A Republican Mandate?

Posted: November 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

Last Tuesday’s election was a hard blow to Democrats who lost the majority in the House by a significant margin and reduced their majority in the Senate. The GOP claims that they have a mandate from the voters, and that the vote was a wholesale rejection of Obama’s liberal agenda. The Obama administration maintains that they got the policies right, but failed to communicate well to the American public. Clearly Obama’s position is overstated; many Americans are dissatisfied with the policies and used their vote to say as much. I don’t think that Obama’s response means that he is out of touch with America, but I do think that the Republican response does—voters weren’t handing the GOP a mandate. I’m not even sure they were sending the Democrats a message; I think this is the natural “correction” that happens (a) in the middle of hard economic times and (b) after one party has huge wins like those that the Dems had in 2008. It’s a natural response that shows two things about the American electorate. I’ll discuss each of those below:

The first thing to take away from this is that America is impatient. That shouldn’t be surprising. It’s not necessarily unwarranted either given the dire condition of the economy. But let’s cut through the politics of it: if the Republicans had the presidency and had similar successes and failures, they would have been voted out of office too. It has nothing to do with the ideology, and everything to do with the results. And for most of us, results couldn’t come sooner. The problem is that economic recovery never comes easy, and it never comes quickly either. Some reports say it’s going to take us seven years to climb out of the recession. But there’s no question that we’re climbing out of the recession. We’ve added private sector jobs for the last ten months, and 1.1 million jobs this year alone. Jobs are being created, and the stimulus did create or at least save 1.4-3.3 million jobs (according to this Factcheck.org analysis).More importantly to the politics of it all, it’s pretty clear that any economic policy takes time to work. Republicans used to talk a lot about trickle-down economics, and the number of people who believe that Reagan’s economic policies came to fruition during the Clinton years isn’t small. It’s surprising to me that conservatives would make this claim and then give Obama’s economic policies only 2 years to work (actually, it’s been less than two years since the policies could be fully enacted). Time will tell if the Obama administration’s approach to the economy—or pretty much anything else—was right, but all economic indicators say that it’s working. It’s just not working fast enough for the majority of people, especially if they’re looking for jobs.

The second thing we learned from the election is that the American people decided they didn’t want to give the Obama administration the legislative equivalent of a blank check. The Republicans tried to nationalize the election, and it worked. But again, I don’t think it worked because of a wholesale rejection of Obama’s policies; it worked because voters saw most of the administration’s legislation passed without Republican support. Some of the policies against which voters were said to be reacting weren’t even that liberal. TARP and the bank bailout was enacted by Bush. The stimulus plan wasn’t nearly as large as many economists and some members of Congress wanted. The health care bill was much more moderate than initially asked for and more moderate than the bill rejected during the Clinton administration. In fact, polls indicate that Americans like what’s in the health care bill—they just don’t like the bill itself. That tells me that they hated the way it was done. They don’t know exactly what’s in it (because of the multiple versions and misinformation spread during the process), and they don’t like the fact that it was done without bipartisan support. This is only natural. The country isn’t made of Democrats and Republicans; it’s made of moderates, many of whom had a hard time deciding whom to vote for in 2008. So in 2010, when they didn’t feel the results quickly enough, felt like Obama had all the tools he needed to make it work, and didn’t feel like the other guy had much say in the policy, they decided to give the GOP their shot. It’s the equivalent of putting in the second-string quarterback in the second quarter to see if you can get some momentum. It’s not that you don’t think first guy can get it done—he’s your starter for a reason. It’s that you’re willing to try anything to put points on the board. (Admittedly, the analogy is imperfect, and it really breaks down the minute we start talking about 2012—fortunately, I won’t be doing that here—but you get my point.)

So here’s the problem with all of this. I fear that it’s going to undo real progress that has been made, and there has been some (I hesitate to say a lot) of it. I mentioned the economic progress earlier. We can only hope that continues. There was real progress made in reducing the burden of student loans. And like it or not, getting anything on health care was progress. But this morning on the Sunday morning shows, the GOP made clear that they want to take a ‘hard line stance’ on the issues (see the CNN article).They say that “first and foremost, [they’re] not going to be willing to work with [Obama] on the expansive liberal agenda he’s been about.” Beyond clean coal technology, electric car development, free-trade expansion, and nuclear energy, they made it clear that they won’t work with the president. They don’t even want to work to make the Bush tax cuts permanent in the areas that the Democrats have advocated (they’re holding out to get all of what they want). Worse than that, they want to repeal the health care bill outright, saying, “We’re going to do everything we can to try and repeal and replace this thing” (Paul Ryan of Wisconsin). They know how hard that battle was, and they know it’ll be nearly impossible to replace the bill. So why not just try to amend it where they can? Unfortunately, the GOP seems blinded by their own success. They don’t realize that they took one half of one house. They didn’t take the Senate, and exit polling didn’t indicate that much more than 52-55% of the electorate was with them. Like it or not, that’s not an ideological mandate, it’s an indication of voters’ frustration and only natural under the current circumstances.

The GOP campaigned under the premise that Americans were frustrated and angry, and the vote affirmed this notion. But now, instead of carrying that recognition past the campaign, they say that not only will they not work with the president, they actually want to undo what was done. They should be taking this opportunity to make the voters less frustrated and less angry, but instead, they’re ready to promote gridlock and partisan bickering. Remember, the Democrats still hold the senate and the power of veto. That means that Democrats still hold the actual political power as spelled out in the Constitution. If Republicans aren’t willing to work with Democrats, nothing will get done. With any luck, they’ll find a way to work together, because they’re going to have to. This vote wasn’t a widespread repudiation of Obama’s policies, and it wasn’t about giving the GOP a mandate. They recognize that progress has been made and that there’s still a long way to go. This vote was the American people wanting more results quickly, and wanting both parties to work together to go the rest of the way.

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