Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Way to Run a Railroad

"It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong."

John Maynard Keynes

And so it begins again. One political party was slapped down by the voters, and everyone wonders if this is the end of that party. Eight years ago, they wondered the same thing about the Republican Party. It has happened several times in my lifetime. It will happen again. That is the one sure thing about politics in America. Success is never permanent, yet still the recriminations come. The finger pointing begins.

In spite of evidence to the contrary, people always want to believe that one party or the other is on the verge of eliminating that party. In the aftermath of Watergate, it was popular to wonder if the Republican Party was dying. A decade later, when Ronald Reagan and the Republicans were ascendant, people wondered if the Democrats were finished. The pendulum seems to swing one way, then the other about every 8–10 years.

The finger pointing happens every election cycle, though. It's like clockwork. Every election. Doesn't matter which party is judged the overall winner and which is judged the overall loser — or by how much (although I think everyone pretty much agrees that this was a decisive setback for the Democrats). At one time or another, each has been both, and the same scenario has been played out.

Well, this time it is a little different. Most of the time, whoever the president happens to be is usually humbled, chastened by the experience because it is almost always the president's party that suffers in the midterms — especially when the president told the world that his policies were on the ballot even if he wasn't. That's like when Gary Hart dared reporters to follow him in search of evidence of infidelity. Then they did and found out that he was being unfaithful to his wife.

And that was the end of Gary Hart's presidential ambitions.

Most presidents have been too smart to remind voters that their policies were being judged — and hand the opposition a neat little sound bite in the bargain — especially when their approval ratings were in the crapper.

In light of the fact that Obama did precisely that, though, there really is no other way to view Tuesday's results except as a rejection of those policies from sea to shining sea. This wasn't simply the South throwing a tantrum. Polls showed Senate races in the South to be close; they weren't. Polls showed Democratic incumbents outside the South had a good chance of winning. They didn't.

This wasn't merely a wave election. This was a tidal wave election.

The numbers on the federal level tell a somber story for Democrats. When Obama first took the oath of office in January 2009, Democrats have lost more than 60 seats in the House and about 15 seats in the Senate. The numbers won't be official yet, but that is how it is looking. On the state level, Democrats were expected to gain ground with Republicans defending more than Democrats, but Republicans picked up some governorships. That is about the worst showing for any two–term president in American history, and the losses weren't just on the federal and state levels, either. They were local, too.

For a party that insists on living in the 19th century, the Democrats have, appropriately, fallen to controlling "the lowest number of state legislatures since 1860," reports Reuters. This was across–the–board, top to bottom repudiation.

The president says he will work with the members of the victorious opposing party — because that is clearly what the voters want, and it is probably what most expected from Barack Obama's post–election press conference.

"No one reasonable expected the president to grovel," wrote Megan McArdle for BloombergView, "but it seemed reasonable to think that he'd seek whatever narrow ground he and Republicans can share."

Think again. This president has burned so many bridges with the Republican leadership that one wonders if there are any left. If there is one left standing, it seems to me it is the immigration issue. There is common ground to be found there, and presidents with experience in consensus–building — like, for example, Bill Clinton — would see this as an opportunity. But Obama seems determined to drench this bridge in gasoline and strike a match before anyone tries to cross it.

The prudent thing for a president to do in this situation would be to encourage compromise. Obama's presidency only has two years left, and, like it or not, this is the Congress with which he must work. Both sides must be willing to give a little to get a little.

But that is a lesson in leadership that Obama never learned.

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