Did the Midterms Matter?

A cynical (or realistic) take on the change in D.C. power.


Now that the dust has settled from Election Day, it's worth asking whether the midterms will have much impact on American governance, especially in the brief lull before the 2012 presidential season really gets going. There's a lot of stuff to plow through in the post-Thanksgiving lame-duck session and there's every reason to expect Democrats and Republicans to kick tough votes down the road as far as possible. After all, if these folks had any backbone, convictions, or leadership skills, there wouldn't be so much stuff to plow through.

The federal budget for the current fiscal year remains unresolved, as does the question of tax rates come January 1. Are they kidding us? The president's big commission on long-term debt reduction will be voting on recommendations this Wednesday, and Congress is supposed to weigh in on those suggestions before Christmas. Good luck with that. What's the phrase this suggests? Oh yeah: SNAFU, with an emphasis on the normal.

Still, it's easy to think we've witnessed something important. The Republicans picked up control of the House of Representatives and gained some 63 seats. They also gained six seats in the Senate, eight governor's mansions, and at least 19 state legislative chambers. The swing was described as "historic" (USA Today, US News), a Democratic "debacle" (Human Events), even a "shellacking" (President Obama). As a Washington Post headline somewhat wistfully put it, "No quibbling: Huge win for Republicans."

But it may well be a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Or more accurately, meet the new boss, same as the old boss who was in charge just a few years ago and did such a terrible job that they were kicked out of power. Sadly, there's every reason to believe that this GOP wave will hit the beach with a big roar, and then roll back out with the tide, leaving very little changed at all.

One of the key issues in the midterms was out-of-control government spending. Indeed, the cri de guerre of the pivotal Tea Party movement is a straightforward plea to "Stop the Spending." There's little reason to expect the Republican majority in the House to push for much in the way of serious budget cuts. We know this because of the Pledge to America, the pre-election plan released to much ballyhoo by the incoming Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). The Pledge didn't talk about reforming budget-breaking entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, and it specifically exempted defense spending from budget scrutiny. So even if the GOP gets its way, we're still headed to the poor house. As Mercatus Center economist and Reason columnist Veronique de Rugy titled a chart illustrating the plan's potential impact, "Pledge makes negligible difference."

If the Republicans—who had a noisy internal fight over whether to ban earmarks, for god's sake—are already weak in the knees when it comes to spending, we shouldn't expect them to chart a new course when it comes to foreign policy, especially regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama is already following George W. Bush's painfully slow withdrawal plan from Iraq and has doubled down in Afghanistan without clarifying U.S. goals and leaving lots of wiggle room when it comes to deadlines for leaving.

The only folks more hellbent on maintaining the military status quo than the president are the Republicans. Failed presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has already lashed out at freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for his supposed "isolationism" and readiness to entertain cuts in defense spending. McCain and other hawks will get ideological support from courtiers such as The New York Times' David Brooks, who has pulled out of mothballs his '90s-era call for a "national greatness conservatism" in which military might plays a starring role, and AEI scholars such as Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly, who argued in the Washington Post that the GOP will become "a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and George McGovern" if it cuts defense spending one farthing. That's inertia you can believe in.

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Will new-found GOP hegemony at the state level mean they'll lock down future control of Congress when redistricting starts next year? Republicans will get to draw boundaries for something like 170 congressional districts. The Democrats will get to pencil in just 70, but bipartisan or non-partisan committees will get to create 200, so any effect will be muted. Forgive those of us who remember 2004, when Republicans supposedly achieved a "permanent governing majority," or 2008, when Democrats pulled off the same feat, for yawning.

Social issues were a back-burner phenomenon this time around, but that didn't stop Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) from attempting to alienate any newcomers to the Republican tent by making the self-evidently false statement post-election to Fox News that "you can't be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative." Whatever else you can say about the midterms, it seems clear that the nation didn't send 100-plus new faces to Washington as reinforcements in battles over gays in the military or abortion rights.

Some Republicans seem to get it. "We make a grave mistake if we believe that…these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party," said Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Election night. "What they are is…a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."

Is it cynical or simply realistic to figure that Rubio and his freshman compadres have their work cut out for them in a party dominated by the likes of John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who manifestly failed to shrink government when the GOP controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House? Boehner, who voted for No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug plan, and TARP, laid his weak hand on the table before the election with his Pledge to America. McConnell had to be strong-armed into kinda-sorta saying earmarks were worth chucking. In a post-election speech at the Heritage Foundation, he trotted just about every guaranteed-applause line in the book without mentioning hard-core spending he'd actually cut from the budget. Yes, he vowed to "stop the liberal onslaught" and work to repeal or minimize the impact of ObamaCare. He tossed out the softball about "freezing" or "cutting" discretionary spending, without an example and without clarifying if defense, the single-biggest item on that side of the federal ledger, is open to trimming. And what about entitlements, especially Medicare, that are the real poison pill?

Will the likes of Rubio and the Pauls (father and son) be able to move the establishment toward small-government action when they actually take office? Here's hoping, but I'll believe it when I see it. Ronald Reagan famously said "trust, but verify" when it came to dealing with the Soviets. The contemporary GOP commands less respect from the electorate. It needs to show voters something, and fast.

The good news about the recent midterms? There's another election in just two years.

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv.