In the Bitter New Washington

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Pete Souza/The White House
President Barack Obama in the Green Room of the White House, October 2010

After an election, there’s inevitably a variety of pronouncements of politicians on what they “heard the voters say.” They and the various pundits largely “hear” an echo of their own previously held views and find vindication of their particular hobbyhorses. It’s a subjective and self-serving exercise.

There’s also the question of how representative the electorate of 2010 was: Was it the sign of things to come, or was it an aberration? The Democratic consultant Geoff Garin said in an interview, “The idea that these voters represent the center of gravity in this country is not correct, because the 2010 electorate didn’t represent the full range of American voters: it’s very different from the electorate of 2006.” By several accounts, it was older, whiter, and more conservative than the usual electorate.

It appears that in losing at least sixty-two House seats the Democrats got whacked by the center: that independents swung to the Republicans by a substantial margin, a phenomenon that started occurring in the spring of 2009, after the stimulus bill passed; and moderates voted for the Democrats in a far smaller number than in 2008. But the Republicans are in danger of overreading their mandate, just as George W. Bush did after he was reelected in 2004, and made his first order of business privatizing Social Security.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to his press secretary Don Stewart, has been telling his Republican colleagues that the message of the election “isn’t that they love us; it was because they want us to stop things.” On the night of the election, McConnell issued a statement saying:

Americans have been speaking out for two years to cut wasteful Washington spending, reduce the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy, and help create sustainable, private-sector jobs…[and] we are hopeful the administration and Democrat leaders will change course.

The Senate Democrats, in their apparently poll-driven “Day After” statement, said they heard the voters saying that the two parties should “work together” (however unlikely that was) to improve the state of the middle class; at the same time they wanted the Democrats to “fight” (a word repeated often) for the middle class, to provide them decent jobs and education. They said that they heard the voters tell them that “the time for politics is over.” Numerous Democrats also privately blamed Obama for his air of detachment or for not seeming to understand the plight of those hurt by the recession; and many blamed the missteps of his ham-handed White House staff members.

The underlying factor of the election was of course the weak economy, but voters were heard to want varying things done about it; and beyond the economy there were voters who had a wide variety of conflicting views. Thus, the 2010 midterm election didn’t have any one meaning; and it’s prone to…



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