“The American people always make me optimistic” .. well .. why not?

Nov 3rd, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief

President Barack Obama sits courtside with VP Joe Biden at Georgetown vs. Duke basketball game, Verizon Center, DC, Saturday, January 30, 2010. He may not be quite so happy after the November 2010 midterm elections. But he’s still saying: “The American people always make me optimistic.” Loeb/Getty.

“America remains a place … where the shadow of disappointment always threatens to darken the day.” So wrote Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature at Stanford University in California, in the October 28, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books.”

On the old Frank Underhill theory that “practically all Canadians … vote Democratic in American elections” many in Canada will have acquired fresh understandings of  what Mr. Harrison means on November 3, 2010 — just after the first midterm elections faced by the Obama administration in the USA today.

US midterm elections every two years — focused at the federal level on re-electing the entire House of Representatives but only one-third of the Senate — are not as important as so-called presidential elections every four years (focused federally on the entire House of Representatives again, another one-third of the Senate, and the President). They typically attract considerably less than a majority of the voting-age population. And the president’s party typically does lose seats in Congress on these occasions.

Midterm elections, however, can have a big impact on the second half of a presidential term. The most recent notable case was the landslide in 1994, when opposing Republicans won 54 additional seats in the House of Representatives — and dramatically reshaped the second half of Democrat Bill Clinton’s first term in office.

Victorious Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., responds to supporters after speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010, in Las Vegas. Associated Press.

As reported by the Washington Post, now in 2010: “By Wednesday morning, Republican gains hit 60 seats. That wiped out all the gains that Democrats made in 2006 and 2008 and slid past the 54 seats the GOP achieved in its 1994 landslide.” And: “The new Republican majority [in the House] isn’t a narrow one either; in fact, it will be the party’s biggest in more than 60 years.”

On the other hand, it is also true enough that: “Republicans gained at least six Senate seats but were blocked from winning the 10 needed to take control of that chamber as Democrats held enough of their most endangered states … That meant that, for the first time in eight decades, the House changed hands without the Senate following suit.” In this sense: “Clinton’s electoral comeuppance” in 1994 “was worse” than Obama’s has proved in 2010. In Clinton’s case “Republicans won both the House and Senate at his first midterm.” And he nonetheless “recovered to win re-election two years later.”

* * * *

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., cheers as she takes the stage after being projected the winner Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill.

To take the perhaps three most talked-about Senate races: the once-cute alleged non-masturbating and “I-am-not-a-witch” tea-party queen Christine O’Donnell lost to Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware, by a tidy margin of 40% to 57%  ; in California long-time Democrat incumbent Barbara Boxer beat back a challenge from big-campaign-spending and alleged business guru Carly Fiorina, by another tidy margin of 52% to 42% ; and in Nevada the supposedly hard-pressed Democrat Senate majority leader Harry Reid finally triumphed over another much lionized tea-party queen Sharron Angle, by a convincing enough margin of 50% to 45%.

(In Nevada: “Dudley Winn, one of 16 Republicans from Lubbock, Texas, who came up to campaign for Angle … wore one of the night’s ubiquitous Angle victory buttons, and a rainbow-patterned button that said ‘Man Up, Harry Reid.’ The reference to Angle’s jab at the majority leader in their only televised debate was missed by no one … Winn came to Nevada, he said, because this was really the only election he cared about … ‘You have no idea what it means to Texas if Angle wins!’ he says. ‘This matters more than all the other races.’” Happily enough for “practically all Canadians,” Ms. Angle lost. Now maybe some Vegas entrepreneur will come up with a button that says “Shemale up Sharrron,” or something like that!)

At the same time, none of this should or does obscure the lamentable magnitude of what President Obama himself has described as the “shellacking” he and his party have taken in the 2010 midterm elections. And with US conservative pundits offering such wild immediate post-election musings as the once more sensible George Will has in his “Voters reject Obama and unlimited government,” contemplating what may or may not lie ahead is bound to be at least something of a distressing experience — for anyone who is not an extreme right-wing partisan.

Ultimately victorious Democrat candidate for California governor, Jerry Brown, casts his ballot at Oakland Fire Station No. 6, on Tuesday, November 2, 2010. Photo: Mike Kepka / The Chronicle.

