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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)