So, Democrat, you've lost. Nancy Pelosi is no longer your Speaker. Barack Obama is gallivanting in Asia. John Boehner is enjoying Padron Series in the back of a private club in Washington somewhere.
How do you explain the Republican victory? You KNOW your party is better for the country, but somehow, voters had other ideas. Here is a mature way of thinking about your predicament.
The customer is always right. If you accept this premise, it doesn't necessarily mean that the right direction for Democrats is ... to move to the right. Politics isn't linear, and Republicans sure as Sarah Palin didn't move to the left over the past two years. But Democrats did enter office with the wind at their backs ... or they acted as if they did. The cocks of the walk, strutting their stuff, perhaps arrogantly. Did Democrats assume that voters wouldn't distrust government as much as they distrusted Wall Street? Or that voters would countenance the same old style of deal-making that has gotten things done since before the capital was moved to a marshy land between Maryland and Virginia?
Republicans are on probation. This is a more comforting way of dealing with the election. Voters aren't endorsing Republican ideas and they haven't given them a mandate. They've just decided to send a message to Washington, and they expect more from Republicans than they do from Democrats now. This is partly true. There is little evidence that Republican policies are popular. But a majority of the electorate, itself a plurality--about 40 percent of those eligible to vote--supports the Republican ideas that animate those policies. When Democratic ideas don't seem to be living up to expectations, Republican ideas will be popular. And vice verse. This self-talk leads to the next idea, which is that ...
There are no realignments in politics. Again, true, from the standpoint of political science. In 2006 and 2008, pundits (including myself) were SURE that Democrats would have several cycles of majority rule because it was just so unlikely that Republicans could win back the House (and especially the Senate) that quickly. We assumed that 15-20 seats would move back to Republicans by 2012 owing to demographics, but that the deeper political demographics favored Democrats. Well, no. External events seem to be conspiring against the pundits. We've had several wave elections in a row. The country is not stable. Neither party has figured out how to solve problems. Neither party can govern effectively.
The Tea Party movement is real and enduring. The GOP is back. The party structure might be weak, but movement conservatives are energizing the party. They're not going to peter out. They're not electing a governing majority. They're injecting what they believe is a series of checks and balances into Washington. Republicans will be plenty enthusiastic come 2012.
Republicans probably won't do what's in their best interest. That is, they won't work with President Obama to pass legislation that is popular. An effective Republican House makes it more likely that Republicans take control of the Senate in 2012, because the House will be seen as a doing body, and the Senate will still be seen as the establishment. Alas, to get things done, Republicans will have to compromise on the debt ceiling, on education, on renewables standards, maybe even on a social issue or two. They'll have to accept some tax hikes with their spending cuts. Imagine how difficult it will be for Democrats to argue that Republicans can't govern if Republicans manage to govern. Fortunately for Democrats, there is little indication that Republicans have the incentives to cooperate.