Why the Election Didn't Matter

Republican Senate
Tom Cotton joins a freshmen group of Republican Senators. Jacob Slaton/Reuters

After all of the campaign ads, after all the angst about the Koch Brothers and Obama and the mess that is Washington, there's one lesson you take from this election: Nothing changed. Despite a night of substantial Republican gains in the U.S. Senate, the forces behind gridlock remain in place.

Of course, Americans say they hate bickering and fighting in Washington. Fair enough. But why do you think there's more now than 50 years ago? Has human nature changed that much? There's a reason why there's more fighting now and fewer important pieces of legislation getting passed. There's a culture of conflict built into the system and that won't change because Tom Cotton knocked off Mark Pryor or Jeanne Shaheen kept her seat.

The problem is that the parties are still evenly divided and ideologically poles apart, which is the deep seated cause of Washington's failure to get things done.

The election of conservative Republicans replacing Democratic senators in states like Arkansas, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia only exacerbates the trend. After all, these were moderate Democrats who were sent to their political grave, meaning that each party has become more ideologically pure, possessing fewer moderates, who are important to forging deals.

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In today's Senate there is no Democrat who is to the right of any Republican or vice versa. When Ronald Reagan took office there was vast overlap—conservative Southern Democrats still dominated many top committees and brahmin liberal Republicans from the East Coast were still a big voice in the GOP. The center held. That's obviously changed over the years as conservative Democrats like South Carolina's Fritz Hollings and liberal Republicans like Vermont's Jim Jeffords left the Senate, but the centrists fell on election night.

Consider the three Senators who still serve who were elected in 1984. There's Tom Harkin, the liberal Democrat who is retiring, who will be replaced by tea party-ish Joni Ernst; Mitch McConnell who won reelection as Senate Republican Leader and Jay Rockefeller who saw his seat go to Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. Each worked in a Senate where they could pass favorite legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Harkin led and got GOP support for, and the first President Bush signed. All have seen the committee and legislative process be replaced by last minute deals and continuing resolutions forged by the leadership. (That may sound boring but the committee system, when it works, keeps Congress humming.)

No wonder that after 30 years, Harkin and Rockefeller decided to hang it up. McConnell is leaning into his dream of being Senate majority leader. While McConnell extended his hand to Obama in his victory speech, it'll be too hard for him to rally his unwieldy conference around big legislation, let alone more ideologically united Democrats ready to wield the filibuster.

The money in politics problem encourages ideology and not compromise. Parties might be chastening forces, but they've been weakened over time and the law has favored money from ideology-driven dark money groups.

So when you read about all the new faces in the Senate and those that survived, it's worth remembering the basic impediments to governance are still there and aren't going away anytime soon—not until say one side really vanquishes the other side at the polls or something happens to reshuffle the demographics of each party.

Sure, some things can still get done. Maybe a trade agreement. But nothing seismic can happen in this hothouse.

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That said, all elections matter, of course—for what they say about the country. There were moments that got too little attention. Tim Scott, the African-American Republican who was appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat, won a special election in South Carolina. He's the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South since reconstruction. That he's a Republican in tune with South Carolina's white majority and out of step with the majority of blacks in his state doesn't make the moment any less historic. In Virginia, Ed Gillespie's Republican surge showed how much weakness the Democrats still have in rural counties, especially in the South. In neighboring West Virginia, Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat, was sent packing after 38 years in the House after a campaign that linked him to President Obama.

Two things that didn't get attention that should have were the tent poles of American Politics. In New York, Andrew Cuomo was easily reelected as was Jerry Brown in California. Each is the scion of a governor who lived in an age when it was easier to get things done. Each has managed to make a difference in their state, although Cuomo has had the rougher ride plagued by concerns about ethics and a feistier legislature. The culture of state capitols, while not the pristine laboratory of democracy that columnists swoon over, is still less of a mess than Washington.

It's been a long time since a former governor showed its party out of the wilderness. In MItt Romney's case he wouldn't acknowledge that his health care plan was a precursor of Obama's and he left his positions on guns and abortion back in Boston. Governors with records of accomplishment who take the national stage like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan are probably the best equipped to bring change to Washington and their own parties. So if you're looking for change tonight, keep your eyes on the governors, the well known ones, and the new ones you never heard of.