Election 2009: Another pendulum swing, and again, the nation’s business goes undone

Pay no attention to Republican euphoria over its gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey. Ignore Democratic delight at winning an upstate New York House seat for the first time in a very long time.

This week’s results portend continuing problems for both parties and, frankly, for the rest of us because they presage more wrangling within each party, more gridlock between them and, in the end, less progress on the nation’s agenda.

The most striking thing about modern American politics is its volatility, and this week’s results only reinforced it.

For much of American history, one party dominated the political scene for long periods (Republicans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Democrats starting with the New Deal). In recent decades, however, a perpetually dissatisfied electorate has bounced between the parties, limiting the time that either one controls the White House or Congress or both.

With their latest rise to power, each party predicts a new period of political domination. But that party soon loses control over one branch or the other, its hope of long-term electoral realignment dashed because, for whatever reason, it could not respond to the aspirations of most Americans.

Tuesday’s results and the atmospherics around them suggest that, if anything, such volatility is picking up steam. The public is growing more disgusted, and the parties seem astonishingly inept in responding, as if hell-bent on imploding rather than on crafting the vision and building the infrastructure for long-term success.

Yes, Republicans won governorships of Virginia and New Jersey, largely because “independent” voters who had strongly backed President Obama in his race last year tilted strongly Republican this year and because key parts of Obama’s coalition (e.g., youth) voted in smaller numbers than last year.

Perhaps more telling was what happened in New York, where the GOP split open, costing the party its seat. Under attack by big-wig conservatives like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, the Republican establishment candidate quit the race, leaving the contest between a moderate Democrat and a hard-right Republican. The hard-right Republican was, alas, too hard right, and the Democrat won.

And yet, some conservative leaders want to take their ideological cleansing operation elsewhere, dissing GOP candidates whom they consider ideologically squishy, finding alternative candidates to challenge them and, in the process, creating more chances for Democrats to siphon away independents.

In essence, that formula calls for ideological purity even if it means a shrinking political base, a return to tired themes of lower taxes and less government that do not answer peoples’ day-to-day concerns, and litmus tests over gay marriage and other social issues that many voters see as distractions.

But Democrats should take no solace from GOP disarray. Though in power, they are badly split between liberals (who hold most of the powerful positions in Congress) and moderates (who have the numbers to block party action). Tellingly, the two factions disagreed strongly about how to read this week’s results.

Liberals believe that Americans voted Republican in Virginia and New Jersey because Democrats in Washington haven’t delivered enough results, especially with their health reform delayed. Moderates believe voters fear that Democrats are moving too quickly, making government too big, and talking up tax increases too much.

So, each party is a house divided. Worse, each seems incapable of offering a positive, sustainable and reassuring vision for Americans. To be sure, each promises to address “problems” – for Republicans, the problems of high taxes and big government; for Democrats, the problems of social inequity and inadequate government. Neither, however, paints a convincing picture of the world it hopes to create at home and abroad.

Instead, each runs against the sinister vision that it ascribes to the other. Democrats capitalized on disgust with President Bush to regain control of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. Republicans exploited concerns about Obama and the Democrats this year to energize their grassroots voters. The message of each party is “We’re not him” – whichever “him” is running the other party.

With the voters bouncing between the parties, no single election these days carries any predictive power for future elections. This week’s elections are no different. They tell us little about 2010 or 2012.

Everybody knows that 2010 will be a tough year for Democrats. Mid-term elections are almost always tough for parties in power, and modern-era disgust with incumbent officeholders only exacerbates that trend. Moreover, even as the economy grows, unemployment will continue rising well into next year.

As for Obama’s prospects in 2012, this week’s results say nothing. The 1994 GOP mid-term landslide didn’t prevent President Clinton from winning re-election handily in 1996.  Nor did the successful first Gulf War in early 1991, after which the first President Bush stood at 91 percent in the polls and leading Democrats (e.g., Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley) decided not to challenge him in 1992, prevent Clinton from beating him handily that year.

What this week’s results do portend, though, is increasing gridlock between the parties in Washington.

Health reform suffered a serious body blow, increasing the chances that legislative maneuvering over it will continue into 2010.  Even before this week’s results, Republicans were growing increasingly confident that they could delay Senate action on it until next year, when they hope to kill it for good.  Now, moderate Democratic senators will insist even more strongly that the bill move “to the center,” presaging an ever fiercer fight with Democratic liberals over its size, its inclusion of a so-called “public option,” and its tax increase. The longer the health care debate lingers, with the 2010 elections approaching and Democrats split between centrists seeking more incrementalism and liberals seeking as comprehensive a reform as possible, the more endangered health care will become.

With health care delayed, climate change will move further to the back burner. Republicans will remain uncooperative on the issue, for they assume that their opposition to Obama on everything paid political dividends this week. Meanwhile, the same Democratic centrists who worry about health care will be even more worried about, among other things, the higher energy prices for all Americans that will result from a cap-and-trade system.

All of this makes long-term deficit reduction – probably the nation’s biggest domestic challenge – even more of a pipedream. As with health care and climate change, factions within and across the parties will move further apart. Republicans will oppose any tax increases, centrist Democrats will fear them politically and liberals will insist on them to lessen the need for deep spending cuts.

More public disgust leads to more political volatility, and neither party seems capable of breaking the cycle. Who suffers? We do, for we expect far more than today’s elected leaders can deliver

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