Tuesday, November 16, 2010
What this election will mean for USa....
Obama had the mot juste last Wednesday for what had just befallen him and his party: a “shellacking.” The President’s choice of word was one syllable (and one “g”) longer than his predecessor’s summary after a parallel midterm debacle. But, then, Obama’s shellacking was several syllables worse than the “thumpin’ ” that George W. Bush and the Republicans took in 2006. That year, President Bush’s party lost thirty seats in the House of Representatives; this year, President Obama’s lost more than twice as many.
It was a historic defeat. The Democrats retained their Senate majority, now much reduced, only by the grace of the Tea Party, which, in Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada, saddled Republicans with nominees so weighted with extremism and general bizarreness that they sank beneath the wave so many others rode. Come January, for only the second time in eight decades and the first in more than six, the House will have fewer than two hundred Democrats in it. And because Democrats also lost eleven governorships and control of nineteen state legislative chambers, the decennial festival of gerrymandering will put their congressional starting line for 2012 at least twenty seats farther back.
In 2008, a little more than fifty-three per cent of the electorate opted for Democratic candidates for the House; in 2010, a little less than fifty-three per cent opted for Republicans. But, if the mirror-image division was essentially equivalent, the electorates were not. The one that dealt Democrats the blow this year was dramatically smaller than the one that put them in office. In 2008, when a hundred and thirty million people cast votes in the Presidential election, a hundred and twenty million took the trouble to vote for a representative in Congress. In 2010, seventy-five million did so—forty-five million fewer, a huge drop-off. The members of this year’s truncated electorate were also whiter, markedly older, and more habitually Republican: if the franchise had been limited to them two years ago, last week’s exit polls suggest, John McCain would be President today.
With the votes tallied, the spin began: a procession of confident assertions about what “the American people”—meaning, in practical terms, the slice of the scaled-down midterm electorate that went one way in 2008 and the other in 2010—were “trying to say.” According to Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, “The message of Tuesday’s election was that the American people want both political parties to work together.” Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ leader in the Senate, seemed to embrace the togetherness angle, but with fateful caveats. “The American people want us to put aside the left-wing wish list and work together,” he said. But, echoing his pre-election remark that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President,” he also said, “If our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health-spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending, and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.”
As for “the American people” themselves, it seems clear enough that their rejection of the Democrats was, above all, an expression of angry anxiety about the ongoing economic firestorm. Though ignited and fanned by an out-of-control financial industry and its (mostly) conservative political and intellectual enablers, the fire has burned hottest since the 2008 Democratic sweep. By the time the flames reached their height, the arsonists had slunk off, and only the firemen were left for people to take out their ire on. The result is a kind of political cognitive dissonance. Frightened by joblessness, “the American people” rewarded the party that not only opposed the stimulus but also blocked the extension of unemployment benefits. Alarmed by a ballooning national debt, they rewarded the party that not only transformed budget surpluses into budget deficits but also proposes to inflate the debt by hundreds of billions with a permanent tax cut for the least needy two per cent. Frustrated by what they see as inaction, they rewarded the party that not only fought every effort to mitigate the crisis but also forced the watering down of whatever it couldn’t block.
Part of the Democrats’ political problem is that their defense, confusingly, depends on counterfactuals (without the actions they took in the face of fierce Republican opposition, the great slump would have metastasized into a Great Depression), deferred gratification (the health-care law’s benefits do not kick in fully until 2014), and counterintuitive propositions (the same hard times that force ordinary citizens to spend less money oblige the government—whose income, like theirs, is falling—to spend more).
Another part of the problem, it must be said, is public ignorance.
An illuminating Bloomberg poll, taken the week before the election, found that some two-thirds of likely voters believed that, under Obama and the Democrats, middle-class taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks under the Troubled Asset Relief Program are gone, never to be recovered. One might add to that list the public’s apparent conviction that illegal immigration is skyrocketing and that the health-care law will drive the deficit higher. Reality tells a different story. For ninety-five per cent of us, taxes are actually lower, cut by around four hundred dollars a year for individuals and twice that for families. (The stimulus provided other tax cuts for people of modest means, including a break for college tuition.) The economy has been growing, however feebly, for five straight quarters. Most of the TARP loans have been repaid and the rest soon will be, plus a modest profit for the Treasury. And the number of illegal immigrants fell by close to a million last year, thanks in part to more energetic border enforcement. The health-care law, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says, will bring the deficit down.
But why don’t “the American people” know these things? Could it be because the President and his party did not try, or try hard enough, to tell them? Obama’s still loyal supporters—his “base”—are, most of them, disappointed and depressed. This year, more Democratic candidates seemed to apologize for the health-care law—notwithstanding its imperfections, their party’s greatest accomplishment in generations, the fulfillment of a century-long dream—than to proclaim it. Compromise, timidity, and the ugliness of the legislative process—not all of it unavoidable—have exacted a steep toll. Even Obama’s temperament has become a political liability. In 2008, his calm was a synergistic counterpoint to the joyous excitement of the throngs that packed his rallies. In the tidy, quiet isolation of the White House, his serene rationality has felt to many like detachment, even indifference. For him and for the country, the next two years look awfully bleak. Capitol Hill will be like Hamburger Hill, a noisy wasteland of sanguinary stalemate. There will be no more transformative legislation; it will be all Obama can do simply to protect health-care reform from sabotage. The economy, like the climate, will be left to fend for itself. And the world will watch, wonder, and worry.
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