Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lessons Learned?

Behind the wavering voice and choked backed tears, there was a small grin which John Boehner struggled to contain. The soon-to-be Republican Speaker of the House had every reason to be proud. Republicans, who two-years ago had been considered a disgraced group of has-beens, delivered a monumental change of power in yesterday’s election. While the final results are still trickling in, it appears that the GOP has achieved a swing of over 60 votes in the House – a magnitude not experienced since the 1930s. And while the Republicans failed to take control of the Senate, they nevertheless made impressive gains.

Needless to say, Boehner was far from exuberant – and rightly so. Boehner’s post-election speech was powerful, poignant, and somber (See here for full transcript) and appeared to offer at least a glimmer of hope that the Republicans correctly understand the significance of yesterday’s election.

Boehner emphatically stated, not once, but twice, that “this is not a time for celebration.” He characterized the election as a win for the American people and “a repudiation of Washington ... a repudiation of Big Government ... and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people.” However, nowhere did he mention that it was a groundswell win for the Republicans. Nor did he mention the Tea Party.

What he did focus on was the way forward. His message was clear; the Republicans must “roll up our sleeves” and get to work crafting policy that America wants. Boehner emphasized that the GOP is listening to Americans’ demands and will offer the agenda that has been requested.

This is the precise message that the Republicans needed to take from the election. The vote was against Democrat excess and detachment and only minimally for the Republicans. While the Tea Party certainly deserves some credit (particularly in the House), yesterday’s results show that it was not the Tea Party that America voted for, but the fundamental principles of limited government and responsibility. This can be clearly seen in a number of key races.

First there is Delaware, where fringe Tea Partier Christine O’Donnell was soundly beaten. Her loss came as no surprise; however, the GOP’s failure to win the Delaware senate seat was an unfortunate outcome that clearly kept them from taking control of the Senate. Had they selected, in the primaries, moderate Republican Mike Castle, Delaware would have most likely been won by the GOP. Castle, who was a perennial favorite in Delaware, was previously considered a shoo-in for Joe Biden’s old seat.

The same story unfolds in Nevada where Tea Partier Sharon Angle was defeated by a wildly unpopular Harry Reid. Despite the fact that Republicans, including Karl Rove, poured millions into her campaign Angle was unable to overcome the image of a loopy far-right nut. Ultimately, there was much split ticket voting in Nevada, as voters rejected Reid’s son Rory Reid for the governorship, choosing, by a comfortable 11% margin, Republican Brian Sandoval. Had the GOP selected Sue Lowden in the primaries, it is likely that Reid would have been sent packing.

Finally there is Alaska, where, as of this writing, Lisa Murkowski, appears to be leading in the senate race against Joe Miller, the Tea Party and Sarah Palin backed Republican. Murkowski, the incumbent Republican senator who was defeated in the primaries, ran a write-in candidacy that may be the first successful one since Strom Thurmond in 1954. While it is still too early to decisively call this race, Miller’s low results certainly put a damper on the Tea Party movement.

Tea Party fanatics will surely point to both Rand Paul (KY) and Marco Rubio (FL) as examples of the movement’s successes. But what distinguishes these candidates is the fact that they have a broader appeal and a set of principles and ideas that are lacking in the likes of O’Donnell. Rand Paul is obviously a product of his father, Ron Paul, a long-time idealist libertarian. Paul the younger is no backwoods, angry militant, but a polished (albeit first time) politician. Rubio is no different. The significance of these two is that they have been able to successfully wear the Tea Party mantle but are not fringe candidates. It was this type of “Tea Party” candidate that meshed substance with their displeasure who won, not those that were simply angry candidates. [One could probably argue that these candidates came first and then co-opted the Tea Party, rather than being products of the Tea Party.]

What this leads to is the simple argument that opposition and anger are not enough. Democrats lost yesterday because America is angry, but more importantly because Americans want substance and direction. While the left has certainly offered an abundance of policy over the last two years, they have completely failed to grasp that their prescriptions were well out of bounds of what this center-right country wants.

And while the Republicans were able to successfully exploit the resultant anger, they only offered a vague alternative. Fortunately, they seem to be learning that opposition is simply not enough and are prepared to begin fleshing out a new direction. Boehner has correctly interpreted the election as a rebuke of the Democrats and a call for government to adhere to the classic American principles. Now let’s see if the Republicans can rise to the challenge.


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