Wednesday, November 03, 2010

This Ain't No 1994

Despite my promise, I suppose I have something to say about tonight after all--and it's not just a bit of reluctant and conflicted but still undeniable moderate joy at the fact that Harry Reid is apparently still going to be around the U.S. Senate. No this has something to do with something else--a feeling of gratitude, but also concern, that Newt Gingrich isn't the mastermind behind the Republican and Tea Party victories tonight.

As I write this, it looks as though the GOP will end up taking over more than 60 seats in the House--which is more than they won in 1994, when Gingrich became Speaker of the House, having ridden his "Contract with America" throughout the country. But in that same year, the insurgent GOP--pushing back against a Democratic party that had taken control of Congress and the White House--also captured eight Senate seats, taking control of that chamber as well, which will not be the case this year. (That assumes some deal isn't struck to get both Lieberman and Nelson to jump ship to the Republicans, which could happen--but isn't, I think, likely. [Update, 6:13am, CST: With Washington and Colorado breaking for the Democrats in a couple of close, it looks like it wouldn't happen even then.) So that's one difference, but not the biggest one. The biggest one is the environment upon which this election has played out. It is an environment where economic times are much worse than they were in 1994, but which also an environment in which the incumbent Democrats have been far more successful in getting legislation passed. So in other words, this was a year with a lot of free-floating anger and frustration, and a big target in Washington DC to attack.

Which wasn't, if you recall, for those of you who were paying attention and can remember from back then, quite the case in 1994. Bill Clinton won the election in 1992 with much of the same aspirational rhetoric which surrounded Obama when he won two years ago--not to the same degree, of course, but still, there were plenty of similarities. (The fact that Clinton and Obama both road in on a message of "Hope" is only the most obvious example.) But Clinton faced even more bad luck and more Congressional opposition than Obama did. Clinton was going to reform our health care system--it didn't happen. Clinton was going to end the military's policy of court-martialing gay soldiers--instead, he ended up with "don't ask, don't tell." Sure, there was plenty of anger and frustration on the part of the same people who always oppose, for good reasons or bad, liberal and/or progressive government policies (the "Angry White Males," if you remember the parlance of the time), but Clinton just didn't provide them with such a clear target. He was easy to attack as a cultural figure, but not so much in terms of his actually governing of the country. Which is where Gingrich came in. Whatever else you wish to say about the man, he truly wanted to govern. He wanted to take all the angst and anger that he saw and marshal it on behalf of a very specific, intellectually coherent policy agenda. And that's what the Contract with America was: a serious, responsible (that is, internally consistent) agenda of action. And it brought him and the GOP to power, exactly as they intended.

Of course, there are numerous other factors at play distinguishing 2010 from 1994. But I can't help but suspect that the Tea Party wave of today is far more reactive, negative, and oppositional, then anything which the Republicans of sixteen years ago ran on, and that difference speaks to both what this rush of new House and Senate seats will make possible, and what it will not. Everyone knows, generally speaking, what this new crop of conservatives coming to Washington want: they want to tear down, to stop, to freeze that which they see Obama and the Democrats as having built. But how are they they going to do that? What is their plan of action? What, in short, have they contracted with the voters to accomplish? Besides saying "no!," the answer is unclear. And given the fact that ours is a system filled with "veto-points," with ways in which interests can rush in to fill a vaccuum (and don't forget that Democrats have their corporate interests, just as surely as the Republicans do), not having a concrete of who is being invited into the tent and who isn't, is perhaps emblematic of a movement which is perhaps fully respectable in its political passions and ideas, but not so much in its political theory. All of which is just another way of me saying that I think that this particular electoral sea change isn't going to be nearly as effective as the Republicans of the 1990s were in forcing changes and compromises (and, arguably, in some ways, real improvements) from and with the federal government they claimed to oppose. I think that, without a Gingrich, without a platform, but only with a guy in the White House to attack, the new Tea Party majority may find that actually doing something about those laws and polices and expenses they swear to hate will be far more difficult than it appears.

