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The real meaning of the election: Work it out, folks

Voters chose divided government. Commentators may look down their noses, but is that such a bad idea?
President Obama and Speaker John Boehner meet with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at an event in 2011,

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner meet with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at an event in 2011, Office of Speaker Boehner/Flickr

In the last three elections the American people voted for change.  On Tuesday, they voted to keep things the way they are.

A recap: In 2006, we had a Republican President, an unpopular war and a Republican House accused of  being too cozy with K street.  Voters booted them from the House. Good-bye, Tom Delay. Hello, Nancy Pelosi.

In 2008, voters moved further left, electing a Democratic president and giving Democrats a decisive majority in Congress. But just two years later, alarmed at the pace of massive spending, huge deficits, and an unpopular health care plan that was clearly a higher priority than getting people back to work, they kicked the Democrats out, leaving Republicans with their biggest House majority since the late 1940s. The revolt went beyond D.C. More Republicans were elected to state legislatures and assemblies than any time since the Coolidge administration.

This year, 2012, would finally decide which direction people wanted to go — further left with the president, or further right with the Republican House.

Now we know. They want both.

The race for president was essentially a replay of George W. Bush in 2004: The incumbent won a bare majority of the vote and bested his opponent in the Electoral College by bringing home Ohio and the major swing states. But in 2012 there was one difference: Barack Obama became the first president ever re-elected to a second term with a smaller percentage of the vote than he won four years earlier. 

At the same time, the voters didn’t dent the comfortable Republican majority in the House of Representatives, the engine of conservative reform on Capitol Hill. After all the rhetoric, the billions (literally) spent on campaign commercials and exhaustive work at the grassroots level to identify and turn out voters, divided government remains in place, virtually unchanged. Democrats did make some modest gains in the U.S. Senate, but they often came courtesy of second-string GOP candidates afflicted with foot-in-mouth disease. 

So is divided government all that bad?

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had a Democratic House, presided over by old-time Boston pol Tip O’Neill and his hyperpartisan aide, Chris Matthews. Yet Reagan managed to get things done, including his historic tax cutting growth plan, domestic spending restraint, and the sweeping tax reform plan of 1986 that brought the top rate down to 28 percent in exchange for sweeping aside deductions and exemptions. When necessary, the two Irishmen talked behind closed doors and compromised: Reagan agreeing to some tax hikes, O’Neill acceding to lower tax rates on the wealthy in exchange for taking millions of low-income earners off the tax rolls.

In the 1990s, after the ’94 mid-terms produced a Republican House, Bill Clinton ended up across the table from uber-partisan Newt Gingrich. Clinton was more clever and disciplined, at least politically, than the insurgent Georgian, and he took the advice of his consultant, Dick Morris, triangulating between Gingrich and the left wing of his own party. It worked magnificiently, but also required signing off on parts of the Republican agenda, including welfare reform and a capital gains tax cut that helped fuel the high tech boom in the '90s. Coupled with spending restraint, it resulted in the first balanced budgets in a generation.

Barack Obama, more ideologically oriented and far less politically skilled than Clinton or Reagan, would never have signed off on welfare reform or cutting capital gains. But with no mandate, and no plan going forward, he cannot govern without dealing with a Republican Congress that is not going away.

Some people, particularly politicos and pundits within the D.C. beltway, roll their eyes at all the unsophisticated rubes who vote for one Party in the White House and another to represent them in Congress. But growing numbers of Americans don’t feel comfortable with either party. Having endured a big spending Republican Congress under Bush, and an even bigger spending Democratic Congress under Obama, it is clear they no longer trust either party to do it on their own.

John Carlson hosts The Commute With Carlson weekday mornings from 5 to 9 a.m. on 570 KVI AM. Reach him at jcarlson@kvi.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, there is no evidence that very many, if any, actual voters split the ticket.
Here in Washington, for example, its pretty clear that voters voted for Democratic Senate, a Democratic House, and a Democratic President.

In Arkansas, on the other hand, its pretty clear voters voted for a Republican House and a Republican President.

In neither case, was there any significant desire on the part of voters to have a divided government.

And these two states are pretty representative- sure, there are a few states that are trending one way or the other, with incumbent members of one party or the other hanging on while the state trends the other way, but its not the least bit true that the nation, as a whole, is in favor of splitting tickets and voting for both parties.

Ries

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 3:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't think Americans want politicians, pundits, and parties to do anything but build a more robust society that solves local problems related to infrastructure, education, pollution, and weak economic growth. But it needs to be easier to participate and hold politicians accountable. @10, www.at10us.com is charting the path.

ejcarrig

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Ries,

Certainly most people voted a consistent line between Congress and President, but many did not; this was not a "wave" election, like in 1980 (the Reagan landslide) or 1992 (The Clinton Tsunami that catapulted Democrats into office across the board, all the way to the state legislative level.)

