With my political self-portrait complete, it should not be surprising that I have a nuanced view of the 2010 Elections. Since the last anti-incumbent wave swept the Democrats into power in the House in 2006, I have maintained that no great ideological shift to the left had taken place with America's center-right electorate. My feeling at the time, one that I expressed to friends - among which are those who occasionally read this blog - was that the public was weary of war, disillusioned by failed Republican promises of fiscal conservatism and sickened by the incompetent federal response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
In 2006, as in 2008, my perception was that Democrats ran for Congress almost to the right of Republicans on reigning in government spending and extending Bush-era tax cuts in some limited form, while pledging a responsible draw-down of American troops in Iraq. I felt that these were consensus positions, and that the Democrats risked overreaching were they to interpret their ascendancy as a mandate for government expansion. By 2008, I was concerned that much of the public was so relieved of coming out from George Bush's shadow, and so enamored with electing the first black American President, that Barack Obama's quite liberal record and explicit promises to vastly expand the size and reach of government were being drowned out amidst the excitement over his candidacy.
If anything, I was certain that the Democrats would wisely seek to address the 2008 Recession and get this country back on solid economic footing before picking up the costly legislative items on their agenda, such as national healthcare and cap and trade energy legislation. Were they to have focused first and foremost on economic stability and job creation, the thanks of a grateful nation would have ensured their reelection and resulted in acceptance of gradual policy shifts to the left. Instead, Obama's election led the dam of liberal frustration to burst, emptying a decade of unimplemented public policy from radical Democratic activists and think tanks straight to the gavels of Congress. As the economic crisis deepened, the American public responded first with disbelief, then growing anger to the massive (multi-thousand page!) bills being rammed through committees, sometimes in the dark of the night, with little substantive public debate.
Evan Bayh, a former Indiana governor and two term Democratic Senator from Indiana (who is retiring this January), was remarkably lucid in the wake of last Tuesday's electoral slaughter:
It is clear that Democrats over-interpreted our mandate. Talk of a “political realignment” and a “new progressive era” proved wishful thinking. [...]To which the average American voter on the verge of losing their job screams back, "Why wasn't that the first priority all along?!"
We also overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession. It was a noble aspiration, but $1 trillion in new spending and a major entitlement expansion are best attempted when the Treasury is flush and the economy strong, hardly our situation today. [...]
[D]on’t blame the voters. They aren’t stupid or addled by fear. They are skeptical about government efficacy, worried about the deficit and angry that Democrats placed other priorities above their main concern: economic growth.
So, in the near term, every policy must be viewed through a single prism: does it help the economy grow?
As should by now be obvious, the conservative aspect of my political philosophy is encouraged by the strong showing of Republicans - but especially fiscally conservative Republicans - in last Tuesday's mid-term elections. In my own state of Wisconsin, strong conservative candidates swept the Governorship, both chambers of the legislature, picked up two congressional seats and brought down the venerable Senator Russ Feingold, an 18 year incumbent and liberal darling. Wisconsin is now in a strong position to address our budget deficit and improve an atrocious business climate that puts our state 8th to last in competitiveness and jobs.
Yet, even while I celebrate country-wide conservative gains, my progressive liberal side is growing concerned by the quality of certain candidates that conservative Republicans have recently brought to national fame and coalesced around as a response to liberal media attacks. Populist and photogenic, many of these candidates appear largely vacuous on matters of policy, sprouting the type of reason-starved dogma of which I spoke earlier. Alarmingly, and again, partly in response to a hostile media, some of them have gone further and refused to engage in a public debate on ideas and policies, preferring instead to attract support through the force of their personalities. It is almost as if their entertainment value alone has qualified them to engage in political discourse - shall we call it "politainment"? - except that no real discourse is forthcoming, only vacuous slogans.
All in all, the 2010 Election was a resounding correction in the direction of American domestic policy. As Senator Bayh noted, the economy is the only domestic priority of consequence, as it should have been all along. Let's hope the Democrats, who still control the Senate and Presidency, have heard the message.