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Catastrophic Success

The perils of a ‘do everything’ Democratic Congress.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Once upon a time, there was success and there was failure, and one could usually tell the difference between them​​—​the first had a thousand fathers and the second was an orphan​​—​but those days are over: The Democrats of 2010 have come up with a new variant, catastrophic success. That’s what happens when you do something big, and it turns out quite badly, when you pass your agenda and get beaten for doing it, when you rack up a historic level of legislative achievements most of which most people hate. This is the fate of the Democrats’ 2009-2010 Congress: In the old days, you failed when you didn’t enact your agenda and were run against as a “do-nothing” Congress; it took Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi to define failure as doing too much.

Catastrophic Success

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

Seldom before has such a thing happened, but seldom before has an administration governed so against the grain of public opinion, and when this occurs, there are costs. The costs are the loss of the House by a landslide of epic proportions and the implosion of support for the president’s party. The success is the passage of Obama-care, which liberals believed would change things forever. Congresses come and go, so they said, while a historic reform is forever: It would live on, they averred, while the results of the midterms would blow off quite quickly. But even before the Eastern District Court of Virginia blew a large hole in Obamacare in early December, finding its individual mandate unconstitutional, there were signs that this bargain was taking on water. There are four little words to be said to these people: Don’t be too sure.

Don’t be too sure, in the first place, that the effects of these midterms will dwindle that fast. The elections this year were not like those of the previous conservative blowout. For one thing, 1994 did not end in 0. But 2010 does, which means “census,” which means redistricting, which is a job done by the states. In this election, the voters gave control of most of the states to Republicans, who will use the opportunity voters gave them. How big was the Republicans’ gain in statehouses? In three words, wide, sweeping, and deep. They picked up a record 680 seats in state legislatures. The tide swept through the Midwest, through big states and swing states, erasing gains Democrats had made in two previous cycles, turning one-time Obama states red. Republicans gained more than 100 seats in New Hampshire (which had gone for Obama); went in Michigan from a Democratic lead of 22 seats to a Republican lead of 16; went in Minnesota from being down 40 seats to being up 10; went in Iowa from being down 12 seats to being up 20; and went in Texas to a lead in the statehouse so commanding that a local reporter called it “an annihilation bordering on political genocide.” At the same time, Republicans went from having 22 to 29 governors, including in all the key swing states.

The effects of this inland tsunami will help shape the future in several ways, of which redistricting is only the first. Republicans will redraw four times as many district lines as Democrats. This will influence the next five congressional elections, until the 2020 census comes along. Some observers think this alone could be good for between 15 and 25 seats in upcoming elections. That may be optimistic, but control of redistricting certainly can’t hurt. Added to this, Obama now faces hostile state governments in all the swing states he won two years ago, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. He has to win most of these, or else he’s a goner. Statehouses also give rise to the stars of the future and are the seedbeds from which governors, senators, and now and then presidents spring. The massacre in the states means the Democrats will have a weak bench going forward. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as Obama, began on the state level. Were future Democratic stars drowned in the flood?

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