What’s Left: Great Expectations



If you haven’t already heard, the Democratic Party took a beating last Tuesday. Democrats lost 64 seats, control of the House of Representatives, six seats in the Senate, nine governorships and countless seats in state legislatures. In the words of Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., “It was a very rough week, there’s no sugarcoating that.” With Republicans appearing resurgent, yet exit polls giving both political parties nearly identical favorability ratings, one can only ask, “what does this mean and what will happen next?” The Republican leadership has taken a “might means right approach,” deluding themselves in interpreting their midterm gains as proof of their success and righteousness. This attitude was eloquently personified by Rep. Mike Pence’s offhand remark that “This week’s election was a historic rejection of American liberalism and the Obama and Pelosi agenda.” But the midterm elections are much more complex than that. Far more than a referendum on the sitting president, midterm elections provide an important check on a ruling party’s power, and provide the all-important expectations to deliver on promises and compromise. This represents a make-or-break moment for the Republicans, as they must reconcile Tea Party members and the Democratic Party if they want to meet the expectations set out for them. And if we’ve learned anything from the past two years, compromise is a word not often found in Republican vocabulary.

Historically speaking, the midterm election has never been a happy one for the party of a sitting president. In fact, no president since Teddy Roosevelt has emerged from his presidency with a net gain in party seats in the Senate and House of Representatives (and this can be attributed to the addition of Oklahoma and the restructuring of the census districts). Each succeeding president has had a net loss of seats to the opposing party, losing an average of 30 seats in the house and four seats in the Senate. All but two presidents, JFK and the no-longer-very-popular Nixon, also lost Senate seats. Six presidents have lost control of the House of Representatives and two have lost both chambers of Congress.

What this historical trend shows us is that clearly a midterm election is not simply a referendum on the president and his party. If so, every president from Truman to Reagan has failed to live up to expectations. Even FDR, widely regarded as a great (if not the greatest) president in American history lost 108 seats in the House over his four terms, 72 in a single midterm election. If you are going to have faith in democracy, you must have faith that the people are not as fickle with the president as trends snow. Rather, you must see that the midterm election is a historical expression of one of the great checks and balances of our democracy. You must see the midterm election as the American people’s faith in the two-party system, their faith that the best legislation is produced from compromise and consensus, and their faith that these elected officials will be able to sacrifice a little bit of ideological purity for pragmatic solutions.

I cannot end without making the obvious connection to President Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” strategy that led to a Republican domination of Congress in 1994. What is important to understand in that situation is that compromise happened. Both parties understood that these midterm elections put pressure on them: the Democrats saw that they needed to produce results and Republicans realized that they needed to meet expectations in order to maintain their positions. And this pressure worked. Compromise between Republican and Democratic elements of government produced some of the best legislation in the past 30 years: they balanced the budget, reformed welfare, signed NAFTA and created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) which provided health insurance to needy children not covered by Medicaid. The fear of enduring more losses and the anxiety of living up to expectations created the perfect conditions for compromise.

So when the 112th United States Congress convenes in this coming January, the conditions will be set for compromise. President Obama has already struck a conciliatory tone with Republicans, asking them to meet with him to discuss how to move forward. The question is, will Republicans embrace the spirit of compromise? As their self-righteous tone suggests, they have not yet realized that they have expectations they must meet, and voting “nay” to every bill that passes under their noses will not be enough. If Republicans hope to maintain this perceived favorability and pass items on their agenda, they will need to keep the Tea Party on a short leash and form a coalition that, on occasion, will be able to satisfy liberals and conservatives alike. If they are able to do so and produce legislation in the spirit of compromise, then they will have satisfied the American people who voted them into office on faith in the two-party system. If not, then that faith may be broken.