There is a downside to this. Part of the accidental genius of parties and platforms is that you can hold them accountable at elections, as the GOP winners of 1994, and Gingrich himself, were ultimately held accountable by voters. And if tonight's new Republican and Tea Party victors come together around a consistent, presumably thoroughly libertarian (since that is the best way to articulate their general concerns about the size of government, should one desire to express it as an actual platform, as opposed to an emotional state) plan of attack, then voters will be able to follow up, provide support, or take them to task, as time goes on. But if they remain mainly oppositional and leader-less (with all sorts of money in the background making the Tea Party possible, but providing them with little intellectual structure, perhaps because those writing the checks actually just want to see things burned down, rather than, you know, actually changed), then the anger, confusion, and resentment will only increase. I don't want that to happen, because I fear the consequences, and I hope it won't. But if it isn't going to happen, I think tonight's victors need to find their Gingrich. Without such a organizing and focusing agent, far from a Republican Revolution, 2010 may just go down as an electoral spasm, one either soon to be swallowed back into the "liberal America" which 2008 supposedly promised, or to continue on its current, Glenn Beckian path, to who knows what end.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Most Americans--and not by a small margin--believe that the federal government is a runaway train. If Republicans do nothing more than apply the brakes to the expensive, government-expanding policies that Democrats have initiated and pushed through for the past two years over widespread public opposition, those who voted for them will be pleased as punch. The fact that voters are moved by their (accurate) perception of an elemental struggle--government versus the private sector--rather than an agenda of discrete policy bullet points is no strike against the movement.

Good riddance to Pelosi's majority. All hail gridlock!

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous,

There are all sorts of ways to dispute your first two words, "most Americans"--do you mean most of all Americans, or most of all voters, or most of all over-65 voters, or what? But let's say I grant you that the election truly does represent a referendum, as Gingrich clearly positioned the Republican wins of 1994 to be; this was a call for "applying the brakes." How, exactly, do you do that? How do you say "no" to one thing without also saying "yes" to something else? If you say "no" to fully funding the subsidies necessary for making the insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act work, then aren't you saying "yes" to politically unpopular insurance company policies? It seems to me that anyone who truly wants to apply the brakes needs to have a map to where they're going to apply them, and how much, and when. In lacking such a map (a point which many analysts are in agreement upon), I'm dubious that much will be done, in regards to applying the brakes or the gas.

In other words, gridlock and legislative paralysis doesn't prevent money going out the door (unless you go all the way to a government shutdown); it just means money (somebody's money) goes out the door (some door) without much direction or oversight. If we had a parliamentary system, the GOP's wins would enable to move forward with that oversight immediately. In lacking that, a party and an agenda is needed. And in lacking those things, yesterday's victor's are, I suspect, going to be going back to the voters in a couple of years, and the comparisons between they managed to stop and change and what Gingrich and Co. managed to stop and change will be pretty stark indeed.

Anonymous said...

No, there's really no reasonable way to dispute those two words, "Most Americans." Poll after poll has shown the continuing, even growing unpopularity of the Democrats' stimulus bills, the auto bailouts, cap and trade efforts, and Obamacare. This has been the defining feature of Democratic rule over the past two years--that they cannot run on their accomplishments (except in the most liberal of districts/states), because they were pushed through despite their unpopularity. You can say that's brave leadership. You can say that Americans are just too stupid to understand how all of this is really for their own good. But you cannot seriously dispute the fact that "most Americans" don't like these policies, unless you're going to toss out most polling data on the questions (and ignore yesterday's landslide).

How will the brakes be applied? Gridlock. Divided government. Filibusters. Vetoes. Even if Republicans can't undo some of the disastrous policies of the past two years, the fact that they're there prevents a Pelosi-led Congress from pouring more gas on the fire. Is that a blunt instrument? Yes. But if you read Forbes, Business Week, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, or any industry trade publications, instead of the punditry of the chattering class, you would see that this is what people in the real economy are clamoring for. They want the reckless spending and the anti-business policies to stop.

But all of that assumes that the Republican party has no agenda, which no one with an ounce of impartiality can seriously claim. Is the agenda as focused and as consensus-building as Gingrich's Contract with America? No. Will Congressional Republicans put as many points on the scoreboard as they did in the Clinton years? No, though that would be unrealistic to expect since they were unable to retake the Senate, and Obama has shown less willingness to "triangulate" than Clinton did. (However, most of the points Gingrich did put on the scoreboard were ultimately claimed by Clinton and subsequent Democrats as their accomplishments.)

Also, it's not as though the Democrats have been any sort of model, seeing as this is the first time in over three decades that Congress has failed to even pass a budget resolution. The lack of "direction and oversight" over the Democrats' historic spending spree has been widely criticized. Though the Democrats have some accomplishments they can claim, most of them were unrelated to the central promises of Obama's campaign (which provided the coattails that dragged a lot of Democrats into office in purple districts). More importantly, those accomplishments hang around their necks like an albatross, not a badge of honor.

Lee said...

