The American people have spoken, but it’s impossible to decode their incoherent message. Drunk with their capture of the House of Representatives, the Republicans thunder that the verdict of ballot boxes from Maine to Hawaii is clarion-clear: The ultimate evil in America is government, specifically government as led by President Barack Obama. But when exit pollsters questioned voters on their way to those same ballot boxes, as to who should take the blame for the country’s economic problems, 35 percent said Wall Street, 30 percent said Bush and 23 percent Obama. The American people want a government that mustn’t govern, a budget that must simultaneously balance and create jobs, cut spending across the board and leave the Defense budget intact. Collectively, the election makes clear they haven’t a clue which way to march.
Has the tea party changed the political map? Scarcely so. In concrete terms, it ensured that a significant portion of the political map didn’t change at all. Unlike the House, the U.S. Senate will stay in Democratic hands, albeit with only a tiny edge. As I wrote last week, purely on the basis of cui bono — who stands to gain — one could make a sound case that the Democrats invented the tea party out of whole cloth. If it weren’t for tea party lady Christine O’Donnell, the Republicans would be counting victory in Delaware. But the sometime-satanist ensured the surprise victory of a dreary Democratic unknown, Chris Coons.
No single Democrat was targeted more fiercely by Republicans than Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic Senate majority leader. His was the symbolic scalp they craved. Right-wing millions poured into the state, backing tea party Republican Sharron Angle. Tuesday evening, one could sense Republicans holding their breaths, ready to blare their joy at the victory for Angle suggested by many polls.
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Around midnight East Coast time, it became clear that Angle had gone down, victim of the political suicide she actually committed several days ago, dint of one of the most racist, anti-Hispanic campaign ads in many years. It had escaped the attention of that supposedly consummate Republican political strategist Karl Rove — born in Sparks, Nev., — that the Hispanic vote in Nevada is not insignificant. Hispanics went for Reid by a factor of about 75 percent, and he slid through to victory.
It should be added that the powerful corporate and labor interests in the state of Nevada, most notably in the gambling, entertainment and construction sectors, were all aghast at the possibility that economically stricken Nevada might cease to have its cause promoted in Washington, D.C., by the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate, and instead have as their tribune a racist dingbat with zero political clout. If ever there was a need for the fix to be in, and seasoned fixers available to face the task, it was surely in Nevada. But that said, Angle and the tea party might have engineered defeat all on their own.
Just over half of the 17,000 respondents to a national exit poll said that their votes in House races had nothing to do with the tea party, pro or con. The other half was split, pro and con. Over 60 percent said the all-important issue is jobs; 87 percent said they are worried about economic conditions. Between government laying out money to create jobs and government slashing expenditures to reduce the deficit, there’s also pretty much an even split.
Is there anything new in all this? Of course not. Republicans always campaign on homely pledges — economically illiterate — to balance the government’s books the same way as their household budgets. Pressed, as many triumphant Republicans were last night, as to exactly where they would start cutting the federal budget to achieve this end, they invariably slid into the programmatic shadows, with hoarse ranting about freezes and “across the board” budgetary carnage, except for military spending. As California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, now even more unpopular than the man he ousted, demonstrated, it’s easier to terminate in a movie script than in a legislature. The incoming California governor, Jerry Brown, demonstrated that even if you spend more of your money than any other candidate in U.S. political history, more than $150 million (as did his opponent, Meg Whitman), you still need to treat your maid right if you want to win.
The second craziest victory speech of the evening came from a tea party man, Rand Paul, now the Republican senator from Kentucky. “We’re enslaved by debt,” he screamed at his cheering supporters and followed this by savage diatribes about any constructive role for government. Now, it’s possible that Paul, inflamed with libertarian principle, could actually try to filibuster the next vote in the U.S. Senate to authorize an increase in the U.S. national debt. As awed commentators swiftly noted, he could plunge the United States into default, bringing economic devastation to the world.
On the other hand, the history of the Republican Party is supposed crazies — like Ronald Reagan, who campaigned against the deficit in 1980 — coming to heel and plunging the United States into a vast new ocean of red ink, courtesy of his tax cuts. It’s what drives the tea partiers crazy. They do know one basic truth — that to govern is to betray, and they are in line for betrayal.
The craziest speech? The visibly psychotic Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York, Carl Paladino, soundly thrashed by Andrew Cuomo, swinging a red baseball bat with the transparent desire to dash it into Cuomo’s skull.
The landscape has changed. The Republican swing in the House was as dramatic as in 1994, after two years of Bill Clinton. Democrats who entered Congress on Obama’s coattails have now been ousted. What lies ahead is a war of maneuver, between the White House and the Republican leadership. Obama has been weakened — deservedly so because a large part of Tuesday’s disaster for his party can be laid at his door. He laid down no convincing political theme, mounted no effective offense, relied on a team of advisers of dubious competence, which had run out of steam. He himself tried to run for and against an effective role for government, made the same childish equations of domestic and federal budgets, sent out mixed messages, lost the confidence of the young and of a vital slice of the independents.
All the same, after two years, the polls show Obama is no more unpopular than was Clinton in 1994. By 1996, Clinton had outmaneuvered the Republican leadership and won re-election. Today, the economic situation is far worse than it was in 1994. No effective political and economic strategy for recovery is on the cards in the current atmosphere. As always, these days in America, our last best friend will be gridlock.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through www.counterpunch.com.
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