My predictions from yesterday came out pretty close in the Senate (with Democrats keeping 51 seats to the GOP's 46, and 3 undecided so far) and I'd underestimated the GOP House total by 11 seats. The spin has begun already--Tea Partiers are going to take credit for providing the enthusiasm and energy for the GOP pickups, and some of their annointed candidates have won (Toomey in PA, Rubio in FL). They will try and downplay the fact that they also gave up at least two easy Senate pickups in Nevada and Delaware.
Sarah Palin will try and take credit for much of this, because that is the sort of person she is. Will she be dumb enough to run for President? I doubt it, since it's much easier to sit on the sidelines and get paid a lot of money and not have to answer pesky reporters' questions about whether she reads. But there will surely be a "Tea Party" contender for the nomination and likely that insurgent group will influence the 2012 primary.
Also, the legislative gridlock will ensure that the only things that can get passed in the next two years will require an overwhelming lack of controversy. No hard decisions will be made on cutting federal spending or reforming the tax system--the Bush tax cuts will likely expire at the end of this year (little chance of a lame duck session doing anything about that) meaning every taxpayer will be hit by some form of increase during a recession. The regulatory burdens on businesses are likely to remain. The GOP will have to contend with Tea Party pressure in a way that they didn't have to when they were in the distinct minority. And Obama is going to have to learn to deal with these people.
What did we learn from this election season?
1) Crazy works in crazy times, but sometimes there's such a thing as "too crazy". Sharron Angle ran against perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent in the country--Harry Reid--in a state that has a 14% unemployment rate and is itching to throw out the bum. But she consistently came across as a fundamentalist nut, and crossed the line with racially incendiary ads aimed at Hispanics. She turned out to be just too much for Nevada's voters.
2) Party switching comes back to bite you. Pennsylvania's Arlen Spector switched to the Democrats last year and ended up losing the primary to a more liberal candidate--Joe Sestak--who in turn went on to lose against the Tea Party favorite, Pat Toomey. Charlie Crist in Florida went from being a potential GOP running mate for John McCain (before McCain went and picked the most unqualified person in the country) to dropping out of his own party's primary for the U.S. Senate to run as an independent. He was then blown out of the water by the eventual GOP nominee, Marco Rubio.
3) Proudly embracing Obama's agenda won't help in swing districts. Leading up to the campaign, liberals argued that the most endangered Democrats would be those who ran away from the party's agenda and tried to triangulate. To be sure, a number of those "blue dogs" did lose, as the independents and GOP voters were energized and eager to "dump Pelosi" and replace their moderate Democrats with conservative Republicans. But Democrats in swing districts who tried the alternate approach--embracing Obama and his record--found themselves defeated as well, such as Tom Perriello and Gerry Connolly of Virginia. It's damned if you do, damned if you don't, this year in swing districts.
4) It's a 50-50 nation. That is, this country is about evenly divided among those leaning liberal and those leaning conservative. So when one party takes power, they'd be well advised to consider that if they try and push an agenda that leans too far towards their own base, they're going to (a) energize the opposing base and (b) alienate moderates/independents. The GOP learned this in the past decade, when they had the White House and all of Congress. Obama and Pelosi made the same mistake this time around. And politics being what it is, the GOP is likely to do the same thing yet again. Governing from the center is really the only way to hold power for a long time. (Of course, one could also argue that there is no point in having power if you don't use it--but just don't expect to hold power for much longer than that if you have that attitude). It is overreach that explains why Americans usually prefer divided government.
5) The economy is still the defining issue here. With official unemployment at 9.6% (and if having been over 9% for almost two years), housing values still in the toilet, and sluggish GDP growth, the mood in this country is still grim. Could Obama and company have had better results if they'd spent more time working out a more effective and perhaps popular stimulus plan (such as my plan--just write checks directly to the taxpayers, no strings attached, to pump money into the economy)? Would it have helped if the health care reform plan were put on the backburner, while direct attention to economic growth was focused? It's hard to say, even with hindsight. But the same issue that burned the GOP two years ago remains to burn the in-party.