Here's a way of disputing what anonymous says "most Americans" want:

"Tax cuts: According to exit polls, only 17 percent of the country thinks tax cuts should be a priority for the new Congress. And those that do want tax cuts oppose the way [Sen. Mitch] McConnell wants to do it. More than half the country, 52 percent, either wants the Bush tax cuts extended for those making under $250,000 a year or doesn't want them extended at all. Only 39 percent support the McConnell position of extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone. That 52-39 split is identical to the one McConnell cited at the White House health care summit in February as proof that the American people opposed Obama's health care plan.

"Spending cuts: McConnell is opposed to federal spending to create jobs, but nearly as many voters want lawmakers to spend money to create jobs (37 percent) as want them to cut the deficit (39 percent). Voters in McConnell's home state of Kentucky are even more bullish on spending: They say Congress's first priority should be spending to create jobs (39 percent), reducing the deficit (35 percent), and applying tax cuts (21 percent).

"Health care: Voters do not list repeal of the health care as a top priority. When asked their opinion, 48 percent support McConnell's plan to repeal the law. This is hardly a mandate. Forty-seven percent want either to keep the law or to expand it."

Source: http://www.slate.com/id/2273694/

And keep in mind - these are the opinions of the people who voted on Tuesday and who, if anything, you would expect to skew toward the GOP agenda.

matt said...

And another anonymous conservative pulls a Sir Robin when confronted with facts.

Anonymous said...

Lee, if you read the CNN exit poll results, you'll see it doesn't help your case.

First, 62% of Americans considered the economy the most important issue facing the country today. Those voters broke Republican by a substantial margin of 10 percentage points (54 to 44). That means most voters weren't buying the "Car in the Ditch" line sold by Obama. But, wait, it gets better. Of the 34% of voters who selected some other issue as the most important one facing the country, they still broke Republican (51 to 47). It's hard for any sane Democrat to see a silver lining in that.

Second, when asked about Congress's highest priority in the next term, it's true that 37% said "spending to create new jobs," which is entirely consistent with Obama's policies. But the plurality (39%) disagreed, saying the top priority should be deficit reduction, which has only received lip service from Democrats, but been a rallying cry for Republicans and the Tea Party. More importantly, another 19% picked tax cuts as the top priority. So 58% of voters chose economically conservative goals for Congress--deficit reduction and tax relief--compared to the 37% who favored the "spend our way out of this" policies of the past two years. And guess what. Voters who chose deficit reduction or tax cuts as their top priority for Congress broke over two-to-one for Republicans (72 to 26 on tax cuts, 64 to 33 on deficit reduction). This is not equivocal. It's a spanking. (The question on the Bush tax cuts does show a lack of a mandate for extension of all of them. Politically, though, it's close enough to get it done, since the "over $250K" class accounts for a lot political donations to Democrats as well as Republicans.)

Third, when asked about the condition of the economy, only 10% thought it was excellent or good. Those voters broke for Democrats by a huge margin (78 to 20). (I'll have what they're drinking.) Of the 89% of voters who considered the economy to be not good or poor, they broke for Republicans by a 15 point margin (56 to 41). Again, a boisterous vote of "no confidence" on the Democratic record and agenda.

Fourth, when asked about the trillion dollar stimulus package, one of Obama's and the Democrats' signature accomplishments, only 32% of voters said that it had helped the economy. Those voters broke really big for the Democrats (85 to 13). But 65% of voters said that the stimulus package either hurt the economy or made no difference. That stat alone is damning. The 33% of voters who thought the stimulus hurt the economy broke just as big for Republicans (86 to 12). The 32% who thought the stimulus made no difference broke for Republicans by nearly a 20 point margin (58 to 39). That's an absolute drubbing.

Fifth, it's true that the poll didn't show a majority in favor of repeal of Obamacare--"only" 48% said it should be repealed, a solid plurality just short of a majority. The strange thing about the question is that the only options it provides voters is repeal, expand, or leave it as it stands. No option was provided for what most Republicans on the national stage have been campaigning on, which is either "repeal and replace" or "revise and reform." We can't know how the numbers would have broken out if voters were given that choice; but other polling offers plenty of reason to believe that, even though CNN's exit polling showed more support for repeal than for "expansion" and "status quo" combined, those figures understate the level of popular dissatisfaction with Obamacare.

As for Matt, there was no intent to pull a Sir Robin. The thread had been inactive for a couple of days after my exchange with Dr. Fox and I only happened to check it again today. But feel free to confirm my suspicion that, when confronted with facts, you will pull a Black Knight.