As was generally predicted, the Republicans appear to have picked up about 65 House seats, the greatest one-year pickup they have had since 1894, and, though it is not certain, seven Senate seats, to close the Democratic lead to 52–48 and force Vice Pres. Joe Biden to stay close to the Capitol to break ties. It was only last year that the Democrats were exulting in their 60 Senate seats, and their presumptive ability to ram through the Obama program because the Republican Senate contingent was anemically small. This was itself an artifice, as the Democrats got to 60 only by the narrow defeat of Alaska senator Ted Stevens after a fraudulent prosecution that produced a conviction that has since been undone; the flight of long-serving Republican Arlen Specter, who faced a Republican primary defeat; and the delayed election in Minnesota of Al Franken by a series of county recounts by partisan local Democratic tribunals. And the errant Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2000, who campaigned against Obama in 2008, was welcomed back into the unfilibusterable Democratic majority.
By the time the theft of the Minnesota Senate seat was complete, the Democratic nirvana was coming to an end, and the movement of opinion was clear from the Republican repossession of the Massachusetts Senate seat held for 57 years by John F. and Edward M. Kennedy. This was one of the storied prizes of the Congress; the future President Kennedy had taken the seat from Henry Cabot Lodge, who with his grandfather had held the seat for 45 of the preceding 59 years, which included the elder Lodge’s defeat of JFK’s grandfather and namesake, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, in 1916, and the younger Lodge’s defeat of the Rascal King, four-term Boston mayor James Michael Curley, in 1936. The senior Lodge was the closest collaborator of Theodore Roosevelt and architect of the defeat of American adherence to the League of Nations in 1920, and the younger Lodge was the presidential-campaign manager for Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, and vice-presidential candidate with Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Arlen Specter couldn’t win renomination even as a Democrat, and Joe Lieberman’s partisan wanderlust may be expected to be fully revived as of midnight, Election Day. The move back to the Republicans of that Massachusetts Senate seat presaged tonight’s sweep.
Much will be made of the role of the Tea Party movement. This fractious and almost unorganized swath of voters is a seam of discontent that is somewhat reactionary; has libertarian, capitalist, nationalistic, traditional, and small-government tendencies; and believes that solutions should be local and referred to more distant authority only when all closer means to a solution have been exhausted. It lost the Republicans the Senate seat in Delaware, where the mainstream Republican would have won easily; the elevation of a Tea Party woman who had dabbled in exotic religion, was a militant homophobe, and inveighed against the evils of masturbation fumbled Joe Biden’s Senate seat, which Delaware longed to give the Republicans, back into the hands of the Democrats. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, a nondescript pawn of the casino industry but a scrappy incumbent in the clutch, narrowly defeated Tea Partier Sharron Angle, who rose to prominence by becoming so annoyed with her local school board that she withdrew her children and educated them herself; this arrangement blossomed into a school that leeched away the pupils of the state school. But the Tea Partiers aided most winning Republicans, and contributed to the sharp polarization of the result: The Blue Dog (moderate) Democrats and remaining liberal Republicans went down in droves.
It is unlikely that so inflexible and elitist a leader as President Obama will be minded to emulate or capable of repeating the gymnastics of Bill Clinton in 1994, when Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich badly beat the president’s party in the midterm elections and took over both houses of Congress. Mr. Clinton then swerved sharply and ran as, in effect, a moderate Republican, hiring policemen, sending the Seventh Fleet into the Straits of Formosa, and balancing the budget, until Gingrich, in his own words, had “thrown too many interceptions.” To be reelected, Obama will have to throw away his absurdly obsolete liberal playbook and assimilate the lesson that polls show two-thirds of Americans think spending cuts, not more payola for the Democratic barons, is what will stimulate economic recovery. In nearly two years, he has provided no fiscal prospect except herniating deficits and trillion-dollar annual money-supply increases that will ruin the country. His obsessions with the quaint sideshows of an innumerate health-care reform — one that is widely thought likely to make things worse rather than better — and the sci-fi Goreite hobbyhorse of carbon footprints have proved a road map to disaster, as he and the Democratic congressional leaders were constantly warned. Now they can spend more time with their families. At his press conference on Wednesday, the president was certainly chastened, but gave no indication that a drastic course correction was called for or likely.
For the Republicans to win back the White House in 2012, one of the new, or newly noticed, winners will have to be elevated quite quickly. The most likely is the new senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, who drove the cross-benching Charlie Crist down the Specter Road to defection and oblivion, and won by over a million votes, relegating the official Democrat to splinter-party status. He is an accomplished speaker from a big state, and has a compelling, meritocratic CV, though his Rotarian boosterism about the “privilege of being born in the greatest country in human history” can be tiresome, and doesn’t resonate even to notoriously susceptible American audiences who now contemplate the shambles of their country’s public finances, education and justice systems, and helter-skelter foreign policy. The new governor of Ohio, John Kasich, could be a contender. The new Republican governors in Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and some Senate winners — Ayotte, a courageous Catholic social conservative, in New Hampshire; Johnson in Wisconsin; and Murkowski in Alaska, who appears to be the second successful write-in candidate in Senate history, a local opponent of Sarah Palin who flunked the bar examination four times before passing — are all among those who bear watching.
The Republicans have not emerged from the doghouse where the Bushes left them; they are only not its current chief occupants. But they have elected some interesting people. The governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, elected last year, and the two-term governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, a former federal budget director, are very fearless and sensible. But superficial matters intrude into national electability: No president has been as stout as Christie since the 350-pound William Howard Taft, and none so diminutive as Daniels since the five-foot-six-inch Martin Van Buren. Glass ceilings exist to be broken.
The most important immediate personnel change will be the installation of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a thoughtful and innovative fiscal conservative, as head of the Budget Committee. In general, though, this campaign, like that of two years ago, was just another exercise in turning the bums out. The voters were correct, in both years — their incumbent leaders were, so to speak, bums, who badly needed to be defeated — but the U.S. will continue to drift and not be strong in the world until someone produces a plan of action to arrest the country’s decline, as Nixon did in 1968 and Reagan did in 1980. No such credible personality or program is now in prospect. The office is seeking the man or woman and the times are seeking the plan, and the American public doesn’t care which party (including Tea) it comes from.
Editor’s note: This article has been amended since its original posting.