They can’t say they weren’t warned. The polls showed independents beginning to turn away from President Obama in the spring of 2009. Town halls in the summer showed strong grassroots resistance to the Democrats’ health-care plan. In November 2009, Republicans won big in Virginia and New Jersey — both states Obama had carried the year before. A few months later, opposition to the health-care law helped Republican Scott Brown to win the Senate seat that Ted Kennedy had occupied for decades.
Democrats had plenty of time to change course. Instead, they decided that the public was easily confused and would come around. The weak economy and previous Democratic gains meant that Republicans would likely do well in this election, especially in the House. But it was this Democratic obstinacy that converted a defeat into a rout. Republicans took control of the House, defeated liberal heavyweights such as Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and picked up a slew of governorships and state legislatures. The House will now have more Republicans than in any year since the 1940s — and the most favorable climate for redistricting in living memory.
Key to this shift was a change of heart among independent voters. The parties turned out their voters in roughly the same proportions as in 2006, when the Democrats took the House. But while independents back then had grown weary after twelve years of a Republican Congress, this year they turned on Democrats after only four.
The Republicans deserve some credit for their own success. The early popularity of the president did not prevent them from opposing a bloated stimulus, and they rejected the superficial arguments for cooperating with the Democrats in extending government control of health care. They refused, in short, to acquiesce in their widely predicted extinction.
The Tea Partiers have much to be proud of. Portrayed as extremists and racists, they succeeded in forming a coalition that won a majority of the votes — and, incidentally, elected a record number of non-white Republicans. Like any political movement, and especially any new one, the Tea Partiers made mistakes, choosing a few subpar candidates and thus letting liberals retain some seats they could have been forced to relinquish.
But they saw an opportunity to change the country’s direction and had the fortitude to do it. They have been indispensable to electing several new conservative stars, including Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, and Ron Johnson. (All three of them come from states that supported Obama, in case anyone’s counting.) Many of the same pundits who after Obama’s election foresaw a Republican retreat to the South will now act as though they expected these results all along. They will move on to warning Republicans of doom next time around. As the Tea Partiers deepen their involvement in politics, they can again prove their critics wrong by learning from their early missteps.
The Democrats are still in denial. President Obama concedes no errors other than failing to talk slowly enough to a dull-witted electorate (we paraphrase). Nancy Pelosi is likely to remain the House Democrats’ leader and a symbol of unrepentant, top-down liberalism. Evidently the Democrats continue to assume that the public will come to its senses and the Republican resurgence of the last two years will prove to be an aberration. For the Republicans, that fact is a better portent for 2012 than any of the election returns.