A little over a year ago, Time Magazine ran a cover with the image of a giant GOP elephant under the title "Endangered Species." The substance of the accompanying story was difficult to misinterpret: The Republican Party was in political disarray, having lost both Congress and the White House. The party lacked popular support and a strong, visible leader who could articulate its message. Furthermore, Democrats and President Barack Obama had been successful in depositing the blame for the 2008 recession onto the Republican doorstep, thus devastating the GOP's long held reputation for fiscal responsibility. In short, with the situation so bleak for Republicans and so promising for Democrats, it really didn't seem all that trite to consider Republicans an endangered species.
A few weeks after Time ran that story, Obama started to vigorously push his health care "reform" package. The consequences of that effort were seen this past Tuesday, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives by one of the largest margins seen in over a half-century. While falling short of a takeover in the Senate, the Republicans did pick up several seats and—combined with the presence of conservative Democrats and Independent Joe Lieberman—have certainly bolstered their ability to challenge the Obama agenda.
However, it's not so much the health care package itself that cost the Democrats their majority. To be sure, various tax increases, regulations making the purchase of health insurance compulsory and egregious interventions of government into the free market were enough to warrant the midterm election results. Yet Democrats—including the president—are probably right to argue that many Americans don't have much of a problem with the law itself. The public, after all, loves entitlement programs, and Democrats have mastered the art of promising voters the moon without explaining how such programs will be paid for.
What the Obama administration failed to realize, however, was that pursuing a program that would expand government in the midst of a recession would alienate independent voters and infuriate conservatives. What's more, the public had yet to see—and in reality is still waiting for— the benefits of Obama's stimulus spending and bailouts; how he even felt empowered enough to pursue such a program is perplexing.
Yet the president and his dutiful followers in Congress insisted that the American people wanted health care reform. It didn't matter that polls consistently showed that Americans did not in fact want health care reform—at least of the Obama variety—because the president had already decided what was best for America.
The last part of that argument, that Obama pushed health care because of his own ideological fanaticism, is what made health care so toxic for Democrats this year. Voters may love entitlement programs, but they don't enjoy being treated like unruly school children or ignorant bores simply for questioning the wisdom of unwarranted government expansion. Obama and the Democrats in Congress did just that, but they still got their way and signed the health care law.
Republican victories this November—not just nationally, but on the state level as well—sent Obama a clear message that such behavior cannot and will not be tolerated. Obama and his party repeatedly displayed an arrogance of power in refusing to consider Republican concerns. Contrary to what Democrats may have thought, they do not always know what is best for the country and ought to think twice before claiming that a wholly unpopular policy position is somehow, on some secret level, what voters want.
The challenge for Democrats now becomes about using the midterm elections as an opportunity to find common ground with Republicans, appreciating the reality that the GOP does indeed represent the values of a huge swath of the electorate. The era of big government is over, and if Obama—along with what remains of the Democrats in Congress—wants to avoid a repeat of this past Tuesday come 2012, he will have to learn to accept that reality. Quite simply, Obama must stop pretending to be bipartisan and actually start behaving like one. Pragmatism is what gave Bill Clinton and the Democrats their first presidential re-election since Truman, and it's what will give liberals a fighting chance two years from now.
For their part, Republicans must avoid letting what happened after their 1994 victories reoccur. That is, they must not let their desire to stay in power prevent them from aggressively fighting for the values that put them there in the first place. Voters have taken a chance on Republicans in the hopes that they'll serve as a firewall between tax-and-spend liberals and the public purse. The GOP showed exceptional skill and ability over the last two years, doing what it could as the minority to pre-empt the most severe overreaches of the Obama agenda. Now that the GOP has the majority, even if only in one chamber, it has the responsibility to establish a credible alternative to the Democrats' insistence on government spending and bloated bureaucracy.
If one thing is clear about the 2010 midterm elections, it's that 40-year majorities and permanent political realignments are clearly a thing of the past. In the past six years, Congress has seen substantial swings in its ideological makeup, a reflection of American voters increasing willingness to punish incumbents for becoming tone deaf to their constituents. Improving the economy, respecting the free market and keeping taxes low are what Americans embraced this past election, and it's up to both Democrats and Republicans to make sure these goals are met.