these sweeps represent something novel, exotic and very modern — the new media, faster news cycles, Internet frenzy and a public with a short attention span and even less patience with government. Or alternatively, that these violent swings reflect reduced party loyalty and more independent voters.
Nonsense. In 1946, for example, when party loyalty was much stronger and even television was largely unknown, the Republicans gained 56 seats and then lost 75 in the very next election. Waves come. Waves go. The republic endures.
Our two most recent swing cycles were triggered by unusually jarring historical events. The 2006 Republican “thumpin'” (to quote George W. Bush) was largely a reflection of the disillusionment and near-despair of a wearying war that appeared to be lost. And 2008 occurred just weeks after the worst financial collapse in eight decades.
Similarly, the massive Republican swing of 2010 was a reaction to another rather unprecedented development — a ruling party spectacularly misjudging its mandate and taking an unwilling country through a two-year experiment in hyper-liberalism.
A massive government restructuring of the health care system. An $800 billion-plus stimulus that did not halt the rise in unemployment. And a cap-and-trade regime reviled outside the bicoastal liberal enclaves that luxuriate in environmental righteousness — so reviled that the Democratic senatorial candidate in West Virginia literally put a bullet through the bill in his own TV ad. He won. Handily.
Opposition to the policies was compounded by the breathtaking arrogance with which they were imposed. Ignored was the unmistakable message from the 2009-10 off-year elections culminating in Scott Brown’s anti-Obamacare victory in bluer-than-blue Massachusetts. Moreover, Obamacare and the stimulus were passed on near-total party-line votes — legal, of course, but deeply offensive to the people’s sense of democratic legitimacy. Never before had anything of this size and scope been passed on a purely partisan basis. (Social Security commanded 81 House Republicans; the Civil Rights Act, 136; Medicare, 70.)
Tuesday was the electorate’s first opportunity to render a national verdict on this manner of governance. The rejection was stunning. As a result, President Obama’s agenda is dead. And not just now. No future Democratic president will try to revive it — and if he does, no Congress will follow him, in view of the carnage visited upon Democrats on Tuesday.
This is not, however, a rejection of Democrats as a party. The center-left party as represented by Bill Clinton remains competitive in every cycle. The lesson of Tuesday is that the American game is played between the 40-yard lines. So long as Democrats don’t repeat Obama’s drive for the red zone, Democrats will cyclically prevail, just as Republicans do.
Nor should Republicans overinterpret their Tuesday mandate. They received none. They were merely rewarded for acting as the people’s proxy in saying no to Obama’s overreaching liberalism. As one wag put it, this wasn’t an election so much as a restraining order.
The Republicans won by default. And their prize is nothing more than a two-year lease on the House. The building was available because the previous occupant had been evicted for arrogant misbehavior and, by rule, alas, the House cannot be left vacant.
The president, however, remains clueless. In his next-day news conference, he had the right demeanor — subdued, his closest approximation to humility — but was uncomprehending about what just happened. The “folks” are apparently just “frustrated” that “progress” is just too slow. Asked three times whether popular rejection of his policy agenda might have had something to do with the shellacking he took, he looked as if he’d been asked whether the sun had risen in the West. Why, no, he said.