The drubbin’, thumpin’, poundin’ was a two-part wave, a significant Republican rise in the U.S. Senate and a Democratic collapse in the governorships.
It was one of those nights neither party ever forgets.
Republicans won not only because of a favorable map. In solid Democratic states, they won big or came close. Nor were the results due only to low midterm turnout. Nate Cohn, in the New York Times , noted that turnout in Colorado was up over 2010, yet Republican Cory Gardner beat incumbent Sen. Mark Udall with room to spare. The sheer number of blowouts was mind-boggling. Sen. Mitch McConnell was supposed to win in Kentucky, but not by 15 points. In Arkansas the Republican challenger, Tom Cotton, beat Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mark Pryor, by 17 points. In Georgia, where the Senate race was assumed to be close, the Republican won by eight. Republican Pat Roberts, left for dead in Kansas months ago, won by 10.
Among the governors, Republican John Kasich won re-election in swing-state Ohio by an astounding 31 points. In South Carolina, incumbent Nikki Haley beat her Democratic challenger by 15 points. In solid-blue Illinois, the Republican challenger, Bruce Rauner, turned out the incumbent by five points; in solid-Democratic Maryland, the Republican candidate for governor won by a solid five. Scott Walker, perpetually under siege in Wisconsin, the focus of public-employee-union ferocity and targeted nationally by Democrats who needed to knock him off, also won by five.
It was not in the least a charisma election, a sweeping expression of support for a character or personality or movement. It was a message election. Sweeps like this come down to policy and governance. America on Tuesday told one party no, you’re not doing it right, we don’t like what we’re seeing, and your preoccupations (birth control, “War on Women”) are not our priorities.
The president said he was not on the ballot but his policies were. Those policies were resoundingly repudiated.
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But that is only one of the amazing things that happened this week. The second is how the president responded.
A sweep this size tends to resolve some things. The landscape shifts, political figures accommodate themselves to it.
Common sense says a chastened president would acknowledge the obvious—some things aren’t working, he has made some mistakes—and, in Mr. Obama’s case, hit the reset button with Congress. Reach out, be humble. Humility has power. It shows people that you have some give—you get the message, you are capable of self-correcting.
That is not what he’s doing. The president is instead doubling down on hostility, antagonism and distance.
What a mistake. What a huge, historic mistake, not only for him but also for his party.
In his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Obama was grim and grudging, barely bothering to hide suppressed anger. “Republicans had a good night.” He was unwilling to explain or characterize what happened. “I’ll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday’s results.” He took no personal responsibility: The people sent a message and it is that Washington must work “as hard as they do.” He was unwilling to say what went wrong, why his party’s candidates didn’t want him near them on the trail. His answers were long, filibuster-y, meant to run out the clock. It was clear the White House wanted to say he met with reporters for more than an hour. He did. At one point he tried to smile but couldn’t quite pull it off; it came across as a Nixon-like flexing of the rictus muscles. (I tried to describe it in my notes. “Hatey” was the best I could do.)
There were airy generalities—“This town doesn’t work well”—and a few humblebrags: “I have a unique responsibility to try and make this town work”; “I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody.”
Most seriously and consequentially—the huge mistake—is that Mr. Obama said he will address immigration through executive action unless Congress sends a comprehensive bill to him that he finds attractive. He said this just after a news conference in which the presumed next Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, in a post-election statement that was actually conciliatory and constructive, said any such move by the president would “poison the well” with Congress. It would be experienced by Republicans on the Hill as pure aggression.
The president’s use of broad executive action would kill any chance of compromise or progress with Congress. And the amazing thing is that this isn’t even in his interests.
What is in his interests is for him to go forward in a spirit of compromise and try to reach agreements on the Hill through negotiations. This would be a relief after six years of nonstop acrimony. Republicans need an end of acrimony too: They want to show that they’re not just shutdown artists, as their foes say, but that they are a governing party in whose hands the country is safe. After a few bills were passed, people would start to feel that they were seeing progress. This would help the president get a new sentence defining him. The current sentence is something like, “Wow, that didn’t work, he really had the wrong skill sets.” Two years of governing peace might get him, “He had a dynamic first two years, lost the thread, was re-elected, then there was a lot of mess but he stabilized and got serious.” That’s not a bad sentence.
It is confounding—not surprising but stunning, unhelpful and ill-judged—that the president is instead going for antagonism, combat and fruitless friction.
This is not just poor strategy, it seems to me to be mildly delusional. Chris Matthews erupted on MSNBC: “There’s something in this guy that just plays to his constituency and acts like there’s no other world out there!”
That’s true. And deeply strange in a politician. It’s as if he doesn’t think he has to work with others, he only has to be right. I think Mr. Obama sees himself as a centrist because he often resists the pressures of the leftward-most edge of his base. Therefore in his imagination he is in the middle, the center. If he is in the middle of a great centrist nation, how can they turn on him? The answer: They are confused. This is their flaw, not his. He’s not going to let their logical flaws change his game.
And so the future may well be nonstop combat between the Hill and the White House. If the president does a big executive action, the Republican Congress will no longer think negotiations and deals are possible. They will over the coming years send him legislation that they can pass with the support of their majorities and moderate Democrats. If he vetoes, they will try to override.
The Republicans will be set up as the party passing bills that go in certain directions on certain issues, and those bills will no doubt be generally popular, or popular with the Republican base. If the bills are vetoed and can’t be overridden, Republicans will say they are frustrated by that willful loner—that obstructionist—in the White House.
That will probably set up the GOP pretty well for 2016. It will keep the party’s activists in a constant state of agitated alert.
Once again the president is doing his party no favors.
This is no way to run a railroad. The president here is doing what he has been doing for a while, helping Republicans look good. That is an amazing strategy for a Democratic president to adopt.