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 4:28 p.m. Inappropriate

John, let's drill down further on this. Why don't you look at this
from the standpoint of what percentage of the population of eligible
voters in the country actually participated in each of the national elections you cite in your comentary above? I suspect we may begin to get a perspective different than the one you are presenting.

Bella

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I think the Republican party lost the presidential race, not Romney. He was forced into positons to get nominated and keep his base that most Americans don't accept....if it were only economics he might well have won, but almost every other issue he and his party are out of sync...we are no longer a male, white nation, though some districts still are and vote that way...

lpatrick

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

I think you're right. Romney's primary opponents, especially Gingrich, poisoned the well for Romney in pandering to the party's troglodytes and forcing Romney into a faux conservatism that he was obviously uncomfortable with. Romney then found it very difficult to execute the "Nixon maneuver" and veer back to the center for the election. Until the first debate, he was spending all of his time placating the cultural conservatives while the Gingrich/Obama smear campaign turned him into Scrooge McDuck. If the Republican party wants to succeed in the future, it needs to become more libertarian, more welcoming of groups the "Moral Majority" types drove out (such as the Log Cabin Republicans), and more concerned with the lives of people who want to be successful in this country. If the Republican party can become the party of people on the road to success, not just of those who have already achieved success, it can attract many of the minorities and recent immigrants that find themselves voting Democrat by default.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Bella, The election of 2012, for all the noise and money flying around, actually produced a smaller voter turnout than four years ago, and much smaller proportionately than the aforementioned 2004 election. President Obama received about nine millions fewer votes this year than 2008, and Romney received about a million fewer votes than John McCain. As Curtis Gans put it, the politically active community paid rapt attention to this year's election; the electorate at large was largely "disengaged" (his word).

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 5:17 p.m. Inappropriate

John, your reply begged my question. I suspect you didn't want to answer the question, because I think you know it might posit some uncomfortable conclusions.

Bella

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 6:33 p.m. Inappropriate

"On Tuesday, they voted to keep things the way they are." (Rather than rewind to 2000 and start the last two reels over again--complete with paranoia and neocon bellicosity in foreign policy, laissez rape [oops! what a Freudian slip!] in financial and cultural policy, and deep denial of rapidly changing population profiles and social norms).

You got it exactly right: "keep things the way they are" indeed.

Mr. Romney was nowhere near the candidate the right would have lumbered us with, had they been able to loose their free-range roosters in the national barnyard. In fact, Romney is a thoroughly decent man (in the narrow range of his sect and its mandatory service requirements) who thoroughly deserves the 2012 Etch-A-Sketch award.

In front of a disbelieving audience, he kicked his right-wing opponents in the crotch, made off with the nomination onstage, quickly changed costume offstage, and reappeared as the guy that all but large stuffed birds could love. Absent his talents, this election would have produced a REAL thrashing.

So. The right emerges from their ill-advised dalliance on the Morning After with (curses!) no pill to take. Are they pregnant? And with what?

A trip to Walgreen's will answer that--but in the meantime, they can again rely on the gritty intransigence of Mr. Mitch McConnell (now dedicated to preventing a third term for Barak Obama) and Mr. John Boehner (the crippled leader who carries no handicap). They are backed up admirably by Eric Cantor (who can maybe deliver the mail in Virginia but not votes) and Michelle Bachmann, who will be here in just a minute after she emerges from her own private Hurricane Sandy, permanent smile in place. Joe Biden, take note.

Give us a break, John. In your dreams, there is ambivalence in the Body Politic, no plan from the returning administration, and a "Republican Congress" (say WHAT??). There IS a Republican House, a much stronger and more Democratic Senate, and a president who does have a mandate for action.

We'll see that agenda in future weeks and months: and woe to the right if they sabotage forward progress in these Four More Years as they did in the previous four.

Seneca

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 7:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Bella, I cited the 2008 and 2004 elections. Which ones were you thinking of?

Posted Thu, Nov 8, 9:29 p.m. Inappropriate

John, you have to be kidding me! The first sentance of your commentary. You cited the last three elections, John.
In 2008, 2010 and 2012 the people voted for change, right?
Go back to my original question.

Bella

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 8:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Bella, thanks for clarifying. Here you go: 2008 turnout of Voting Age Population: 57.1% - highest since '68. 2010 middterms: 41.5% - highest midterm turnout in 30 years. This year's estimated turnout - about 52% - lowest turnout since Bush-Gore. Turns out that "drilling down" confirms my point. Thank you.

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

How much of America's "voting to keep things the way they are" and not denting the comfortable Republican majority in the House is the result of the partisan gerrymandering shenanigans that help the incumbent party hold seats? How about working that out, John?

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 11:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Dear John,

Dream on. STICK with your spin. I hope I can depend on you. Yes, John, the Nate Silver was wrong.

