One Week after the Midterm, Three Reflections

Republicans have taken the House in a land-slide victory, swinging the most seats in decades and giving them a fairly healthy majority. They were less successful in the Senate, picking up seven seats (with Alaska) but made up for it with a strong showing in many gubernatorial races.

Those are the basic facts, but it the analysis of the results is a little less clear. Below, I join on the commentating bandwagon by providing my reflections on these results.

Reflection #1: Redistricting Doesn't Matter

One of the common themes of analysis that I have seen about these elections was redistricting - the decennial redrawing of congressional maps based on the U.S. census. Common wisdom has it that Republicans are in a position to lock in their majority for a decade or more by controlling more governor's mansions than Democrats. I believe that such wisdom is incorrect.

Redistricting does not happen in a vacuum. Even with minorities, Democrats do not lack a voice in the process, and they are going to scream if Republicans begin to systematically gerrymander on a wide scale. Given the current cynicism of the American voter, there is only so far that a partisan legislature can push the map before the controversy alone makes the advantage of the map moot. Moreover, both sides can even join forces to gerrymander together (hence why California has gone through elections without a single seat changing hands).

Does redistricting matter a little? Sure, there are always close seats that can take advantage of a few more neighborhoods to make the numbers safer. And given how close many districts are, redistricting may make the cost of running higher. But that hardly cements a single party for a decade.

Post-Analysis #2: Talent Matters

So what does matter? Talent. The loss of Sharron Angle (R-NV) and Christine O'Donnell (R-DE) should give Republicans pause as they consider the candidates they field for the 2012 elections. O'Donnell managed to take out a moderate Republican in the Delaware primary who was widely backed by the Republican establishment, while Angle managed to beat people far more qualified than her in the Nevada primary. In both cases, Republicans missed a crucial seat they needed to take the Senate (although to be fair, they certainly did not have much of a choice given the primary results).

Republicans must work on building creditable candidates who attract enough voters to propel them to victory. A case from the Democratic side is illustrative: Virginia is a difficult swing state for Democrats given its history and demographics. Despite success at the gubernatorial level and the buildup of voters in Beltway counties, the state remains a pale shade of red for much of its politics. Democrats did not run a left-winger in the 2006 senate election, but rather Jim Webb, Navy Secretary for Reagan and a strong proponent of gun rights. All it took was one macaca-moment and a seat held by a contender for the Republican nomination for president was knocked out.

Republicans need to expand the tent and run candidates with these kind of balanced backgrounds. They also need to fight back against Tea Party voters that would prefer to see the party lose a seat than to gain a moderate. Both houses of Congress could have been in control of the Republicans this term. My fear is that this failure will be repeated in the upcoming presidential race, and Republicans are going to nominate an Angle or O'Donnell to face against Obama. That event will not be pretty for those who like fair fights.

Post-Analysis #3: Math Doesn't Matter

Voters have sent a message to Washington this week that is very clear: less taxes, more spending, and cut the deficit. That message seemed to fit the math of the Republican Party, which believes that the government can be deficit-free by lowering taxes and cutting spending (just not to the four largest costs of the government).

I know there are many who blame voters for this kind of schizophrenia, but I have to say, I blame politicians more. Who doesn't want to vote for a candidate with superhuman budget powers? There has to be integrity from the candidates themselves in presenting proposals that are at minimum feasible.

I know that politicians can get more votes by dumbing down the rhetoric and presenting more digestible proposals. The problem is that it is a negative arms race, and it doesn't have to be this way. Both parties have excellent policy proposals, so why do they just emphasize their policy differences and let the voters decide? Why do they bother with made up numbers that don't even add? Politicians themselves need to set the example and emphasize their policies first (note: I have heard that hell was a little chilly this morning).

What's Next?

The election results are a drubbing for Democrats, but two more years of partisan gridlock is more than enough time to come back in 2012. Of course, American won't be better off, but we've hardly let that stop us these past few years. At least cable news shows will be operating in the black.