Much of the rhetoric in the 2010 midterm elections focused on anger, and the GOP candidates who will take control of the next House session spent a lot of campaign messaging time expressing how they felt connected to voters' anger. Which begs the question: were the candidates or the voters the angry ones? Why did Election Day turn out the way it did? And what does it mean, going forward?
Headlines claiming "A Rebuke to Obama," articles like the one running late Tuesday night on Politico saying the GOP wave was a "referendum on Nancy Pelosi's house," and a "no-confidence vote," from Richard Cohen of the Washington Post—these all overstate the election results, which are well within the history in the US of the ruling party losing house and senate seats two years after a presidential election. Americans just are not comfortable with one political party having the White House and both houses of Congress in its grasp.
Looking at the national map of results, the majority of races remained in the hands of the same party—so far, six senate seats switched to the GOP, with four races outstanding as of this writing. 59 house seats have shifted as well, and most of those had only been held by the Democrats in the last or last two congressional sessions. Many of the inroads Democrats had burrowed into the House, starting in the 2006 midterm election, were spearheaded by Rahm Emanuel in his capacity as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair. Because those seats were secured with the help of independent voters disillusioned with George Bush's administration, it's not surprising that this group, faced with a perceived lack of progress on issues they think are important, swung them toward the other side in this election cycle.
Exit polls from Tuesday's voting suggested that 80 percent of voters were worried about the economy over the next year, even as they remarked that they felt their own individual situations were the same or had improved in the last year. That is not a statement of voter anger. That seems to be more of a statement about concern and self-interest. We could debate the merits of voting for this candidate or that and how they would support or detract from one's interests, but a more salient question is, Who benefits from presuming Americans are all so very angry? Because my guess is it's not us collectively.
If we continue to focus on who is angry at whom, can we expect bipartisan work in the Congress? Or does this framing lead to more stagnation, posturing, and obstructionist tactics among the people just elected? President Obama has already been told by several political journalists and politicians to be conciliatory, to accept that he has a "bad bedside manner," to make compromises and see what he can do personally to get the country back on track. But if memory serves, many of Congress' actions in the last year were compromises; the public option was dropped from the health care reform initiative while the anti-reproductive rights Stupak Amendment was added, and even the market-based model for the law comes from Republican demands lodged during the long debate around the bill. I'm not sure what further compromise looks like in this regard. The ball seems to be in the GOP's court when it comes to house politics in the next session.
In his concession speech for the New York Governor's seat, Carl Paladino wielded a bat, saying that Andrew Cuomo, the winner,
...can grab this handle and bring the people with you to Albany. Or you can leave it untouched, and run the risk of having it wielded against you. Because make no mistake, you have not heard the last of Carl Paladino.
That is an angry statement from a campaigner, not a voting constituency. If it were just Paladino's rhetoric I wouldn't necessarily spend a lot of energy wondering why he thought it was his best marketing ploy. But because so much of these elections used anger as the means to get people to vote, I want to look at the results carefully and ask if it was enough to get people to the polls, and if it affected their selections. So far, the results don't bear that out.
Three senatorial races are still up in the air as of this writing. "Write-in" is carrying more votes than Joe Miller, the Tea Party candidate in Alaska; and that contest will surely come down to a recount and a debate about how badly people can misspell Lisa Murkowski's name before the Secretary of State declares it an invalid vote for her. And we thought hanging chad were bad. In Washington State, Democrat Patty Murray is in a dead heat with Dino Rossi, a man with a history of protracted recounts in previous losses for that state's Governor's office. And in Colorado, the top two candidates are two-tenths of a point apart. Will the rhetoric of anger continue to be voiced in these campaigns? If so, it may start to sound dissonant if John Boehner and Harry Reid—assuming those are the two who will take the leadership positions—begin talking about working together. For his part, Boehner choked up during his victory speech tonight, saying that he was ready to roll up his sleeves and do the work America needed.
And that didn't sound like anger at all. In the President's call to the presumed new Speaker's office, each man's spokesperson claimed to have had a "pleasant" discussion. If either wants to assure voters that their parties mean to do right after years of public bickering and obstruction, then pleasant sounds like a good idea. But it may be a quick shift from the hostility we've all been enmeshed in for the last seven months, and if any of the more extreme candidates bought into the rhetoric during their campaigns, they may have a tougher adjustment ahead of them than they realize.