This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Tuesday’s rout of congressional Democrats sent some strong messages, especially to President Obama. But the triumphant Republicans should be cautious about claiming a sweeping partisan mandate.
For Obama, the politically catastrophic loss of more than 60 Democrats in House seats was a whack on the head with a two-by-four. There is no way to pretty up those returns: On the whole, Americans are thoroughly fed up with the Democrats’ stewardship of the White House and both House and Senate.
Americans didn’t reflexively vote against all incumbents. They kept Republican incumbents and picked off Democrats, including senior lawmakers in what seemed like safe seats. The elections saw a surge in self-identified conservatives, who have always outnumbered liberals in this country and now appear to have widened that advantage.
Many fiscal conservatives and suspicious populists were alarmed by the federal government’s bailout loans to major banks, General Motors and Chrysler; by the huge and expensive stimulus bill of 2009, and by this year’s health care reform package.
The price tag – many hundreds of billions of dollars – made these bills easy targets.
In the case of the bank-and-automaker loans (signed by President Bush, it’s worth noting), the details tell a different story: Most of the $700 billion has since been paid back or was never spent. In any case, it was a good investment: Economists believe it eased a panic that could have produced a second Great Depressions.
Likewise, the $800 billion stimulus probably created enough jobs to stop further economic bleeding. The political problem with both is that there’s no way to compare them with what might have been, because what might have been is an abstraction that never happened.
The health care bill was a clearer case of Democratic legislation to advance liberal priorities. It wasn’t helped by the political compromises and nearly scandalous vote-buying that had stained it by the time it reached the president.
The biggest Democratic blunder was spending seemingly endless months on legislation that wasn’t going to give Americans jobs, save their homes or put groceries on their tables.
A whole lot of what happened Tuesday was backlash. Voters punished Republicans for the sour economy in 2008; now they’ve blamed Democrats for letting it fester.
But this election’s returns don’t translate into an embrace of the broad Republican platform, no more than the 2008 returns were an embrace of the Democratic platform.
As a group, voters have hundreds of different personal agendas – farm subsidies, Supreme Court nominations, the environment, labor laws, abortion, war, health care, you name it. The only common denominator apparent in this year’s backlash was a repudiation of what the Democrats have been doing about the economy and a willingness to take a chance on the conservative alternative: smaller government and lower taxes.
Two years from now, who knows? If there’s a sure-fire formula for quickly reviving a sick economy, nobody’s found it yet. The newly empowered Republicans in Congress would do well to walk humbly, stay focused on jobs and not spend their energies on partisan one-upmanship.
They do that, and the voters might even rehire them in 2012.