The unhappy electorate

Presidential elections express voters’ candidate preferences, of course, but they also capture the national mood -- a yearning for change, say, or for stability or peace. Midterm elections tend to be more fragmented, and the sentiments that animate them often are more diffuse. On Tuesday, the fates of two candidates who excited “tea party” activists illustrated that phenomenon: Rand Paul’s libertarianism won over Kentucky voters, who voted him into office and kept that Senate seat in Republican hands; Christine O’Donnell’s formidable negatives sank her in Delaware, and that seat stayed Democratic.

Still, there are certain generalizations that apply to most modern midterm elections. They have tended, in recent decades, to reflect voter second thoughts, to signal a retrenchment after the election of a popular president. Thus, in 1952, voters ended a generation of Democratic control in Washington by electing Dwight D. Eisenhower and a Republican Congress; two years later, Democrats regained control of Congress. In 1956, Eisenhower crushed Adlai Stevenson in their rematch; two years after that, Democrats picked up 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Those patterns have repeated more recently: Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, only to have Democrats lose 53 House and seven Senate seats in 1994; George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 and lost control of Congress two years later.

Given that history, Tuesday’s results are hardly astonishing; indeed, they are more part of a trend than an aberration. Nevertheless, they do reveal powerful forces at work in our politics today. Specifically, they reflect the descent from 2008’s hopeful zeitgeist to 2010’s anger and bewilderment, emotions that found purchase in many of the bitter, partisan races decided Tuesday.

The change in mood is not only understandable but predictable: No nation where millions want work but can’t find it will be a settled one. Unemployment today stands at 9.6%, with many additional workers in jobs that underemploy them; one result is that President Obama’s approval rating has plummeted from 80% shortly after his inauguration to 44% today (though it is still healthy compared with the 21% of Americans who approve of Congress’ work).


The anxieties spurred by the recession have given way to a broader unease, an inchoate sense that government is too big, too intrusive, too demanding. Federal deficits, enlarged first by the long and ill-advised war in Iraq and then by the efforts to stimulate the economy, symbolize to many a government detached from the consequences of its policies. The federal deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was $1.3 trillion. Voters are angry and are sending a sharp rebuke to Democratic incumbents and to the Obama administration, one that may not be cause for them to panic but that they would be foolish to ignore.

Yet it is not entirely true that this campaign has been overwhelmed by a new, angry and cohesive right wing. Some incumbent Democrats, including California Sen. Barbara Boxer, appear to have escaped the electorate’s wrath, while Jerry Brown was on course to beat both money and national trends in his race for governor. The truth is that the Republican Party has become a messy place: Tea party candidates are generating excitement but also discomfort within the party; the energy unleashed in this fall’s state and local contests may be destructive in 2012, when the presidential campaign will require Republicans to rally around a single candidate. There’s at least as big a philosophical divide between Wall Street Republicans and Kentucky tea partyers as there is between, for example, Maine’s moderate Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe and California’s moderate Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Indeed, for every conservative who imagines Obama as a socialist, there is a liberal who complains that the president is a closet moderate.

Moreover, though Democrats paid the heavier price for the nation’s anti-incumbent sentiment in this election, Republicans hardly enjoy unqualified support. In a September Gallup poll, Americans were equally unimpressed with the two parties, with only 44% approving of the parties’ work.

Time and economic growth will heal some of the disillusion expressed in this campaign. But if the midterm does not signal cause for Democratic panic, it does reflect a significant shift in federal power, as well as a new set of responsibilities for the resurgent Republican Party. For two years, the party defined itself almost entirely in opposition to Obama; Republicans in Congress opposed immigration reform, opposed climate change legislation, opposed healthcare reform. Now that they’ve taken control of the House, however, they assume a responsibility to govern, not just resist.

If the issue is the size of government, then Republicans have a fresh opportunity to propose new restrictions on that government. Some candidates this year have suggested eliminating Social Security or Medicare. Others have railed against illegal immigration and argued for tougher border security. With their victories in the midterm, Republicans have the chance to transform those issues into substantive proposals and then to negotiate with their Democratic counterparts to turn them into law.

Will they? On Sunday, Republican Chairman Michael Steele blamed the “frustration and anger” expressed in this campaign on the gap between the promise and reality of change since Obama’s election. Fair enough, but Steele’s response was to hint that one of the GOP’s first acts will be to refuse to compromise on raising the federal debt ceiling, a ministerial function of Congress that allows the government to continue functioning. As Steele well knows, rejecting the debt-ceiling measure is an act of pure destruction: It shuts down federal expenditure. Medicare payments would end, as would unemployment benefits. Postal workers would not get paid, which presumably does not much concern Steele, but neither would soldiers, which might. Moreover, the notion of using the debt ceiling as a vehicle to protest the size of government is ludicrous from a party devoted to tax cuts, which deepen the federal debt.

Threats and bombast created much of the wound to the nation’s politics. Hard work and a genuine commitment to shared progress -- rather than ephemeral political advantage -- could begin to heal it.