The past is often present in politics, and some political watchers saw parallels between last week's midterm elections and the midterms of 1994. Back then, we had a Democratic president whose enthusiastic base had tempered its support as he tacked toward the middle once in office. His health care plan had divided Americans bitterly, mostly along party lines, and a resurgent GOP scored major victories at both the federal and state levels. Republicans gained 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in the 104th Congress, putting them in control of both chambers. Last Tuesday, Republicans gained more than 60 seats in the House, but fell short of taking the Senate.
As in 1994, Republicans now find themselves in the position of the dog that caught the car: an impressive achievement, but one that raises the question, "What now?" Dismantling health care and extending the Bush tax cuts — which were designed to be temporary — sounds sweet to Tea Party devotees, but with Democrats in control of the White House and the Senate, those promises are illusory. In the next two years, the bigger issue is likely to be the economy. If it remains stalled and Americans continue to fear for their jobs, no one in public office will be safe. Moreover, running as the party of "Hell no" may be a winning electoral strategy, but it's no way to govern.
Republicans like Louisiana's newly re-elected U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who spent the election cycle largely running against President Barack Obama, will soon find themselves labeled obstructionists if they don't figure out a way to work with the Obama White House. In 1995, emboldened Republicans — armed with what they saw as a mandate — promptly overplayed their hand, shutting down the federal government after failing to pass a budget bill. Voters put the lion's share of the blame on the GOP and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton cruised to re-election. If the GOP doesn't believe the past is prologue — and that history repeats itself for a reason — the party may be destined to learn another bitter lesson in 2010.
Several prominent Tea Party-backed candidates won last Tuesday (Kentucky Sen.-elect Rand Paul, S.C. Gov.-elect Nikki Haley), but quite a few lost high-profile races. Sharron Angle, the embodiment of the Tea Party, lost the Nevada senatorial race to Democratic incumbent Harry Reid. Tom Tancredo and Carly Fiorina, two of Sarah Palin's most-favored candidates, lost their bids for the Colorado governorship and a California Senate seat, respectively. (It was a mediocre night for Palin-approved candidates in general, proving that Palin is a far better Fox News personality than she is a kingmaker.) And in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell was thumped by 17 percentage points in a race that easily could have been won by even a modestly qualified candidate.
Tea Party candidates who triumphed will soon find the reality of Washington colliding with the dreams of their backers. Scott Brown, the junior senator from Massachusetts, was a Tea Party darling in February when he succeeded the late Ted Kennedy, but after several votes (particularly his support of Obama's financial regulatory overhaul bill), Tea Party types began looking for another candidate for 2012.
Here's a trifecta of reality checks for Tea Partiers: (1) You can't take the politics out of politics; (2) politics is the art of compromise; and (3) once elected, you become part of government — and your job is to make it work.
For their part, Democrats have no one to blame but themselves; they failed to grasp (and confront) the depth of voter unrest. They might take heart in looking to the 2006 midterm referendum. That year, a Gallup poll found "the American public's mood is as negative as it has been in more than a decade," and a
POLITICO/George Washington University Poll found 64 percent of likely voters thought the country was on the wrong track. The result? Democrats picked up 31 House seats. If the newly minted Republicans in the House fail to move beyond "Hell no" in order to fix America's real problems, they may relive their worst nightmare of the 1990s: a Democratic president, wildly unpopular among the far right, cruising to re-election.