I like it when you have self-deluded yourself into becoming a permanent
MINORITY party. Well done.

Ross Kane

Ross

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 1:31 p.m. Inappropriate

John Carlson likes to play god; a cruel, vain god manipulating mere mortals with holier than thou decrees. "Fight each other to the death! I command thee!" he bellows through invisible air waves. Perhaps John Carlson only speaks for those who think themselves gods deciding the fate of humankind and how our individual ends are met - car wreck, noxious gas, food poisoning, torture, brutality, deprivation, starvation, insanity, earthquake, flood, fire? What an entertaining passtime John Carlson and fellow faux-Olympians enjoy and we mortals provide with blood, sweat and tears.

Wells

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 3:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually Ross, Nate Silver was right. As am I. Obama must take the lead and deal with the House, as Reagan did with O'Neill and Clinton did Gingrich. Political feelings aside, on taxes, spending and entitlement reform, he has no other play.

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 4:13 p.m. Inappropriate

John, you seem to have forgotten that President Obama did try to deal with House Republicans and cut a "grand bargain" with Speaker Boehner last year, but Boehner's GOP colleagues shot it down because of the tax increases. See Matt Bai's definitive New York Times magazine piece earlier this year.
Actually, the latest ballot results show that the Dems picked up 3 seats in the House, with 9 races still to call. Dems also picked up two seats in the Senate despite facing a steep uphill battle given the number of seats they had to defend. That's quite a bit better than holding their own. They even picked up and held Senate seats in purple and red states like North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Florida, and Virginia, and Ohio. In addition, the Dems flipped control of the state legislature in five states including Minnesota, Maine, Colorado, and Oregon. So I think you're not being quite accurate in calling this a status quo election. And don't forget Obama ran strongly on raising taxes on upper income earners and won, giving him a clear mandate on that issue, which seems to be the main thing that congressional Republicans care about.

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 6:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Carlson Wrote:
"2010 middterms: 41.5% - highest midterm turnout in 30 years. This year's estimated turnout - about 52% - lowest turnout since Bush-Gore. Turns out that "drilling down" confirms my point."

No, John. It doesn't confirm your point. Your notion of drilling down hardly scratched the surface. I think your premise in your commentary is completely uninformed.

Crowing about an enemic and apathetic turnout of 41% (regardless of the fact it was only 1-2% higher than previous off-year elections) in 2010 hardly qualified as a GOP mandate, and it was likely an early warning sign of GOP problems within their primary process. I suspect that the 2010 GOP gain in House seats was the result of only 25+/- percent of the eligble voting public actually casting votes. Many percent less (perhaps 10% of the total electorate?) voted for these candidates in the GOP primaries. This is an exceptionally unsettling position for the GOP considering its base is shrinking and not expanding, and it has another round of elections two years hence with
House and Senate incumbants who are now required to appeal to an increasingly changing electorate. 2010 was a one-off.

What possibly adds fuel to the fire in which the GOP House finds itself is that Obama is not really required to do anything in spite of your assertions to the contrary. He became a lame-duck as soon as he was elected. I am afraid the onus is on the House and its GOP majority to devise legislation that will pass Senate scrutiny and be supported by an Obama signature. The GOP House majority is simply not in a position of strength.

Bella

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 6:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Harris, Matt Bai's NY Times magazine article was not the "definitive" piece on the Obama - Boehner showdown; Bob Woodward's new book is. And he makes it clear who holds most of the blame for a deal not happening (it's a great read for anyone who enjoys political intrigue and strategy).

I already covered the D's gains in the Senate, but here's my prediction: Nancy Pelosi is OUT as Democratic leader. Bottom line, for both you and Bella, the Democrats took dead aim at the R's House leadership, even predicting a change of power last summer. They never got close. Now Obama must lead (it is ALWAYS the president who must lead) with that reality in mind.

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 8:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Michael Grunwald's reporting in Time and in his new book make clear there's no way President Obama can "lead" as long as congressional Republicans continue to engage in their unprecedented total obstructionism, which they started from Day 1 of Obama's administration.
http://swampland.time.com/2012/08/23/the-party-of-no-new-details-on-the-gop-plot-to-obstruct-obama/
Many of us are hoping Obama now realizes there's no way to "compromise" with these folks, and he's got to use the upper hand that the election and the sequester legislation give him. Voters have clearly said they favor raising taxes on the wealthy. And there's little or no public support for significant cuts in Medicare or Social Security benefits or eligibility. But there are ways to save substantial money in Medicare without slashing benefits or eligibility. See my article from earlier this year. Of course these sensible measures won't be appealing to those whose real purpose is to phase out Medicare as public health insurance program and as a guaranteed benefit.
http://managedhealthcareexecutive.com/savemedicare

Posted Fri, Nov 9, 10:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Carlson Wrote:
"Bottom line, for both you and Bella, the Democrats took dead aim at the R's House leadership, even predicting a change of power last summer. They never got close. Now Obama must lead (it is ALWAYS the president who must lead) with that reality in mind."

