Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another Election, Another Hurricane

With just two days remaining until the 2010 mid-term elections, all signs point to a conservative landslide in the House, Senate and state legislative races.  This might not come as a huge surprise to students of American political history, who are trained to expect major gains by the "out of power" political party in a mid-term election, but the pre-election polling data suggests we are on the verge of something bigger than the predictable tropical storm . . . this one is shaping up to look more like a hurricane.

The estimates from political analysts are all over the map, but a fairly sensible projection -- one which seems to properly balance the most over the top forecasts from Republican Party enthusiasts with some of the head-in-the-sand forecasts from Democratic Party folks in denial -- comes from Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and one of our best American political scientists.  Sabato's final "crystal ball calls" are as follows:

Senate -- +8 for the GOP
House -- +55 for the GOP
Governors -- +8-9 for the GOP

If Sabato's call turns out to be fairly close, this will be a dramatic and power-shifting election, but it will not be historic.  In 17 of the 19 mid-term elections held since 1934, the President's party has lost seats in the Senate and the House.  And if a President serves two terms in office, history shows that the greater loss of Congressional seats for his party will occur during the first mid-term election of his presidency.

In fact, even a 60-seat swing in the House next week wouldn't approach the worst mid-term outcome for a sitting President, an honor currently held by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose party lost 71 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate (which only had 96 seats at the time) back in 1938.  FDR was re-elected to the presidency in 1940 and then went on to see his party lose another 55 seats on the House and 9 seats in the Senate in the 1942 mid-terms.  Even as recently as 1994, the Bill Clinton-led Democratic Party lost 52 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate.

But what is striking about the massive gains the "out of power" party is poised to make next week is that it comes on the immediate heels of similarly huge gains the "out of power" party made in the previous two Congressional campaigns.  The Democratic Party gained a total of 55 seats in the House and 14 seats in the Senate during the 2006 and 2008 elections, the last two campaigns that took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, the Republican Party leader.

So although it would be expected for a tropical storm to descend upon the Democrats in Congress this fall, the fact is they may be walking into a hurricane of similar size and force that swept the Republicans out of power just a couple Super Bowls ago.

What explains this extraordinary whiplash in American politics over the past half-decade?  To hear prominent Democrats answer that question, one would think it's either a case of voters being hoodwinked by wacky talk show hosts or lacking the patience to see the results of the Obama Administration's policies come to fruition.  To hear leading Republicans account for this turnaround, the logical answer is that the Democrats misread their mandate in 2008 and over-reached in a country that never really wanted more government intervention into the marketplace.  To hear academics explain it, there is nothing mysterious at play this fall, if one just studies the correlation between unemployment and election outcomes -- high unemployment means bad news for the party in power, regardless of whatever else is going on in a campaign.

There is a probably some truth to each of these explanations, and I have used each of them in one form or another when talking to friends in recent years, but I have become increasingly convinced that the overriding explanation is something that was at the heart of yesterday's extraordinary "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" event.

Hosted by Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the event drew tens of thousands of people to Washington, D.C. -- a crowd that exceeded Glen Beck's recent rally and dwarfed Al Sharpton's counter-rally to the Beck event -- for one of the most intriguing rallies ever held in our nation's capital.  It was a three-hour event that combined musical performances, comedy sketches and musical comedy performance sketches.  And although attendees came from all over the country and from all walks of life, the common thread was clear: there are a whole lot of us who love this country and are just exhausted by all of the screaming we hear from both ends of the U.S. political spectrum.  This wasn't a political rally to unite supporters of a cause or to ignite opposition to a war; it was an event that lived up to its original raison d'etre: "We believe that screaming at other people is annoying, counter-productive and really bad for your throat."

Indeed, the rally drew some folks who showed up holding signs that contained messages you will never see at a Tea Party event to rant against the socialist guy in the White House or a Move On event to scream about those racist Republicans who dare to question entitlement programs -- messages such as "I Am Somewhat Irritated About Extreme Outrage" and "I Went to the Rally to Restore Sanity and All I Got Was a Lousy Respect for Other People's Opinions".

And for those who believe that patriotism is only expressed when there are either giant peace signs around everyone's necks or gun racks on everyone's trucks, the rally was unapologetic in its declaration that we live in the greatest country in the world.  (For those who tuned in, was I the only one with a teary eye when Tony Bennett sang America the Beautiful?)

My view is that this event captured a fundamental truth about life in America in 2010.  It came in Stewart's closing comments that attempted to synthesize the rally: "The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political process and media coverage is false . . . The only place where we don't work together to get things done is here (Washington) and on cable TV. . . When we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

One of the overriding contributors to why we see ping-pong election outcomes in 21st century America is that we live in a country right now where the dialogue has been seized by the folks who scream the loudest.  Those Americans become the symbols of our politics, which in turn sends people into opposing corners where they choose up sides and refuse to listen to anyone on the other team.  That's bad for the republic because it divides us as a people, it's bad for the individuals involved because it allows anger and vitriol to replace open-minded discernment, and it's bad for the rest of us because we become politically marginalized.

None of this matters for next week -- the hurricane that blew from the Left in 2008 is going to be replaced with a hurricane that blows from the Right in 2010.  But my hope for my country is that yesterday's rally hosted by a couple of comedians will contribute to something in our culture that leads to a new awakening -- this one not rooted in political party labels or ideology, but instead grounded in a fervent patriotism that cares only about what is best for the next generation of Americans.

After all, let's face it, we should all be able to carry another one of the signs at yesterday's rally: "My Political Views are Too Sophisticated to be Summarized on One Poster."

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