How bad a night was it for the Democrats? Worse than it seemed on television, I think. Early in the evening, Democrats were surprisingly competitive in a bunch of key races--for house seats in Kentucky and Indiana, Senate seats in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and governorships in Florida and Ohio. Although they would go on to lose all of them, pending final numbers in Florida, they held onto their Senate majority. And that complicated the media narrative. The symbolic importance of Harry Reid's victory, in particular, made it difficult for pundits to call the night a Republican rout. But, make no mistake, this was a Republican rout. As Nate Silver notes, "Republicans have some legitimate gripe with portrayals of the night as having been a split decision."
The election models predicted Democrats should lose House 45, or maybe 50, seats given the state of the economy. My colleague Jonathan Chait suggested that was probably too low, given President Obama's reliance on young voters, and I tend to agree. But the final count will be somewhere in the 60s. That suggests other forces were also at work--that Obama really did campaign badly, that health care reform really did hurt, and so on. You can't say Democrats would have held the House if these things had played out differently, particularly if you want to zero in on any one factor. You can say they might have reduced their losses at the margins.
Still, the economy remains, by far, the most important factor. The polls bore this out: Voters overwhelmingly cited it as the number one reason for their decision. (Health care was a very distant second.) And it's important to be clear about what that means. As Paul Krugman notes again today, the problem wasn't Obama's failure to focus on the economy. It was his failure to improve the economy (or improve it enough). And those complaining most loudly about the lack of focus happen to be the same ones who pushed back, and are still pushing back, against the policies that would have delivered said improvement. Score one for irony, albeit the predictable and familiar kind.
Of course, this is also what's so worrisome about the next two years and beyond. It's not as if the chances of improving the economy went up with this election. If anything, they went down. As even many conservative economists now agree, the economy needs more stimulus. The ascendant Republicans don't believe in stimulus, unless it's in the form of tax cuts for wealthy people that aren't very stimulating. Unemployment will likely stay high. Voter anger will, too.
The 2012 presidential elections won't be this bad. In the House, at least, Democrats won't have as many vulnerable seats to defend. Younger voters, who continue to support Obama, will turn out in much higher numbers.
No less important, this generation of Republicans really does seem clueless about how to govern, even compared to their predecessors. Over at the American Prospect, Mark Schmitt explains why:
There have been three major Republican/conservative takeover elections in recent history: 1980, when Ronald Reagan carried twelve seats and control of the Senate; 1994, when Newt Gingrich's Republicans took both houses; and 2010. The first, while in many ways a reaction to the incompetent presidency of Jimmy Carter (a conservative Democrat whose flaws came to symbolize liberalism) unquestionably carried a mandate for conservatism. The second, 1994, was in many ways a reaction to congressional corruption, combined with a long-postponed rejection of Southern Democrats, but Gingrich and his allies took it very seriously -- perhaps too seriously -- as an ideological mandate.
This year, though, right-wingers barely even pretended to have a comparable program-cutting agenda. Their main talking point about health reform was that it would cut Medicare benefits. They railed about TARP and the auto bailout, but the former originated in the Bush administration and they will not attempt to repeal it. They talked about creating jobs by reducing the deficit, which is economic nonsense. Moreover, not one of the policy plans the Republicans produced would reduce the deficit by a penny. Tea Partiers ranted about constitutional and economic schemes that they probably won't even introduce, much less pass.
Nor is this view confined to the left. David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, is if anything more harsh:
...while O’Donnell and Angle and Paul remain (thank God) untypical of the GOP, their followers have imposed self-destructive limits on Republican thought and action. Republicans have come to power in the midst of the worst economic crisis since World War II without an economic plan--that is, beyond preserving the tax cuts which failed to prevent the crisis in the first place.
I find that very convincing. But I'm not sure it's as encouraging as it might seem.
The other day, I suggested that Obama projected such confidence and serenity in part because he counts on his opposition to over-reach and, eventually, to self-destruct. And there was plenty of self-destruction last night. The nomination of Tea Party candidates in Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada are likely what preserved the Democratic Senate majority. But it's the day after the election, and the Republicans suddenly have a great deal more power than they did before.
Judging by their agenda, such that it is, these Republicans are unserious, dishonest, and nihilistic. They also happen to be winning. And they may keep winning if the White House keeps doing what it's been doing.