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How Midterm 'Wave' Elections Are the New Normal

Walter Shapiro: Partisan swings are becoming routine in off-year contests.

November 5, 2014

During the 20th century, tidal wave congressional elections were a once-a-generation occurrence. When the political waters raced down the beach destroying everything in sight, there generally was a one-sentence explanation. In 1958 it was the Republican recession; in 1974 it was Watergate; and in 1994 it was Bill Clinton's failed health-care reform proposal.

But just like coastal erosion has become the new normal, so have tidal wave elections whenever the White House isn't on the ballot (2006, 2010 and now 2014). This unprecedented level of political volatility undermines bipartisan deal making on Capitol Hill since moderates in swing districts are the most likely to be washed out to sea. And the resulting cases of reelection jitters invariably empower political consultants whose gimmicky on-message advice rarely would be confused with good government.

So why have sleepy off-year congressional elections gone the way of Blockbuster and Blackberry? Why has it been 12 years since the largely indecisive 2002 elections when the Republicans gained just two Senate seats and eight House seats?

The easiest explanation is that it has been a miserable decade: the waste and folly of the Iraq War; Hurricane Katrina; the 2008 economic collapse; the resulting Great Recession; government shutdowns; the rise of the Islamic State; and, yes, the media-driven panic over Ebola.

It all brings to mind the scene in The Wild One when a girl asks the outlaw biker played by young Marlon Brando, "What are you rebelling against?" Brando's answer (which could have been mouthed by the angry voters of 2006, 2010 and 2014) was "What do you got?"

The Democrats could complain this year about a daunting electoral map in the Senate. But that doesn't explain why Mark Warner (the Virginia Democrat who was on virtually no one's endangered species list) is most likely headed to a recount in a state that Barack Obama carried twice. Or why Democrats lost gubernatorial races in states that are part of the party's presidential year electoral base: Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida.

George W. Bush lost the House in the 2006 Democratic sweep because of both the Iraq War and the incompetence surrounding the hurricane-powered destruction of New Orleans. Nearly four years after the bombs fell on Baghdad, aroused voters in 2006 finally were aware that we went to war for trumped up reasons (the elusive weapons of mass destruction) and arrogantly bungled the occupation. And Katrina symbolized the Bush White House's disdain for how government agencies like FEMA were managed.

Eight years later too many voters feel that Obama's priorities are not the same as their own. Even if the Affordable Care Act has been a success by many measures, Obamacare remains unpopular. (A Pew Research Center poll last month found that 51 percent of Americans disapprove of it). Some of the political problems with Obamacare flow from Republican demonology. But voters have also not forgotten the heavy-handed way that the Democrats got it through Congress in 2010.

The lesson here for future presidents is simple: Despite temptation, never pass controversial legislation on party-line votes.

The practical benefits of Obamacare have to be weighed against the reality that this single piece of legislation (and the way that it was passed) cost the president the ability to do anything in Congress from the summer of 2010 until the end of his presidency. No other piece of legislation in America history has ever caused a sitting president to endure two separate off-year political disasters like 2010 and 2014.

Remember that when the president pivoted to health care in early 2010, Americans were reeling from joblessness and the loss of their savings in the economic collapse. At the time, there was a sense (and the 2010 elections underscored this) that Obama cared more about his legacy as the first Democratic president to win health-care reform than he did about the worst economic downturn since the Depression. In a way, it was analogous to George W. Bush obsessing about Saddam Hussein while most Americans were terrified of al-Qaeda. 

What is also surprising about Obama (and reminiscent of Bush) is how little a Democratic president seemed to care about the functioning of government outside the White House. The botched rollout of Obamacare, the Veterans Administration scandals and IRS ineptitude all gave voters the sense that no one was in charge of the executive branch of government. Obama displayed a similar fecklessness in foreign policy from meaningless red lines in Syria to a hard-to-explain limited air war against the Islamic State. 

The sad reality coming out of yesterday's election returns is that Washington will be in a holding pattern until after the 2016 elections. Maybe there might be small incremental legislative compromises over free trade or limited immigration reform. But, for the most part, America's problems will continue to fester at least until a new president is sworn in on January 20, 2017.

Now for the good news: The 2016 presidential race will be in full swing by the time that the shopping malls begin playing round-the-clock Christmas carols. Which is to say, tomorrow. While America has lost its ability to govern itself, we still remain the world's champion at never-ending election campaigns. That explains why political consultants, TV station owners and Super PAC billionaires for the next two years will be singing, "Happy Days Are Here Again."

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

(Photo: AP)