Prediction is an addiction in the press corps. We can search for the key to the Keystone State with sophisticated cross tabs of projected African-American turnout for Joe Sestak in Philadelphia. We can offer the early read on early voting for Barbara Boxer in Alameda County. We can practically study the entrails of Kentucky possum to project Rand Paul’s totals among white men under 30.
But elections aren’t just about who wins. They’re about what happens when one or the other party wins. We’re so eager to promote ourselves with the smartest take on how President Obama and the Democrats got themselves in this pickle that we haven’t done a good job explaining the stakes. We manage to sever cause from effect.
Let’s say you’re an independent voter who wants to send Obama a message on Nov. 2. Have the media told you what that would say? Here’s a clue: moderate Republicans are extinct. With big wins, the Tea Party will transform itself from an insurgency into the driving force within the GOP. Gains in statehouses and legislatures will allow right-wingers to use the 2010 census to redraw district lines that will entrench them in power until 2020. Back in charge in Washington, they will likely block even centrist choices for courts. Extremist senators like Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn will move from being irritants on the fringe to players at the center of our politics.
A question for Democrats disinclined to work on congressional campaigns: do you know the GOP agenda? In brief: repeal health-care reform, so if you lose your job and your kid gets sick, you may have to sell the house; repeal financial reform, so Wall Street scammers and predatory lenders can return to doing everything they did before they wrecked the economy; maintain corporate-welfare subsidies that move jobs overseas; reduce spending by slashing education funding; and ending all clean-energy projects aimed at curbing our dependence on Mideast oil. Of course, these policies won’t cut the deficit. Republicans insist on extending $700 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy and leaving the $500 billion defense budget un-touched. Entitlements would merely be “reviewed regularly,” the GOP leadership says, which is code for doing nothing.
We’ve heard a lot of comparisons with 1994, when Newt Gingrich and the GOP last took control. But the “Contract With America,” while only two pages long, had some good ideas, like welfare and tort reform. The putative speaker, John Boehner, is the last guy who will change how Washington works. He freely admits, “I’m cozy with lobbyists” (The Washington Post, 2006), and once had to apologize for passing out checks from the tobacco industry on the House floor. His “Pledge to America” is 21 pages long, but I defy any thoughtful independent to study this document and conclude Republicans are ready to govern in another recession.
The party is powered by outrage over bailouts and the stimulus. When pressed, Republican candidates say GM could have survived without Washington. How? Liquidation would have meant the loss of a million jobs. To everyone’s surprise, the auto companies are on the mend, and the banks, despite those obnoxious bonuses, have paid back the taxpayers with interest. TARP worked! The GOP plan for job creation: cutting taxes and deregulation. We tried that in 2001 only to experience the weakest decade of job growth since the ’30s.
Republicans and independent groups (with anonymous donors) are spending millions to argue the stimulus has “done nothing.” This is false, as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and independent economists have at-tested. Unemployment would be north of 12 percent without it. This year more than 100 Republican members of Congress who voted against the stimulus lobbied for stimulus money for their districts or put out press releases claiming credit when the checks arrived. They’ve set a new indoor record for hypocrisy.
The depressed Democratic base needs to ask itself some questions: Do women want more representatives who oppose abortion? Do Hispanics want to see immigration reform postponed? Do young voters want college loans slashed? If they don’t, they’ll set aside whatever valid grievances they may have with Obama and mobilize.
If Democrats lose control anyway, maybe nothing too bad will happen. Obama will veto GOP bills, and politics will be paralyzed for two years as the parties jostle for 2012. But a right-wing Republican takeover of Congress and state capitals isn’t something to accept with indifference. Midterms matter, and voters tempted to skip this election should have their heads examined.
Jonathan Alter is also the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.