The 2010 elections are over. Not all the results are in yet, and undoubtedly some races will require more time to be definitively decided. But the general picture seems clear. As with Bill Clinton in 1994, the voters have rather resoundingly repudiated if not the President himself then certainly at least the overall direction of his administration. The GOP has picked up more than enough seats to wrest control of the House, foreshadowing not the gentlemanly "divided government" of the 1950s but even more polarization and gridlock.
Two years ago, the Paulist on-line magazine The Catholic World (http://www.thecatholic world.com/) invited me to contribute my impressions of the 2008 election ("The 2008 Election: Tracking the Trends and Speculating the Future," January/February 2009). Looking at Barack Obama's impressive 2008 win against the background of voters' shifts in ideological and party alignment over the course of the 20th century, I made four general sets of observations.
First, in 2008, the economic crisis clearly trumped other considerations (e.g., Obama's obvious lack of experience, especially in foreign affairs), as voters opted to reject an increasingly discredited administration. Second, Obama in 2008 created among younger (typically the less politically committed) voters a constituency personally committed to him, which, if it could be transformed into a generation of regular voters with a habit of voting Democratic, could signal potential Democratic dominance for decades. Third, the contemporary "religious divide" in American politics persisted, with those who attend church more frequently being more likely to vote Republican than those who never or only occasionally attend church. Finally, campaigns matter and money matters in campaigns. Obama in 2008 ran a disciplined and strategic campaign (in contrast with his opponent's unfocused and disorganized one), had a lot of money, and spent it lavishly.
None of these observations were particularly perceptive or brilliant. Nor need one be particularly perceptive or brilliant to recognize their continued relevance to this most recent election.
"It's the economy, stupid," James Carville supposedly said in 1992. That may not always and unequivocally be the case, but one can hardly escape the conclusion that the same economic crisis that helped propel the Democrats into power in 2008 has hurt them in turn in 2010. The same generalized discontent with the way things are (accompanied by a corrosive cynicism about government and politics) - if anything, more so - set the tone for this election campaign and its outcome. Whether the Democrats realistically could have done a better job at improving the economy is debatable. FDR certainly did not end the Great Depression in his first two years, but he did project concern and inspire confidence, injecting a much needed sense of hope into a depressed society - something the supposed prophet of hope and change proved curiously incapable of doing. Admittedly, the globalized world of today may be less responsive to 1930s-style encouragement. Even so, did the President have to surround himself with an economic team of millionaires like himself, reinforcing his image as an elitist liberal, who really doesn't get it about unemployment and the concerns of ordinary people?
Early estimates put the under-30 voter turnout at about 11% (significantly less than the 18% in 2008). If the Obama-centric coalition of younger and "independent" (i.e., traditionally less politically committed) voters wasn't there for the Democrats in 2010, then that too is another respect in which Obama has turned out not to be another FDR (whose personal charisma created a generation of long-term Democratic voters). In the end, Obama's "post-partisan" appeal to many "Independents" proved no more effective at creating the partisan Democratic voters that were needed than his "post-partisan" approach had helped him govern in a polarized, partisan Washington.
Cultural and moral issues were less front-and-center in this election, but that doesn't mean they don't still matter. Two years ago, I thought the President could succeed in governing if he positioned himself in the center on social issues, which to a surprising extent he did. My impression now, however, is that the Republican monopoly on religious and moral values may by now have become so entrenched that even voters whose original motivation was mainly moral rather than economic issues have by now so come to identify the Republicans with their moral concerns that they are more willing to adopt the larger package of Republican economic and social values. Admittedly that needs more confirmation, but to does seem to make sense of the data.
Finally campaigns really do matter. It may have been a mistake to have done Health Care when the country wanted something done about unemployment. Be that as it may, it was still quite an accomplishment - one that had eluded four previous Presidents (Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Clinton). The only effective way to respond to Republican opposition to the Democratic legislative record would have been to defend it, which the Democrats seemed so timid about doing. They ran as if they were embarrassed by what they had accomplished. Having let their opponents define the agenda, they had nothing positive to run on - not the best recipe for a successful campaign.
As a populist corrective to liberal over-reach, the 2010 election can be seen as another 1994 - or another 1966. In 1994, the Republicans regained control of the House, but Bill Clinton was re-elected anyway two years later. In today's polarized, partisan climate Obama could learn a lesson or two from Clinton and could well be safely re-elected two years from now. Another scenario, however, might be 1966. In that election, the Democrats still retained control of Congress, but the Republican resurgence that year sounded the death-knell of the Great Society and foreshadowed the era of Republican dominance in Presidential politics that began in 1968.
In The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s, the authors made the telling point that when the Democrats lost their solid southern base, they also lost an important intra-party restraint on the party's liberal wing. With the south gone, liberals lost that counterweight and were able to push the Democratic party far to the left of the nation as a whole - with predictable electoral consequences. Once again the Democrats may be paying the price for that. The interesting question today is whether, with the accession of the Tea Party movement, something analogous may be happening to the Republicans. Will we, for the foreseeable future, be saddled with two dysfunctionally ideological parties, alternating in power - and overreaching when in power - producing more popular discontent and cynicism about government and politics?