Voters hit the reset button on American politics on Tuesday. There is no more Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, no more one-party control of the federal government, no more Obama-landslide map. The country will awaken on Wednesday to all the same problems but the menu of solutions is now up for grabs. "Yes, we can" has collided with "Oh no you don't." And the future including the 2012 presidential election starts right now.
The swing voters who flocked to Barack Obama two years ago turned against his agenda, electing a tidal wave of new Republican members of Congress and shaving the Democratic advantage in the Senate to a hair's breadth.
As the number of House seats captured by the GOP climbed toward 60, Democrats pondered a loss of historic scope, exceeding the 52 seats captured by the GOP in the 1994 Gingrich revolution. Exit polls suggested that widespread anger over the government's handling of the poor economy was the fuel that fed the firestorm it was a wave of discontent, a resounding vote of no confidence in all branches of power.
However, as Democrats climb from the rubble of their defeat on Wednesday, they will notice that things didn't turn out quite as bad as they could have been. The key building blocks of liberal election strategy New York and California resisted the GOP tide. And Democrats will notice, no doubt, that the seeds of future squabbles were sown inside the enemy camps.
Tea Party insurgents forced the nomination of weak, extreme candidates in several key races. The price of those primary victories proved high in the general election. Right-wing purists squandered Republican chances to control the Senate, to defeat Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and to elect a governor in the swing state of Colorado.
The White House had plenty of opportunity to brace for the loss of the House. Indeed, many Democratic strategists were saying bravely as the blowout approached that Obama would be better off without Pelosi, free to operate with only his own interests and agenda to consider. Having the Republicans in charge of at least one branch of Congress, the thinking went, could give the President fresh room to maneuver.
But that was happy talk compared with the changes wrought by Tuesday's voting of Obama's re-election plans. If you take the President's 2008 victory map and subtract the states where his fellow Democrats were obliterated in major races on Tuesday Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida you discover that Obama's 2008 landslide has evaporated into a dead heat.
The results were a million light-years from the airy promises that Pelosi delivered on Tuesday morning, namely, that her party would hold on to power. As it turned out, the Democratic losses in the House of Representatives may have been the largest since 1932. Not only did the Republican Party take power in the House; it also moved to the right, pushed by the antitax, antigovernment and anticompromise members of the Tea Party movement.
A leader of the movement and winner of the Kentucky Senate campaign, Rand Paul delivered that message in his acceptance speech. "I have a message ... that is loud and clear, that does not mince words: We've come to take our government back," Paul told his supporters. "The American people are unhappy with what's going on in Washington." Paul promised "fiscal sanity," limited constitutional government and balanced budgets.
It was a night on which even the GOP losers felt like bragging. "The Delaware political system will never be the same," crowed Christine O'Donnell, fresh from a 16-point shellacking at the hands of the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Chris Coons.
In the cold light of the morning after, many political insiders will be looking at the O'Donnell blowout and wondering why such a weak candidate had the robust backing of the Tea Party insurgents. Did Sarah Palin and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, darlings of the Tea Party conservatives, cost the party a shot at control of the Senate when they endorsed a lightweight rather than popular Delaware Congressman Mike Castle?
But the potential bloodletting inside the resurgent GOP is nothing compared with the blame game facing the Democrats. Some will say the President and Congress tried to do too much bailing out banks, spending some $800 billion on stimulus and pet liberal projects, reorganizing the health care and auto industries. Some will say they did too little, leaving nearly 10% of the workforce unemployed.
What's clear is that the Obama Administration has lost at least for now swing districts and moderate voters. Formerly robust, long-serving conservative Democrats were decimated in Tuesday's voting: House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt of South Carolina, House Energy Subcommittee chairman Rick Boucher of Virginia and others wiped out.
True, the results were somewhat less dire for the Democrats than the apocalyptic projections widely heard in the final days of the campaign. But with GOP victories seeping down into governors' mansions and state legislatures and those officials controlling the every-10-years process of drawing new election boundaries the painful reality could not be avoided. Democrats held some important seats, but they sure didn't gain many. Mostly, they lost ground lots of ground.
Just how much ground can be measured by the key Senate election of 2010: the fight to follow the late Senator Robert Byrd into a West Virginia seat. Governor Joe Manchin III saved the Senate for the Democrats by winning this race but he managed to win the race only by strongly distancing himself from Obama. He promised to repeal parts of the health care reform "overreaching," he said of the bill. And he literally put a bullet in climate-change legislation, airing an ad that showed him chambering a cartridge, shouldering his rifle and blasting a bullet through the controversial cap-and-trade bill.
What comes next is anyone's guess. Can we take heart from the fact that Florida's mouthiest Congressman, freshman Alan Grayson, was trounced after calling his opponent "Taliban Dan" in an egregious television ad? Can we find hope in the fact that a surging politician the early Tea Party adopter Marco Rubio can still get away, in this climate, with calling his campaign-trail foes "gracious ... worthy opponents"?
Probably not. The election of 2010, momentous as it was, marks the beginning of a bigger battle not the end. It presents, in the words of Rubio, who won Florida's Senate seat, "a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago." That is, the party of smaller solutions and lower spending.
It also presents Obama with a fresh opportunity. The Republican Party has won the midterms by moving to the right. That leaves the rest of the spectrum wide open. If Obama can settle his differences with moderate voters and seize ownership of the middle ground, he will find a lot of the electorate waiting patiently for him.
You see, the story of huge midterm losses is shelved in the library of political campaigns right next to the tale of presidential comebacks. Barack Obama just lived through the first edition, and starting today will try to create the sequel.