Capitol Expectations

Obama doesn't have a communications problem. He has a partisan-politics problem.

This year’s lengthy partisan slugfest for control of Congress has left in its wake both more and less than meets the eye.

In handing control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans, and by a wide margin, voters sent President Obama a clear message. He remains among the few not to “get it.”

The electorate told the president in the clearest possible terms that they believe he misread whatever mandate they might have given him in 2008 when he veered farther to the left than he had led them to believe he would. They also let him know that they do not approve of programs he rammed through by the narrowest of margins and by employing tactics he vowed to rid from the political process. The president continues to believe that he suffers from a “communications problem.”

At his postelection press conference, Obama said that he looked forward to working with an opposition that has greatly increased its presence on Capitol Hill. With a straight face, President Obama stated that he would study proposals Republicans had to stimulate economic growth without adding significantly to the deficit. What about their plans does he not understand? They want to extend the Bush “tax cuts,” cut spending (most likely across the board), and repeal as much of Obamacare as they can.

In the House, Republicans, in order to retain the trust of those who gave them their majority, need to make a serious—and early—attempt to get as much of what they promised through as possible. Unlike in the case of “term limits” which the GOP Congress, elected in 1994, promised to bring to the floor, only to reject the measure, the new Republican House needs to do what it its members said they would. If they stand firm, they might find enough Democrats in the Senate, fearful of facing a still-angry electorate in 2012, willing to join them. That might persuade the president to do more than “study” their ideas.

In keeping the Democrats in charge in the Senate, but by a reduced majority, voters sent both parties a message of a different kind: they are not yet prepared to grant Republicans control of all of Congress. Senator-elect Marco Rubio, the clear star of election night, put it best when he said that the returns signaled not so much an “embrace of the Republican Party,” as voters’ willingness to give it a “second chance.”

Anyone who still doubts that in this charismatic, articulate and humble Floridian the GOP has found its next Reagan ought to analyze his acceptance in detail. The recognition that the Almighty shines its light on the United States, that the United States is, in fact, an “exceptional” nation with a unique mission, and that the nation’s best days lie ahead were all there. So was the graciousness with which he acknowledged his opponents. One can well understand why the Democrats tried so hard to defeat him.

Buried within the Republicans’ failure to win control of all of Congress lay another tale: the overreporting and underperformance of the “tea party.” Every now and then, a story line takes hold that some “sinister,” “paranoid” or “frightening” group has designs on the GOP, seeks to capture control of it and reshape it in their image. A few years back, it was the “religious right” (the “dog” that somehow forgot to “bark” this year.) A generation before that it was the John Birch Society. (Some say they are still around. Do they still think Ike was a communist?) This year it was the “tea parties.” (Let history record that attendees at their rallies were better educated, more informed and better behaved than many of their detractors.)

Voters applied a simple formula in assessing candidates running under the “tea party” moniker. They rewarded those who broadened their message to attract support from independents and disenchanted Democrats and punished those who stayed on the fringes.

The most under-covered story of the 2010 elections was the nine newly elected Republican governors and the eighteen state legislatures that went from Democratic to Republican control this year. With new congressional-district lines about to be drawn, in conformity with the new census, and more red states expected to gain seats than blue, the GOP is poised to pick up an additional dozen or two more seats in 2012, providing they do not repeat two past mistakes. One would be to go back on their promises. The other would be to underestimate a Democratic president with considerable personal charm whom the public continues to like, however much they disagree with him.