So, we have had a huge Republican blowout this election, even though the Republican brand is still viewed with suspicion. Why? I think we can rule out at least one explanation. It is not because the Republicans finally got rid of their crazies and ran as a reasonable party. Quite the contrary, up till now insanity has been a winning formula in the House but has cost the Republicans winnable seats in the Senate and the governorships. But this time, insanity does not seem to have been a serious barrier to either Senators (Joni Ernst) or governors (Brownback). Republicans have improved their ground game, and no doubt that has something to do with it. Democratic turnout was weak, but that is a poor excuse. It was weak because Democrats lacked enthusiasm, so it is fair to ask why.
I think it safe to say that Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm was part of a general mood of pervasive discontent, and that people voted Republican as a way of expressing that mood. So why the general mood of pervasive discontent? The conventional answer is, it's the economy, stupid. That’s probably a lot of it, but not all. The economy is certainly lackluster, but hardly disastrous. It has been a lot worse. Job growth is decent and unemployment is falling. In fact, for the first time it is genuinely falling in the sense that labor force participation is rising, instead of people simply giving up and leaving the work force. But it hasn’t fallen enough to raise wages. Wages remain stagnant and show no promise of picking up any time soon. That, I think, is the economic answer. Before, the economy was worse, but people could still hope it was temporary. Now the economy is so-so and shows no promise of improving any time in the foreseeable future. This is in some ways worse because there is no hope.
But if it was only the economy, I suspect Republican gains would have been less spectacular. Obamacare may be a factor. The rollout was disastrous. Many existing policies were cancelled, and even though they were replaced, the replacement led to real disruption and anxiety.* And besides legitimate grievances, many people were eager to blame any other problem on Obamacare as well. But I doubt that this was a major factor.
I have heard maybe one or two suggestions that it was a backlash against the sudden wave among the courts to compel same sex marriage, but I see nothing to suggest that same sex marriage played any role whatever in the election.
The really decisive factor, I think, is that Scary Things were happening abroad that were easily blamed on Obama’s lack of leadership. Large numbers of unaccompanied minors started crossing the border. Russia invaded the Ukraine. ISIS took over large areas in Syria and Iraq and beheaded journalists. Several Ebola cases broke out in the US. Republicans said that if they had been in charge, they would have been tougher and stopped these things from happening. The claim is not really very credible, but things start looking scary, most people’s natural reaction is to turn to someone strong for protection.
At the same time, I will say that if we had had a sizzling hot economy, most people would probably have shrugged these things off. A lackluster economy with no prospect for improvement and menacing developments abroad were enough in combination to lead to the Republican blowout.
Is this a harbinger of for 2016? I would say it is impossible to tell. That will depend on what happens between now and then. If the economy picks up enough that wages start rising, if ISIS and Russians in the Ukraine shrink into manageable threats and nothing more disastrous happens, and if Republicans just can’t resist the temptation to act on the crazy, then probably not. If Republicans act reasonable, if the economy continues to languish, if disasters continue abroad, or if we get into a ground war, then probably so.
Finally, I will drop a few thoughts on what Republicans will do if they do win the triple crown in 2016. The will undoubtedly cut taxes at the top and gut regulations. That’s what they do. They won’t destroy Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid because they aren’t suicidal. They may very well repeal the individual mandate for Obamacare in hopes of inducing a death spiral. I wouldn’t bet on any further developments reigning in our national surveillance apparatus. (I don’t bet on that anyhow). They may or may not revive the practice of torture or start another war. They will probably decide that deficits only matter when a Democrat is in the White House. I have no sense of whether they will decide that tight money is only a universal and timeless moral imperative when a Democrat is in the White House or not. But what I am confident Republicans will do if they win out in 2016 is sigh with relief that the country has been rescued from the Democratic usurpers, and that it will never again suffer the travesty of a Democrat in the White House. And the next time a Democrat is, in fact, elected to the White House, I shudder to imagine the freakout.
*I saw this close at hand as people on Medicaid or other state policies saw them cancelled – to be replaced, but the replacement called for work, let to anxiety, and often to a lapse in coverage.