A Victory For What?

That’s my question after this relentlessly negative and vacuous campaign. And the striking thing about it is that it’s hard to detect an issue or platform around which the GOP constructed a victory. I watched Kevin McCarthy on Fox last night attempt to describe what his party now wants to do with its majority in both House and Senate – and it was so pathetic even the Fox News crowd could barely hide their dismay. He said he wanted to kickstart the economy. No serious ideas as to how, except  the same tired 1980s boilerplate. Tax reform? I’m all for it – but we shouldn’t kid ourselves it was an issue of even faint relevance in this campaign. Immigration? Again, it’s much much easier to say what they don’t want to do, rather than what they do.

Foreign policy? It will be fascinating to see if the Republican party really wants to fight another Iraq War – and what would happen to its unity if it tried. On Iran, they simply want to scupper the only conceivable way forward absent another war. Obamacare? McConnell seems to be arguing against an attempt at repeal – merely a series of nitpicks to try and unravel it. If I could see any constructive policy agenda, I could have a serious opinion about it. But I don’t. I see pure negativity and bile against the president. And it seems to me that that is not a strategy to win over a majority for the presidency in 2016.

National Review today actually urges the GOP majority to do nothing for the next two years but prep for 2016. I kid you not. They worry about the “governing trap.” Here you see the cynicism that has pulsed through the right for the last six years, in which everything is about politics and nothing is about governance:

A prove-you-can-govern strategy will inevitably divide the party on the same tea-party-vs.-establishment lines that Republicans have just succeeded in overcoming. The media will in particular take any refusal to pass a foolish immigration bill that immediately legalizes millions of illegal immigrants as a failure to “govern.”

Fourth: Even if Republicans passed this foolish test, it would do little for them. If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn’t they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016?

And that would be just terrible, wouldn’t it?

In some ways, this election also strikes me as a vote by the elderly almost entirely against the Obama coalition and what it represents for America, rather than for anything. You can see it in this screenshot from NBC News:


That’s a staggeringly high percentage of the vote for the over-60s. If anyone doubts the potency of Fox News’ relentless campaign to remind anyone over 50 that the world is coming undone and Obama is entirely the reason, then those numbers should be definitive. So what this represents is a backlash against a change that is coming anyway – a vote by the older generation against the America that the younger generation seems to represent and want. Or a rising up of white America against the browns and blacks. This is too crude, of course. But it captures something important about this moment of vacuous retrenchment.

Sane conservative pundits remind us that 2016 will be different. And it will. The Clintons remain the favorites to recapture the White House next time around, with a coalition that was still in place this year but representing a much smaller a slice of the electorate. But this only means that the polarized paralysis of the last four years is likely to become a durable fixture of our politics for quite some time. The GOP’s dominance in the House means any Democratic president will be constrained and harassed and pilloried. And I don’t see any Republican candidate on the horizon capable of putting together the kind of triumph that Obama secured in 2008.

So this is a victory in favor of more governing paralysis. Most voters don’t really want that; but their actions belie it. History twists and turns, of course, and any number of events or surprises could upend our expectations for the better. But yesterday, it seems to me, was the definitive moment when Obama’s promise to forge a pragmatic purple center ceded to the grim, polarized reality of a deeply and evenly divided country. This was the GOP’s strategy from the start; but it leaves them with a strangely ill-defined, if emphatic, victory.