The Day After
A Commentary by Susan Estrich
1994 was much worse. Much. So was 1980, but of course, that was also a presidential election. Within days, there were makeshift unemployment offices in all the congressional office buildings.
Actually, to be a little Pollyanna-ish here, what's striking is that for Democrats, it could have been so much worse. California and New York were, for starters, exempt. Also Massachusetts. A whole slew of people who could very well have lost -- from Harry Reid in Nevada to Chris Coons in Delaware -- didn't. The Senate remained Democratic. People were much more into throwing the bums out when it came to House races than gubernatorial races.
For all the talk about the tea party movement generating enthusiasm, that enthusiasm came at a price, for which Christine O'Donnell will always be the poster girl. You nominated her for a Senate seat you would have otherwise won? Are you crazy? People were still asking these questions on election night.
This is what Republicans have to "manage" for the next two years, along with the fact that their best-known and most magnetic star, Sarah Palin, also has the highest negatives. I'd take Barack Obama's political problems over hers any day. And so, I think, would any professional.
No one speaks for "the American people" -- notwithstanding the many who claimed to on Tuesday night. At best, candidates who won really "big" could claim to speak for about 60 percent of the 50-some percent of us who even bothered to vote. Most people, it bears remembering, didn't say anything at all on Tuesday, one way or the other.
But the message that comes out of the results is not revolutionary at all. The Republicans got the keys, but they didn't get the car.
Cynics will tell you that paralysis is the most likely result, and they're probably right. Still, among all the "voter" interviews I've heard in the past 24 hours, it is hard to remember anyone saying they were voting so that Washington could become even more divided and partisan and unproductive than it already is. Voters, we should not be shocked to hear, are a whole lot less partisan than the leaders of partisan politics. If paralysis cometh, he or she who is seen as being responsible for it will pay.
The other possibility is some balance. At least some Republicans last night were sounding a more practical theme. They recognize that they have to do some things that actually pass and become law. They can't spend the next two years solely focused on making sure that Obama doesn't get re-elected, or they will assure that he does. That was 1996. Whatever the talking heads say, once they get to D.C., even the biggest tea drinkers will discover that a revolutionary who comes home empty-handed isn't going to be welcomed.
The best thing about midterms is that they provide an occasion for midterm corrections. I don't think America rejected Obama's presidency last night. But they rejected the experience they've had of it in the first two years: unemployment; huge bills being passed that most people don't yet understand; bailouts for those too big to fail but not for those too small to matter; a president who is without question smart, but whose ability to "feel our pain" much less motivate his base has yet to be established.
It's how you play your hand that matters in the end. The president has been dealt a new hand -- not the one he wanted, certainly, and not the easiest hand to play, but it has possibilities. If politics works at all like it's supposed to, in the playing of it, he'll show himself.
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