Washington, DC . . . just two years ago
The streets were alive with a wave of exuberance, faces lit up by excitement, a sense that history had changed, and changed for good. Late into the night, the parties went on, strangers embracing each other and dancing in the streets, as state after state, district after district, flashed blue on the electoral map. And everywhere the cry went up: “Yes, we did!” A rudderless, fractious Republican Party looked permanantly out of sync with this brave new dawn.
Today, all that seems an eternity ago. This morning, it was the Republicans doing the celebrating, and the Democrats licking their wounds and wondering where on earth to go from here.
The grand coalition that Barack Obama and his team so skilfully constructed – women, young people, ethnic minorities, the educated and the urbanites – proved ephemeral after all. Many of those interest groups have simply melted away. The political map that seemed so decisively altered has been torn up, as traditional Republican strongholds re-emerged.
For last night’s Democratic defeats stretch right across the country: rural areas, the suburbs, the West and the South. In key battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Republicans managed to sweep the board. They’ve picked up six governorships – and regained control of state legislatures, giving them crucial control over redistricting, which happens only once every ten years.
From death panels to bailout
Congress has lost some long-serving members – such as the 18-term representative Ike Skelton and the liberal stalwart Russ Feingold – as well as some newer faces, such as Virginia’s Tom Periello, who’d become something of a poster boy for the Obama health-care reforms.
On the Republican right, Rand Paul managed to win Kentucky, while Marco Rubio triumphed in his three-way fight in Florida. One crumb of comfort for the Democrats – they’ve kept control of the Senate, largely due to some pretty big-name Tea Party defeats: Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado. And it looks like Lisa Murkowski, ousted in Alaska‘s GOP primary by the Tea Party’s Joe Miller, will be re-elected there, although her name wasn’t even on the ballot.
But this is not yet the story of a Tea Party defeat: this election was Barack Obama’s to lose.
Somehow, the man whose soaring rhetoric inspired so many has lost his voice. Somehow, the Obama team allowed the Republicans to define the nation’s political debate, from health care (remember “death panels”?) to the financial bailout. He failed to explain his direction, he failed to trumpet his achievements, he failed to feel the people’s pain.
The battle this time was the one his political opponents had chosen to fight: and if the people clamoured for change two years ago, they’re still clamouring for it now – but with a different message: change course.
So, now: the future. And in place of audacity, it was a penitent president who spoke to the press tonight, admitting he’d heard a message of frustration across the country, over the pace of recovery, over jobs, over where their tax dollars are being spent. No one party, he said, can dictate where we go from here: and he appealed to politicians, Democrat and Republican, to find common ground.
It’s not an easy choice for Obama, with an eye on the race in 2012. His team could try to reconstruct that winning coalition – play to the centre – or reach out across the political aisle.
The Clinton formula
In 1994, when President Bill Clinton was gridlocked by Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution, he took that centrist route: declared that the era of big government was over, and ended up co-operating with his erstwhile foes over key issues such as welfare reform.
That, argue Democratic strategists, helped Clinton bounce right back into power in 1996. The people just don’t like liberalism, they say: instead, they want their politicians to quit arguing, and work together.
Senator Evan Bayh, writing in the New York Times, says the Democrats overinterpreted their victory in 2008: “talk of a ‘political realignment’ and a ‘new progressive era’ proved wishful thinking”, he said. “An electorate that is 76 per cent moderate to conservative was not crying out for a move to the left.”
This time, though, it’s not all in Obama’s control. John Boehner, the new House majority leader, has given a pretty uncompromising message so far, vowing to slash the size of the federal government, restore the Bush-era tax cuts – and roll back the administration’s flagship health-care reforms.
“I believe that the health-care bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health-care system in the world, and bankrupt our country,” he declared this morning. Not much compromise evident in that.
Not that Boehner himself can expect an easy ride: polls show the Republican Party is even more unpopular than Obama, with approval ratings in Congress of just 41 per cent. People voted for them anyway. But Boehner will now have to lead a House that is sharply divided – not just between the two parties, but within his own ranks.
The millions who voted for those insurgent Tea Party candidates won’t be easily silenced: and on the other side, those independents who swung behind his party last night might just as easily swing back to the Democrats next time.
It may still be too early to write the obituary for liberalism – still less, for the Democratic Party itself. But this is certain: Obama can expect a pretty difficult two years. And if he doesn’t find a way of making the new relationship work, the headlines he will wake up to on 7 November 2012 might be even worse than today’s.
Felicity Spector is chief writer and US politics expert for Channel 4 News.