Political InQueery: The Blame Game

John BoehnerMuch of the rhetoric in the 2010 midterm elections focused on anger, and the GOP candidates who will take control of the next House session spent a lot of campaign messaging time expressing how they felt connected to voters’ anger. Which begs the question: were the candidates or the voters the angry ones? Why did Election Day turn out the way it did? And what does it mean, going forward?

Headlines claiming “A Rebuke to Obama,” articles like the one running late Tuesday night on Politico saying the GOP wave was a “referendum on Nancy Pelosi’s house,” and a “no-confidence vote,” from Richard Cohen of the Washington Post—these all overstate the election results, which are well within the history in the US of the ruling party losing house and senate seats two years after a presidential election. Americans just are not comfortable with one political party having the White House and both houses of Congress in its grasp.

Looking at the national map of results, the majority of races remained in the hands of the same party—so far, six senate seats switched to the GOP, with four races outstanding as of this writing. 59 house seats have shifted as well, and most of those had only been held by the Democrats in the last or last two congressional sessions. Many of the inroads Democrats had burrowed into the House, starting in the 2006 midterm election, were spearheaded by Rahm Emanuel in his capacity as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair. Because those seats were secured with the help of independent voters disillusioned with George Bush’s administration, it’s not surprising that this group, faced with a perceived lack of progress on issues they think are important, swung them toward the other side in this election cycle.

Exit polls from Tuesday’s voting suggested that 80 percent of voters were worried about the economy over the next year, even as they remarked that they felt their own individual situations were the same or had improved in the last year. That is not a statement of voter anger. That seems to be more of a statement about concern and self-interest. We could debate the merits of voting for this candidate or that and how they would support or detract from one’s interests, but a more salient question is, Who benefits from presuming Americans are all so very angry? Because my guess is it’s not us collectively.

If we continue to focus on who is angry at whom, can we expect bipartisan work in the Congress? Or does this framing lead to more stagnation, posturing, and obstructionist tactics among the people just elected? President Obama has already been told by several political journalists and politicians to be conciliatory, to accept that he has a “bad bedside manner,” to make compromises and see what he can do personally to get the country back on track. But if memory serves, many of Congress’ actions in the last year were compromises; the public option was dropped from the health care reform initiative while the anti-reproductive rights Stupak Amendment was added, and even the market-based model for the law comes from Republican demands lodged during the long debate around the bill. I’m not sure what further compromise looks like in this regard. The ball seems to be in the GOP’s court when it comes to house politics in the next session.

In his concession speech for the New York Governor’s seat, Carl Paladino wielded a bat, saying that Andrew Cuomo, the winner,

…can grab this handle and bring the people with you to Albany. Or you can leave it untouched, and run the risk of having it wielded against you. Because make no mistake, you have not heard the last of Carl Paladino.

That is an angry statement from a campaigner, not a voting constituency. If it were just Paladino’s rhetoric I wouldn’t necessarily spend a lot of energy wondering why he thought it was his best marketing ploy. But because so much of these elections used anger as the means to get people to vote, I want to look at the results carefully and ask if it was enough to get people to the polls, and if it affected their selections. So far, the results don’t bear that out.

Three senatorial races are still up in the air as of this writing. “Write-in” is carrying more votes than Joe Miller, the Tea Party candidate in Alaska; and that contest will surely come down to a recount and a debate about how badly people can misspell Lisa Murkowski’s name before the Secretary of State declares it an invalid vote for her. And we thought hanging chad were bad. In Washington State, Democrat Patty Murray is in a dead heat with Dino Rossi, a man with a history of protracted recounts in previous losses for that state’s Governor’s office. And in Colorado, the top two candidates are two-tenths of a point apart. Will the rhetoric of anger continue to be voiced in these campaigns? If so, it may start to sound dissonant if John Boehner and Harry Reid—assuming those are the two who will take the leadership positions—begin talking about working together. For his part, Boehner choked up during his victory speech tonight, saying that he was ready to roll up his sleeves and do the work America needed.

2010 votingAnd that didn’t sound like anger at all. In the President’s call to the presumed new Speaker’s office, each man’s spokesperson claimed to have had a “pleasant” discussion. If either wants to assure voters that their parties mean to do right after years of public bickering and obstruction, then pleasant sounds like a good idea. But it may be a quick shift from the hostility we’ve all been enmeshed in for the last seven months, and if any of the more extreme candidates bought into the rhetoric during their campaigns, they may have a tougher adjustment ahead of them than they realize.



by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is transplantportation.com and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

no racism here. nope.

"President Obama has already been told by several political journalists and politicians to be conciliatory, to accept that he has a 'bad bedside manner,' to make compromises and see what he can do personally to get the country back on track. But if memory serves, many of Congress' actions in the last year were compromises...."

Not to mention that a bunch of (relatively well-to-do) white guys telling a black guy to ask more nicely and then maybe people will do what he wants is sooooo original....

Thanks for the insightful election analysis!

"...these all overstate the

"...these all overstate the election results, which are well within the history in the US of the ruling party losing house and senate seats two years after a presidential election." I just stopped reading there. Republicans gained 60 seats which is the largest single-cycle net House shift in 72 years. Plus Republicans won 29 of the 37 governors races and now control both sides of many state legislatures in a year ending in zero. I just shuddered at calling this "well within the history of the US". While I do not fully agree with the headlines you mentioned (though all the anti-Pelosi ads and their stickiness suggest there is something to the middle claim), this was far from a normal election and should serve as a notice for 2012. 2012 has something like 23 Democrats up for reelection in the Senate to 9 GOP.

Yes, in terms of GOP gains in

Yes, in terms of GOP gains in a single cycle, it's a big number. However, many of those 60 seats had only been occupied by Democrats in the last 1-2 cycles, as part of Rahm Emmanuel's plan to make inroads in traditional Republican territory. Rahm's strategy brought in 30 new Dem seats in 2006 and 21 in 2008, so the GOP is basically back to where it was in 2004. The more notable swings were the significant losses of the conservative Democrats—The Blue Dogs—the polarity between male and female voters this time around, and the disappearance of young voters, just as soon as they'd made an appearance in 2008. Calling a 60-seat pick up when 51 of those seats were in shaky territory, when the GOP put up people who could "out-conservative" the right-leaning people who were in many of those seats a significant shift isn't inaccurate, no, but it's also not the end of the Democratic Party, and the GOP would be wise not to overstate its mandate.

True, the GOP would be wise

True, the GOP would be wise not to overstate it as a mandate. I also think that progressives should not think of this as being "well within the history in the US" especially given the amount of outside money now allowed and the increasing sophistication of outside interest groups.

I guess what I'm trying to

I guess what I'm trying to point to is the tendency on both sides to overstate their case; what a swing of 60 shows me is that in 60 House elections, people chose the GOP candidate over the Democrat. That shows a geographic dispersion of people interested in having the Republican representative in a given district, but it just is not the 100,000,000+ votes cast for Obama in 2008. I still don't see any one figure in the GOP side who can beat Obama in 2012 by appealing to the independent vote, even though it took some smaller percentage of those independent voters to swing the House in this election. I think the midterms provide a glimpse into the breadth, not the depth, of voter interest in the GOP. So I don't want to say everything is hunky-dory for the Democrats despite the loss, but I don't believe the GOP's hype about this being their new day, either.

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