The Republican Party's victory last night is certainly not to be dismissed or downplayed. The latest results have them picking up seven Senate seats and losing none, and picking up 15 House seats and losing only one (there's still some undecided races, though).
But this wave was not a result of a unified public movement. That's not to say it wasn't organized or that the Republican machine didn't work hard for these outcomes. But it lacked a "Contract with America" or populist Tea Party movement to indicate to voters what they should expect once they "threw the bums out." Instead it ended up being an election about rejecting President Barack Obama. It wasn't an election about advancing any particular Republican position, and that has reinforced the narrative of the "election about nothing."
Forget saying the Republican Party doesn't have a "mandate" (an oft-misused word) with its win, it doesn't even really have marching orders other than to not be Obama. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that the news out of the beltway today is that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are not acting like they've been put in charge of a revolution. From The Washington Post:
The remedy, they have decided: Act quickly to send President Obama bills with bipartisan support to fast-track international trade agreements, repeal an unpopular tax on medical devices and approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
While Republicans will also stage more votes to repeal Obama's Affordable Care Act, party leaders readily acknowledge that they do not have the votes to overcome a presidential veto—making an all-out assault on the ACA a quixotic campaign, useful primarily as a rallying point for the party's base.
Note further on in the story:
When lawmakers return to Washington next week for a lame-duck sessions, the two leaders are also planning a series of joint appearances, joint memos and op-ed articles to signal their decision to work together and to discourage more intra-party drama.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the GOP conference, said House Republicans and Senate Republicans have been quietly building their relationships for months over dinners and meetings.
"Our fortunes are tied," he said in an interview Wednesday. "We've got to hang together and that approach starts at the top with Mitch and Boehner."
Emphasis added. Note the lack of interest in discussing anything that could possibly provide that intra-party drama like how best to approach ISIS in Syria and Iraq or how (or if!) to reform National Security Agency surveillance rules. They don't want to ruin their big win with squabbling between the party's libertarian-leaning elements and its neoconservative members.
But it's an issue that's obviously not going away. Sen. Rand Paul was front and center throughout the evening both for his relationship with McConnell and the general understanding that he's going to be running for president (though no, he hasn't announced yet). Yet, Tom Cotton, the Republican who won a Senate seat in Arkansas last night, is an archetypical neoconservative and Vox.com (perhaps a bit hyperbolically) calls him "Rand Paul's worst nightmare." He wanted New York Times reporters put behind bars for exposing a U.S. surveillance program, and he is an Iraq War vet who supports military intervention:
"I think that George Bush largely did have it right," Cotton said, "[in] that we can't wait for dangers to gather on the horizon, that we can't let the world's most dangerous people get the world's most dangerous weapons, and that we have to be willing to defend our interests and the safety of our citizens abroad even if we don't get the approval of the United Nations."
Cotton's foreign policy hawkishness, and his backing from the neoconservative establishment it's brought, have helped shape his political persona. "Cotton has staked his young political career on a staunchly assertive, activist view of American military power," Politico's Alexander Burns wrote in a 2013 profile. For conservatives who support an aggressive foreign policy, "there is no Republican under the age of 40 with more riding on his career than Cotton," Burns concludes.
The Republican Party is now going to have to hash out what it stands for while it's in a position of some strength. Neocon columnist Jennifer Rubin is insisting that last night's results aren't because of the popularity of a libertarian message. She will no doubt continue to insist the case even if Paul lands the nomination in 2016, but nevertheless it is true last night's election didn't affirm any understanding of where the Republican Party is going.
Of course, it's also extremely clear the same is true of the Democrats, perhaps now even more so. Up until this point in Obama's presidential career the party has rallied around him and served him. Whatever Obama stood for is what the party stood for. Without Obama, the party is left with a bunch of progressive platitudes and outcomes that they find desirable (raise the minimum wage, reduce college debt) and no strategy on how to get there, especially now. When identity politics play much less of a role in an election outcome—note the lack of gay marriage issues on the ballot—they're struggling. Illinois Democrats manufactured some progressive-friendly "advisory" votes in order to try lure out voters, and yet their incumbent governor still lost. In President Obama's press conference today he attempted to point to the successes of minimum wage initiatives in several states today as a win for him, but the fact that Democratic candidates also lost in these very same states suggest the party needs to be thinking beyond begging young people to vote and thinking they can somehow defeat conservative philosophies and purge them from the polity forever.