What the mid-terms really mean

Mid-term elections are notoriously grim for incumbent Presidents. And predictions for 2010 all predicted, in the language of American political hyperbole that the Republicans would sweep away the Democrats in a “tsunami, not just a tidal wave”. When one considers that such language was used to describe predicted results that were better for the Democrats than the ensuing reality, one can understand just how dire a night it was for them.

The Democrats lost over 60 seats in the House of Representatives, and seven in the Senate. Whilst results in the Senate could have been worse – the Democrats were saved by the Tea Party nominees Sharan Angle, in Nevada, and the lamentable Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, both of whom cost the Republicans eminently winnable seats – those in the House exceeded virtually all predictions.

In 1994, the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House, in the famous ‘Republican takeover’. Both then and now, a young Democrat President in his first term was struggling, undermined by the incredibly divisive issue of healthcare reform (where Bill Clinton failed to get this through, relative success in this area is both Barack Obama’s biggest accomplishment and the most powerful Republican criticism of him). And in both elections, there was a Republican ‘revolution’, something that loosely translates as ‘major shift to the right’. For Newt Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America’, an incredibly conservative document which emphasised reduced government spending, now read the Tea Party.

The Tea Party have been called a lot of things, and the level of social conservatism in the movement trumps even that of the Gingrich-led Republican takeover in 1994. But perhaps the easiest way to comprehend them is an anti-tax movement – a trumped-up TaxPayers’ Alliance. For all their revolutionary rhetoric, activists are disproportionately rich, and much of their funding comes from billionaires who want to see their own taxes cut. Only in America.

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But what’s really interesting about the 2010 elections is, whilst obviously a catastrophe for the Democrats, the elections hardly represent a triumph for the Tea Party. Whilst some candidates enjoyed notable victories, like Marco Rubio in Florida, the Tea Party should be disappointed that their bucketloads of cash didn’t yield more scalps. In fact, it may be argued that the more money they pumped into their campaigns, the less popular they became. As an example, take everyone’s favourite no-time Senator, Christine “not a witch” O’Donnell. The Tea Party Express gave her extraordinary funds for her race. The day before polling, she had enough left to pay for a 30-minute commercial – the sort that political analysts often say can tilt elections. Except it definitely didn’t. O’Donnell was stuffed, losing by 30% in a seat considered an almost inevitable Republican gain until her primary victory. If this wasn’t an emphatic endorsement for the Democrats and Obama’s agenda – which it simply wasn’t – than it was an emphatic rebuttal of the Tea Party.

So if the Democrats and Tea Party didn’t have a brilliant evening, it must have been an exceptional one for the ‘old Republican Party’ right? Well, in the sense of electoral gains, emphatically so. But looking at data to gauge the ‘mood’ of voters shows Americans less trusting of the Republicans than in 2001-2004, the height of Bush’s popularity. There is an acceptance of many candidates that the Republicans share a degree of culpability in the mess America finds itself in. Things are not quite as rosy for the Republicans as the election results would suggest.
This leaves America facing two years of legislative gridlock. Obama had an extremely hard time selling his agenda when he also had large majorities in the House and Senate; now the Republicans will gain a similarly large House majority and have substantially eroded his Senate one,. Stalemate will ensue. At times it seems like the American constitution was expressly designed to stop things getting done – there are so many checks and balances that legislation just gets swamped up in the quagmire – and this is particularly true when power is split between the parties.

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This all leads us to one potential outcome of the 2010 elections. Having given the Republicans another chance, the American people will not be happy if the next session of Congress descends into perpetual squabbling between the two parties, whilst the state of America only gets worse. The logical extension of this – but logic so often pales into insignificance when set against money and special interests in American politics – is that Americans will have an epiphany. The perennial failings of American government cannot just be put down to scapegoats like Bush and Obama, however convenient it is to do so. Rather, both the Republicans and Democrats are culpable. America needs a third-party to emerge from the rubble of its current state, and there will never be a climate more receptive to one than in 2012, after two years of the two main parties beating each other to a pulp. But maybe America is getting the government it deserves.