John, you should have learned by now that leadership takes many forms. In addition, the GOP has to change or it won't survive. The question is are you going to be one of those who leads that change or are you going to cling to a sinking ship?

Bella

Posted Sat, Nov 10, 12:01 a.m. Inappropriate

John,

Well,, in addition to everything else, you also clearly do not understand irony.

Your candidate for Governor lost. Ditto the new AG. Ditto Jon Koster in the new 1st. D's continue to hold the Senate and the House in Washington. Elizabeth Warren won. Also, D's won in Wisconsin and North Dakota.

Obama won. D's hold the US Senate. R's managed to hold the House, but will have to compromise.

You can spin this as you wish in the echo chamber of talk radio, but to paraphrase your buddy Rush, in this State, Liberals are hunting conservative R's with dogs.

Start running John. In Western Washington, you're already on the Endangered Species List.

Ross

Ross

Posted Sat, Nov 10, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Historians will be busy for years dissecting the results of the 2012 election. In the end though it is my belief that the final results may be blamed in part on Republicans across the country misreading the public opinion on ObamaCare.

The 2010 mid-term elections were interpreted within the Republican Party as a mandate against ObamaCare but in reality it was the normal situation which is typical of a mid-term elections where the incumbent party loses seats. The Republican gains though were magnified by the low turnout by Democrats combined with an well-funded astroturf Tea Party and further magnified by a gerrymandered redistricting. In swing districts, anger swept incumbent Democratic House members out of office as they had failed in not holding anyone to a degree of accountability as Wall Street and the auto industry was bailed out.

With the Boehner and the House making repeal of ObamaCare their primary goal and Romney stating that it would be the first legislative priority of his term, it is immediately apparent from the results of this election that repeal is not what the voters wanted.

The Republicans though made a critical mistake in interpreting the poll results prior to this election. The polls may indicate that a majority oppose ObamaCare but one must also take into account that this majority include a large number of Liberals/Progressive that view it as another corporate give away and hold out for a single payer system. And ObamaCare may be extremely unpopular among Republicans with 75% stating that the entire law should be thrown out (according to Pew) but
this opinion appears to be only held within the core base.

In fact, a March 2012 Bloomberg poll reported the following:
37% in favor of repeal
46% in favor of letting us see how it works but it may need small modifications
11% stating that it should be left alone

Exit polls from this election cycle confirmed the ambivalent opinions concerning the law.

So in our more liberal leaning state, the smart and wise thing for both Koster and McKenna would for them to have embraced ObamaCare as the conservative response to the healthcare crisis. For remember that it was originally proposed by the Heritage Foundation and implemented by a Republican governor in the state of Massachusetts.

But Republican orthodoxy and rigidity being what it is, such an approach is not permitted as that it risks the candidate being labeled a RINO and losing financial support from national Republican organizations. And as in we saw in this last election, the result of such rigidity is major losses across the country due to inflexibility to permit candidates to modify their campaigns to fit their state's electorate. Under different circumstances, Rob McKenna would be the governor elect had he not challenged ObamaCare as AG and distanced him from the schizophrenic, etch-a-sketchy Romney who was never going to win Washington anyway.

Posted Sun, Nov 11, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Speaker Boehner understands the meaning of the election outcome much better than John Carlson does:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/us/politics/boehner-tells-house-gop-to-fall-in-line.html?hp
Their party lost, badly, Mr. Boehner said, and while Republicans would still control the House and would continue to staunchly oppose tax rate increases as Congress grapples with the impending fiscal battle, they had to avoid the nasty showdowns that marked so much of the last two years.

Posted Mon, Nov 12, 6:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps if we see some actual leadership, good manners, and working together for the betterment of all we will also see in future elections, better choices of candidates.

After all, who wants to join the pig pen?

Posted Tue, Nov 13, 6:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Another interesting, "real" meaning from this recent election- gerrymandering is one of the only things keeping the Republicans viable at all, on a national level.

Even though the House is still Republican, its only because of the last two rounds of redistricting, which they skillfully managed- if you look at how the people spoke on November 7, the majority of the popular vote in House races went to Democrats.
Much like the Electoral college, complicated districts that resemble intestines allowed the Republicans to resist the actual voting trends in america and hold control of the house.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/11/09/house-democrats-got-more-votes-than-house-republicans-yet-boehner-says-hes-got-a-mandate/

Ries

Posted Tue, Nov 13, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Ries, redistricting actually worked both ways, probably netting out to the Democrats advantage. Michael Barone estimates redistricting may have cost the GOP an additional 11 seats.

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