The results of the midterm elections were both emphatic and ambiguous: a strong message was sent, but no one is entirely sure what it is.
According to polls, most voters weren’t happy with Democrats in both houses of Congress. Still, despite giving control of the House of Representatives back to the GOP, voters remain distrustful of Republicans. As more than one pundit put it on November 3, people voted not so much for the Republicans as against the Democrats. The “Party of No” was the lucky beneficiary of an America of “Enough!” Enough job losses, enough foreclosures, enough national debt: time for another change.
But what kind of change? It’s far easier to say what Americans are feeling right now—frustration, impatience, and, increasingly, anger—than to know what policies they expect their elected representatives to adopt. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who will soon become the Speaker of the House, is certain that Americans want lower taxes and a smaller, less costly federal government. He has promised that his party’s first priority will be extending all the Bush tax cuts, including cuts for the wealthiest Americans. According to polls, though, most Americans still think tax cuts for the rich should be allowed to expire; and while a majority support spending cuts in theory, there is no clear popular mandate for cutting any particular part of the federal budget, least of all the most expensive part: entitlements.
The Republican leadership knows this, which is why it has been artfully vague about how it plans to bring down the deficit. An across-the-boards cut in discretionary spending is the stuff of Tea Party rhetoric, but experienced Republican lawmakers know that this could be politically damaging, especially at a time of high unemployment and deep cuts to state budgets. Instead, they propose to save money by withholding funds for the implementation of the new health-care law. If they cannot repeal the Affordable Care Act (and they can’t, as long as Democrats keep the Senate and the White House), then they may try to starve it to death. Polls indicate that voters, though still opposed to ACA by a small margin, are much more concerned about the economy. But for some Republicans on Capitol Hill, “Obamacare” remains public enemy number one. If there’s anyone who can talk them down from their reckless obsession, it may be the Republican governors whose states desperately need funds provided by the Affordable Care Act. (Governors, whether Republican or Democrat, must govern; they can’t simply strike defiant poses while their states go bankrupt.)
For many Republicans in Washington, though, electoral politics still trumps responsible policy making. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who came close to becoming the new Senate majority leader, has tasted blood and wants more. In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation two days after the election, he defended his Limbauvian remark that the Republicans’ top priority was to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012: “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.” Until then, more brave gestures, more obstruction, and as little compromise as possible. Or, as Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a Tea Party favorite, recently told the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t think the American people are electing a new generation to Washington, D.C., in the hopes that Congress and the White House can get along better.”
As it happens, the American people have made their thoughts on this point quite clear. A week before the election, a CBS/New York Times poll asked Americans what they thought the Republicans in Congress should do—“compromise some of their positions in order to get things done, or stick to their positions even if it means not getting as much done?” Seventy-eight percent said “compromise”; only 15 percent said “stick.” When the pollsters asked people whether they thought President Obama would try to work with Republicans, 72 percent said yes, while only 46 percent thought Republicans would try to work with the president. A wave of Tea Party enthusiasm has led many Republicans to forget that obstinacy brings its own political risks. Control of the House may soon force them to remember.
One more set of poll numbers should interest both Republican lawmakers and President Obama. Asked on Election Day who is most to blame for the country’s current economic problems, more Republicans (37 percent) than Democrats (32 percent) answered “Wall Street.” House Republicans have said they will try to overhaul—that is, weaken—the financial-reform bill the Democrats passed in July. If they do, President Obama should show them what real populism looks like. Whatever message voters meant to send Congress, it wasn’t that Washington should go easy on the bankers.