So Do Elections Still Have Consequences?

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So that was about as bad as it could possibly be for Democrats--and absent the Tea Party, it probably would have been even worse, with the GOP likely holding the Senate, or close enough that flipping Nelson or Lieberman became a real possibility. I actually think the Tea Party probably did the GOP a favor--they're better off without the responsibility for governing in the face of resistance from a Democratic president. But I doubt that, say, the Nevada Republican Party feels this way right now.

There is, naturally, a burgeoning business in blog posts arguing that this isn't a mandate; voters are just mad about the economy. I think it's broadly true that Democrats would have lost around 45 seats just on the economy alone. But as Kevin Drum points out, this is quite a bit worse than that:


Lots of Democrats, including me, have been pointing out that structural factors alone predicted a 45-seat loss in the House this year. In other words, the bulk of the expected Democratic losses weren't due to healthcare reform or Obama's remoteness or liberal overreach or anything like that. It was baked into the cake all along.

But the model I wrote about, which comes from Douglas Hibbs, only predicted a 45-seat loss, and it looks like Dems are likely to lose at least 60 seats. That means Democrats underperformed the Hibbs model by 15 seats or so, which is a record for them. (See chart below.) They've underperformed by ten seats a couple of times in the postwar era, but never by more than that. So at the same time that it's correct to blame most of their losses on structural factors, it's also correct that this was something of a historically bad result. I think it might be fair to say that the economy is so epically bad that Hibbs's model might not account for it entirely, but that's mostly special pleading. It really does look like there's a fair amount of scope to place a lot of the blame for tonight's Democratic debacle on both tactical and policy missteps.

There will be quite a bit of arguing that Democrats lost because the stimulus wasn't big enough, but this is far-fetched. Assuming that benefits increase linearly (rather than, say, displaying diminishing marginal returns), getting the economy back to full employment would have required improbably large sums. The 50% larger stimulus that Krugman wanted would have, in the very best case scenario, reduced unemployment by less than 1 percentage point; in the CBO's worst-case scenario, it would have been more like 0.3%.  That probably wouldn't have been enough to hold the House under the Hibbs model, much under the wave that actually materialized.

So do elections still have consequences?  Funnily enough, many Democrats no longer think so.  

As DNC Chairman Tim Kaine explained, a GOP takeover of the House may be "a message from the American public." But it's not a rebuke of Democratic policies, he suggested. It's a message about the need for bipartisan cooperation--that "everybody's gotta work together."

When we win, it's a mandate. When they win, it's some sort of complicated message about bipartisanship and the tricky optics of modern governance. I haven't checked around yet, but I have no doubt that the Republicans who were downplaying a Democratic mandate in 2008 are now sharpening their axes and preparing to slaughter heathens in the name of their mandate from the Vote God.

I think that Democrats are right to this extent: If Republicans try to act as if they have a mandate, they are going to find themselves in deep, deep trouble. Or rather, they'd better keep that mandate narrow. The public will probably be happy enough with narrowly targeted obstruction--I do think they can get away with a showdown over the health care bill, for example. But if they, say, try to shut down congress over tax cuts for the rich, they will be voted out as easily as they get voted in. With speeches like Marco Rubio's, the GOP seemed to get that. But can they keep their hubris in check long enough to actually govern?
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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