In the Heartland

lelyveld_1-042612.jpg
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Mitt Romney surrounded by Secret Service agents while posing with Representative Bobby Schilling and his wife, Christie Schilling, in Moline, Illinois, March 18, 2012

The class of freshman Republicans that swept into the House of Representatives at the start of 2011 followed a decisive shift of voter sentiment over Barack Obama’s seeming failure to master the economic crisis he inherited. Ever since, it has typically been portrayed as a disciplined force of Tea Party ideologues sworn to resist any compromise acceptable to the tax-and-spend liberal, or leftist, or socialist—the epithets tended to escalate—illegitimately occupying the White House.

Now, as the eighty-seven freshmen Republicans—who account for more than one third of their party’s 242 seats in the House—prepare to face the voters in November, bearing both the advantages and burdens of incumbency, the picture of intransigence they’ve drawn of themselves will present no problem for those in right-leaning districts; in other words, most of them. But in a campaign that still has seven months to run, just enough seats will be up for grabs to make the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s rosy claim that the party is edging into a position to take back the House appear wishful, dubious, but not altogether outside the realm of the possible.*

The relentless, rat-a-tat “conversation” that fills the twenty-four-hour news cycle bears so heavily on the presidential race that it’s easy to forget the depth of the hole the Democrats dug for themselves two years ago when the Republican share of the vote for all House seats soared to 52 percent. For the Republicans, this was “their best showing since the election of 1946,” the psephologist—the fancy term for analysts of polls and elections—Michael Barone tells us in the introduction to the latest edition of the biennial manual he has been editing for four decades. It’s a useful reminder to Democrats that happy days won’t necessarily be here again if the incumbent hangs onto the White House, as the trends in most of the recent polls seem, for the moment at least, to foretell.

By itself, Obama’s reelection wouldn’t be enough to break the stalemate that has existed on the seemingly immutable issues of debt, revenue, and entitlements, with taxes on the wealthy and on corporations that keep their profits offshore as the most visible flash points of discord (not to mention all the currently shelved issues surrounding climate change and the environment). What happens to the freshmen Republicans in Speaker John Boehner’s and Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s House—whether they retain their seats and discipline—will also be telling. If enough of them survive, the stalemate could just drag on.

The president’s reelection—itself no sure thing—would have an obvious bearing on the survival of “Obamacare,” as the Republicans cunningly rebranded the landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act almost as soon as it was finally passed in March…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.