(And if the deepest truth be known, it does seem at the moment, even only somewhat sensible rigorous right-wing partisans ought to be worried too? If someone like George Will really thinks that Barack Obama’s quite cautious and at best “centre or moderate progressive” policies of the past two years can be seriously described as driven by some belief in “unlimited government,” what does that say about the all-important realism of political debate in the USA today?  What does it say about America’s ability to see where it is going in our challenging times, and take effective steps to move in directions that will work, for the great democratic majority? And, whatever it says, shouldn’t that seriously alarm the rest of us, in other very friendly parts of the global village, who, like it or not, are depending on America to lead us all into some clearing in the current forest of economic and all too many other related forms of gloom and doom?)

* * * *

I certainly cannot pretend to any deep or even shallow insight about the future here myself. I can only offer quotations from what I hope are wiser (and somewhat calmer?) minds.

Ultimately victorious Democrat candidate for New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, smiles during a last-minute rally, Monday, Nov. 1, 2010. AP Photo/Seth Wenig.

To start with the darker side of the picture, consider the conclusion to Paul Krugman’s October 31, 2010 column in the New York Times: “More and more voters, both here and in Europe, are convinced that what we need is not more stimulus but more punishment. Governments must tighten their belts; debtors must pay what they owe … The irony is that in their determination to punish the undeserving, voters are punishing themselves: by rejecting fiscal stimulus and debt relief, they’re perpetuating high unemployment. They are, in effect, cutting off their own jobs to spite their neighbors … But they don’t know that. And because they don’t, the slump will go on.”

In a somewhat similar spirit is a view from across the pond in what is at least geographically Europe, by John Gray in the October 21, 2010 issue of the London Review of Books. As crucial background here, note that the United Kingdom already has a government that is doing something quite a lot like what the Republicans are saying they want to see happen in the United States. [Remember Margaret Thatcher, who actually came into office before Ronald Regan?] Mr. Gray begins: “At a time of economic uncertainty, deep cuts in public spending can only be an enormous gamble. Despite confident assertions by [UK finance minister] George Osborne, no one can really know what the result will be.” To further complicate the picture, back in the USA: “The collapse in Obama’s popularity is likely to result in the Democrats losing control of one or both branches of Congress. [We now know it is just one, but that is still enough.] Trapped by its archaic and dysfunctional system of government, the US will then be gridlocked. The global economy will continue to drift, and any recovery in Britain will fall away. The situation will be worse if Chinese-American relations founder and China declines to continue funding the US at the level it has done in the past. In that case the crisis will intensify, with results that are unpredictable.”

It is of course always wrong to always dwell on the worse that could happen. As various commentators have noted over the past several weeks, there could be some advantages to a Republican majority in the House of Representatives over the next two years, from various points of view (including the re-election of President Obama in 2012!). And as parliamentary democrats in Canada can sometimes see, the US system of government is not always as “archaic and dysfunctional” as parliamentary democrats in the United Kingdom sometimes imagine.

Massachusetts Democratic Governor Deval Patrick and his wife, Diane, celebrate Patrick's re-election at a victory party in Boston, 2 November 2010. Photograph: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer.

I start here with the immediate post-election reaction of the Washington Post’s resident progressive guru, E.J. Dionne Jr.: “Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared recently that ‘the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.’ [Remember Jimmy Carter etc — or the elder George Bush?] What he said was absolutely true. Republicans and Obama will have to get things done together, but there can now be no pretending to an impossible level of bipartisanship … Conservatives believe in freedom for the corporate sector, in limiting what the federal government does and in tax cuts for the best-off. Progressives believe in a government that promotes modestly more equality, regulates business in the public interest and sees public action as promoting American competitiveness. This election didn’t change that. It is a setback for progressives, not a permanent defeat. They took real losses but held their own in the Senate and in key governors’ races. The real showdown takes place in two years — and with the electorate equally disapproving of both Republicans and Democrats, that battle is wide open.”

The very last word belongs to President Obama himself — at his immediate post-election press conference in Washington today:“The American people always make me optimistic.”

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