Tuesday night’s Republican landslide — or drubbing, or shellacking or whatever we are calling it — was broad, and deep, and for MSNBC viewers, depressing and perhaps a little terrifying. What it wasn’t was surprising. Since the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, multi-term presidents have gained Senate seats in their final term exactly zero times; in every other incidence save one (the 1998 midterms under Clinton, when there was no change) the president’s party has lost anywhere from six to 13 Senate seats. The drama this cycle, if there was any, was mostly to be found in whether various individual officeholders — several of them Democrats in states that Mitt Romney won by huge margins — would manage to hang on (Answer: no). We waited for the Democrats to lose big, and then they did. So much demagoguery, and so much preening, and so little to look forward to.
Maybe, or maybe not. I’m not going to argue that the last several years haven’t been sour and deeply lame — but they also haven’t been particularly meaningful. Lots of people are tired of Obama? They’ve been tired of Obama since the first midterm wipeout, in 2010. I understand that many out there feel personally wrapped up in election the results, either despondent or exultant, and that’s allowed. But believe me, the feeling will pass, and it should. What’s behind us is nothing more than a long and boring formality. What’s ahead of us — for political junkies at least — is the good part.
The battle lines in D.C. have been pretty firmly drawn for years now: Democrats have been crying intransigence, and Republicans have been crying overreach. But because we’ve been stuck in this holding pattern, all of us waiting for the Democratic Senate majority to drain away, everyone has been, in a sense, stalling. Republicans want you to believe not just that Barack Obama is a fraud but that the idea of Obama — what Sarah Palin so nicely called “that hopey changey stuff” — is a fraud, a pernicious sawing away at the fiber of American greatness. For the past two years, though, Republican legislators haven’t been able to do anything about it, because they didn’t have the Senate. That changes today. They may not be able to get anything passed into law so long as Obama remains in the Oval Office, but they are going to get the chance, at least, to articulate what they stand for in terms of a legislative program.
This is where the fun begins. (OK, I know it’s a weird definition of the word, but bear with me.) The GOP is deeply divided — perhaps fatally divided — and has made big, contradictory declarations about what it would do when it finally got Harry Reid out of the way. Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel wrote the other day that Republicans have simultaneously promised to pass their own version of immigration reform and to scuttle immigration reform for good. They have promised to repeal Obamacare and promised to move on from repealing Obamacare. They have wailed about Obama’s handling of Ebola, and ISIS, and Syria, and Benghazi, and entitlements, and Bowe Bergdhal, and executive orders, and Fast and Furious, and engaging with Iran. All they have done about any of this, really, is blame Obama, block whatever he tried to do, and sharpen their knives for the elections that just ended. Now that Congress is theirs, they don’t have the option to be obstructionist anymore: the forces within the party are going to have to come to some sort of reckoning and figure out if they can agree to stand for something. You may not like the results of that process (or you may) but the burden of proving one’s concept, not attack ads or clever tweets, is what Democracy is supposed to be about, right?
Now, whether Republicans manage to accomplish anything depends on a bunch of factors, mainly whether the Tea Partiers and the Boehner-types will be able to find policies to agree on, and then, in turn, on whether those policies can survive Democratic filibustering and Obama’s veto pen. But that’s not really my point here. The point is that we are poised to find out, finally, whether a viable alternative to the Obama Way — shoot, let’s just go ahead and call it Big Government — actually exists in practice, and whether real Americans will want it when they see it. (They might!)
That brings us to the presidential election, which in effect, terribly yet also awesomely, begins today. In recent years there has been lot of considered criticism that these races start too soon, go on too long, involve too many debates and entirely too much money. And yet I find myself impatient for this one to get started, for the simple reason that I think it is going to rule. Just look at the possible candidates. We could, in theory, have a Republican primary including all of the following individuals: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie. Sprinkle in, if you like, Dr. Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, John Bolton, even Lindsey Graham. You hear it said — and if you haven’t heard it, then I’ll say it — that when you listen to Rand Paul, you’re almost sure he’s crazy, but every third thing he says actually makes deep sense. His smash-hit “Stand with Rand” filibuster against our drone policy was actually a pretty liberal move, and personally I think it’s great that the debate over the rule of law and America’s ability to heal the ills in other countries has moved into the interior of the Republican establishment. As for Jeb (who like everyone else, has not said whether he’s running), the conventional wisdom is that America would never vote for another Bush. Really? Why? Seems to me like Jeb is a lot of things that no one else in the field is: open to education reform, for one, pro-immigrant, for two (he’s also fluent in Spanish and his wife is originally from Mexico) and just generally reasonable, for three. Would he have to tack drastically to the right to survive the Republican primary? Of course. But he should run anyway.
Meanwhile, the formidable, inspiring, loathed, loved Hillary Clinton will be running for president, too. Clinton has such a galvanizing effect on her supporters — they’ve already begun plastering the country with “Ready for Hillary” billboards and bumper stickers, just to let her know — that we often forget that she has a less-than-sterling track record as campaigner. She often speaks woodenly, can be destructively overreactive, and has a habit of surrounding herself with staff who spend more time fighting each other than fighting for their boss. She may get a challenger herself — possibly Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, or Joe Biden, or Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, or, delight of delights, progressive hero Elizabeth Warren. Latino voters, who made up such a critical voting bloc in the past two presidential cycles, may be feeling, rightly, that Democrats failed them on immigration reform: already, pro-immigration activists have made a habit of heckling Clinton (and her potential Republican opponents) during campaign speeches.
No matter what else happens, it is going to fascinating to watch her try to figure out how to talk about the Obama presidency, and her own huge role in it. Were we right or wrong not to help in Syria? Why does American persuasiveness seem so weak and ineffectual? Was Clintonianism better? Different? Should we return to it? In being forced to articulate this stuff, she may do more than anyone else to help figure out the as-yet unsettled question of what the Obama Era has meant. And then, if all goes according to plan, she’ll get the privilege of going head-to-head with the Republican nominee, in probably the nastiest and most expensive election in human history, live on television.
When the results came in Tuesday night, the Times put up an analysis piece called “President Obama Left Fighting for His Own Relevance.” I think that suggests a false tension. Whether Obama fades into the background or whether he emerges as a newly unfettered pugilist, he won’t really be the story anymore. Republicans have been clamoring for the spotlight, and all the responsibilities and expectations that go with it; you have to think that the president will be glad to cede it to them. No one has any idea what will happen over these crucial next two years. Republicans are going to have to govern, and Democrats are going to have to regroup. Both will have to prepare for the real death match, a year and a half from now. What’s left for the rest of us is the easy part: to watch, and just as important, to enjoy the show.