The Métropolitain

Victory in November: Opportunities and Perils for Republicans

By David T. Jones on December 27, 2010

Washington, DC - The Republican Party, having won a substantial victory in the November 2 election, is about to encounter that existential challenge.  Be careful of what you ask for; you may get it.

Thus, the Republicans won a smashing victory in the House of Representatives and substantially narrowed the Democratic margin of control in the Senate.  Some Republican gains were unsurprising; historically, in the election immediately following a new president's victory, the opposition picks up seats.  And the 2008 victory was a massive route--a "perfect storm" favoring the Democrats.  They benefitted from perceived Republican ineptitude facing the rising economic crisis; two inconclusive wars (at least one of which regarded as both bloody and unnecessary); and a highly unpopular incumbent president.  Senator John McCain, for all of his personal virtues, looked like 20th century man; Senator Barack Obama radiated "hope and change" for the 21st century.  As a consequence, traditionally Republican seats were swept into the Democratic column--seats that returned to their normal political orientation. 

Why so?  In a nutshell, the "hopey; changey" theme didn't produce.  Americans are impatient; they assume that the promises, direct or implicit, of victorious politicians will be implemented.  Thus at the two-year mark, Americans expected clear economic recovery with strongly rising GNP and unemployment 8 percent or lower.  Instead, although technically the Great Recession ended, economic recovery is feeble and joblessness remains near 10 percent.  

The Democratic approach to reviving the economy was traditional "pump priming"--hundreds of billions of dollars directed at various stimulus projects while the government provided economic support for major industries (auto and housing), banks, local, and state governments.  The theory behind such spending is that it will prompt private sector economic activity and promote private sector investment and spending.  Unfortunately, this theory has simply not worked.  At the minimum, it didn't work/wasn't working in the two-year timeframe necessary to salvage Democratic political fortunes.

Economic doldrums alone might have been negotiable (the answer being to blame "Dubya" for all failures of commission or omission), except that President Obama chose to push the politico-social envelope by creating an innovatively expanded health care system--a system that virtually every non-Administration observer believes will be incredibly expensive and which many citizens believe will also make health care both more expensive and of poorer quality.  Moreover, the Administration simultaneously sought to raise taxes, generating intense opposition not just from "the rich"--the ostensible target of these raises--but from the skeptical non-rich who suspect they are next in the sights of the tax collectors.  

Consequently, not knowing what the health care costs will be or what the tax schedule will resemble, business declined to either invest or hire.  Tax revenues are nowhere near expenditures, and trillion dollar deficits into the out-years reinforced the conclusion that the Democrats "just don't get it" so far as the U.S. electorate was concerned.

Thus, while this election "storm" is not going to sink the SSObama, there will be crewmembers jettisoned and extensive repair required to keep the Ship of State off the rocks--and the Republicans are unlikely to be cooperative.

For two years, Republicans have wallowed in the delights of Opposition--to oppose without responsibility.  This tactical success probably heralds more-of-the-same in the next divided Congress with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats the Senate.  Republicans are vocally focused on making President Obama the President Carter of the 21st century--a one-term wonder.  For Republicans the trick of victory will be transforming the implicit requirement to "do something" against the reality that any president controlling the Executive Branch--and the Senate--can stymie Republican initiatives.  The stimulus provided by "Tea Party" activists will be a double-edged sword:  their desire is smaller, cheaper government, which is hardly the course projected by President Obama.     

Most likely on the horizon is vituperative deadlock--not akin to Canada's QP but one that de facto prevents any new spending initiatives (cap and trade; tax raises) while frustrating proposed Republican cuts, e.g., not funding health care or legislating further tax reductions.

The bitterly unfortunate reality is the need for substantial cuts in all discretionary spending areas (Why should the U.S. defense budget match combined security spending of most of the rest of the world?  Can we afford retiring "boomers" with ever escalating benefits?).  Moreover, there must be tax increases wherein all pay.  The co-chairs of the independent Deficit Commission scheduled to report in December telegraphed elements of such a plan--to the horror of all listeners who saw not just the whales harpooned but the guppies gutted.  Indeed, the United States is not yet willing to read the handwriting on the wall--and probably will not until our back is up against it.