Did you know that the 2010 midterm elections have already been decided? Yup, it’s true. And I’m not talking about early voting. I’m not even talking about voting, actually. I’m talking about perception, which has a resilient habit of becoming reality.
We’re less than a week until the election, but as far as the media big dogs are concerned, it’s already over: “The Republicans won… just bear with us a few days, we’re still working on the final tally.”
This narrative can be tracked all the way back to the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races going to the GOP a year ago. Ever since, it’s been a snowballing pile of tea bags careening toward the House floor.
Yes, the anticipation is that a Republican will pummel a Democrat with greater ease than the Giants taking down an opposing quarterback.
But how will the narrative transform after the election? If the Republicans don’t take back the House or do, but narrowly, I suspect the comments will be that too many hyper-conservative and Tea Party candidates prevented them from bigger gains, that this new energetic, head-stomping faction begat a GOP strategic shortcoming, letting the acceptable be the enemy of the ideal.
If the Democrats make gains, then the story will be — silly rabbit, the Democrats aren’t making gains.
Of course, if the Republicans take back the House convincingly and push the Senate close to even, the narrative will be clear and consistent: the Dems overreached and messed up, Obama needed some chastising, and not even a Sasha and Malia charm offensive could save them. Besides, too many pundits and analysts have spent too much time ragging on the Dems to turncoat on that well-planted meme.
There may be a few recounts along the way. Alaska, where insurgent “steeper of Earl Grey” Joe Miller is fending off the impressive write-in candidacy of incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski is high on that list. (I love how even with a write-in lady and a bonkers guy in the mix, the Democrat is still a dozen points down there. ) It’s conceivable that a Senate recount will happen in Nevada, as well, not to mention in a couple House races and maybe a gubernatorial contest in Ohio or Illinois.
Also, expect a piece of the post-mortem to be about fundraising. We can’t know conclusively, but it feels like Citizens United has taken its impact on the campaign. $2.8 billion has already been spent, and projections take us near $4 billion when all is said and done.
Can you recall a campaign where more money was spent, in an off-year? You can’t because it’s never happened. This is the third most expensive campaign season ever, behind only the 2004 and 2008 presidential years. Think about that: the two largest campaigns (presidential ones) aren’t even in existence now, and this year is vying for a record. And that seems to have a lot to do with independent expenditures from 527 groups like Karl Rove and former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie’s American Crossroads. However, even with all the complaining about that “invisible hand” of corporate capitalism pushing voters to the right side of the voting booth, the Democrats are still putting up more cash than the Republicans, in aggregate.
With this presumptive Republican victory, the narrative has already begun changing to how a Republican Congress will affect the president and his devout Obamans, as John Heillemann is fond of calling the current West Wingers. Interesting to speculate, but is the media moving too quickly? Will there be a backlash? Or a backlash to the backlash? (Yes, New York mag, that was an homage.) We’ll see… news cycles are so short today that they arrive at a position in two days that might have taken two weeks or a month even five or ten years ago.
Stories are popping up about how a Republican House will make Obama better, à la Gingrich and Clinton post-1994. Are Obamans secretly rooting for a little red state rebellion? I’m not so sure, but it would probably bring his Intrade futures for re-election way up.
There is a persuasive case to be made that having a clear-cut adversary who shares responsibility for the state of affairs will boost Obama’s standing, that having a foil is advantageous, and/or that with both sides motivated to produce results there will be a sweet spot to make progress in the center.
I’m mostly sold on this. Although the president has been berating Congressional Republicans despite their not being the majority (even as Democrats have gotten things done in the House and occasionally in the Senate), his critiques haven’t been able to gain traction because the GOP is not in power. If that changes, even if he says the same things, the president’s words will pack more punch because of that “Under New Management” sign in the Capitol. And the media relishes a conflict with easily identifiable players.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note a New York Times observation: “Unlike Mr. Clinton, Mr. Obama is not much of a schmoozer, and some Republicans say he might benefit from becoming more of one.” Yeah, and I bet Republicans think Obama should loosen up and be more promiscuous too, maybe meet a few interns. Being a cocktail party hit helps, but it ain’t getting cap-and-trade passed. I also love Trent Lott’s comments at the end of the same article, that can so easily be taken the wrong way: “They’ve got to open up communications — and not for press purposes. They’ve got to talk quietly, privately. That’s Step 1 in Washington.”
As Obama said recently in Peter Baker’s endless interview with him in the Times’ Sunday magazine, “It may be that regardless of what happens, after the election they feel more responsible, either because they didn’t do as well as they anticipated, and so the strategy of just saying no to everything and sitting on the sidelines and throwing bombs didn’t work for them, or they did reasonably well, in which case the American people are going to be looking to them to offer serious proposals and work with me in a serious way.”
What’s fascinating about this argument about a Republican Congress helping Obama is that it brings into relief the disparity between political and legislative realities. What’s more important: what people think or what is or does become law?
If you’ll permit me to get a bit meta for a moment, there’s an abtract comparison to physics here. Yes, physics. (Some of us didn’t get a 5 on the AP and are still trying to make up for it.)
The parallel is to potential energy and kinetic energy. Potential energy is what it sounds like: the now-dormant promise of something impactful happening later. Kinetic energy is the energy something possesses as it occurs, in motion. Political reality is like potential energy; legislative reality is akin to kinetic energy.
Potential energy is valuable and exciting because of the possibility it holds: when that big guy does a cannonball off the diving board he might make a splash 15 feet high, or maybe 25. Similarly, Republican gains may end up boosting Obama’s job approval so that he has a really good chance of re-election in 2012, maybe with coattails for other Dems.
Kinetic energy is valuable because we can see what it is doing and what its power is: at the bottom of a hill a roller coaster is moving fastest… even if it won’t reach top-speed again until it gets back to the top of that hill. When the Democrats have more seats, they have a better chance of passing more laws Obama is likely to favor… even if they will likely have a lower chance of gaining more seats going forward.
Political reality is about future expectations and aspirations. Legislative reality is about what you can do now, what you can find consensus on.
So, what do we elect our representatives for? I thought it was to do and to solve today. We too often hear about what could happen, who’s angling for what, the “potential political energy” of an action or event. Think about how many stories you’ve seen on who will run in 2012.
We far less frequently delve into the legislative here and now. Think about how many reports you’ve seen on who is voting for what now. The two that come to mind in the last two years are who is going to vote for TARP or who is going to vote for Health Care Reform.
So, is the future more valuable than the present? Should Obama’s supporters want him to have a tougher time now or later?
PS Tune in for incomplete coverage of the results next week, because Brief Wit does not have the resources to put a man on the ground in every race!