The More Things Change

Why the Republican victory won't matter


There are lots of metaphors flying around to describe Tuesday's Republican victory. Landslide. Earthquake. Tsunami. They make for drama, but they're not really accurate. When a major natural disaster hits, it leaves the landscape visibly altered. But this event will leave most things unchanged.

Oh, the promises have been bold and far-reaching. Some 300 candidates nationally have signed the Tea Party "Contract from America" calling for a balanced budget, radical simplification of the tax code, and strict limits on federal spending. The chance that any of those will come to pass in the next two years? Zero.

Our campaigns are generally a matter of theater, not to be taken literally. We like to be the kind of people who vote for drastic change, but we don't want to be the kind of people who actually experience it. The gesture is generally enough.

One reason the status quo is so durable is that the differences between the two parties, when it comes to actual governing, are not nearly as large as they like to pretend. They expend vast amounts of cash in the indulgence of what Sigmund Freud called "the narcissism of small differences." But after the elections are over, the most polarizing and extreme positions tend to be neglected.

Republicans and tea party activists talked incessantly about the need to cut taxes. Big ideological difference, right? Well, no. Obama, after all, already cut them, and he wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of income earners. The party clashes take place mostly between the 40-yard lines.

Balancing the budget and shortening the tax code to a few thousand words, as the Contract from America envisions, wouldn't happen even if Republicans held all 535 seats in Congress and the presidency. They would require inflicting too much pain on voters—including tea party sympathizers, who (according to a Bloomberg poll) prefer not to cut Medicare but expand it.

Repealing ObamaCare is one demand that nearly all Republicans endorse. It's an empty pledge because they know any repeal bill—if they were ever to pass one—would be vetoed.

Rush Limbaugh says, so what? "Send Obama a repeal bill every week and make him veto it," he proposes. That's about as likely as Rush Limbaugh running a marathon every week.

Another idea is refusing to provide funds for the new health insurance program. But prospective House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, a tea party favorite, regretfully admits that's not feasible, either. Come Jan. 20, 2013, the health care reform will still be in place, and everyone in the Republican Party knows it.

That brings up another reason not to take the partisan rhetoric too seriously. Candidates may vow to take quick action on major issues, somehow forgetting that our system is designed expressly to prevent quick action on major issues.

The GOP takeover of the House is far more useful as a brake than a steering wheel. The new majority can stop Obama from advancing new proposals by voting them down. But it can't force him to accept Republican ones.

Besides, history confirms, a lot of the promises will soon be forgotten. Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 partly on the appeal of a proposed constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms. It failed.

They said they would abolish three Cabinet departments. Each is still standing. A constitutional amendment to authorize "voluntary" school prayer never came close to passing the House.

The consistent failure to keep their word is not unique to Republicans. In 2006, Democrats swept to victory resolved to end the war in Iraq. Didn't happen. They promised to abolish earmarks—only to approve more than 9,000 last year alone. They were going to rein in deficits so "our children and grandchildren are not saddled with mountains of debt." That was a couple of Everests ago.

Politicians make promises like these because they are big and vivid. But the bigger the goal, the harder it is to reach. That's even more true when power is divided between a Democratic president and Senate and a Republican House. The things that are plausible, on the other hand, are usually not so exciting.

In campaigns, anything is possible, and on Election Day, a lot can change in a hurry. Afterward, not so much.