For the GOP and the tea party, tonight's lengthy list of victories is as good as it gets. For the next two years, they'll be trapped in the same leaky ship as Obama, facing the same pressures to compromise. The demands from the public will be simple: grow the economy, or go away.
But for now, the map is blood-red. At 9:12, Fox News projected that the Republicans were taking back the House of Representatives, predicting a net gain of 60 seats. At 12:39, projection became reality, as Republicans seized their 53rd new seat and took the majority. Good-bye to Democrats in states that Obama stole from Republican hands in 2008: Baron Hill, gone in Indiana; Alan Grayson the firebrand, routed in Florida; Glenn Nye, veteran Rick Boucher, and Obama favorite Tom Periello, all now without jobs in Virginia.
There were Democrats that voted for health care, the stimulus, and cap and trade; there were Democrats that voted against one or all of the above. No matter what they did, they lost. The Republican wave crashed down everywhere but the deepest-blue regions of the country, taking down the liberal senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and centrist congressmen like budget committee chairman John Spratt of South Carolina.
The worst news for Democrats came in places where President Obama, unions, and the national party had plowed tons of resources. In Ohio, Republican John Kasich knocked Ted Strickland out of the governor's mansion despite a last-minute Obama visit. In Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey held off former Representative Joe Sestak's furious rally in the race for Arlen Specter's old Senate seat and Republican Tom Corbett snagged the opening left by retiring governor Ed Rendell. This means that in November 2012, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan will all have Republican governors, depriving Obama of the centrist validators and political machines that he used to push his campaign over the hump in those states in 2008.
When Fox News first announced the Republican victory, they turned to Sarah Palin, sitting in the studio. "It really isn't a surprise," she said. She's right: Republicans took back the House, and swing states swung to the right. But Democrats could point to some cold comforts: They will hold on to the Senate by a thread. Republican Mark Kirk won Obama's old seat in Illinois with an assist from the lefties in the Green Party, but the GOP couldn't make inroads in Connecticut, New York, or California. Democrats locked down the governors' mansions in Massachusetts, Colorado, New York (again), and California (again). And Harry Reid lives to fight another day.
Election Night's results were easy to see coming. The real surprise will come in January, when Speaker John Boehner pounds his gavel, the committee chairmen take over the hearing rooms, and the tea-party caucus makes the few remaining Republican moderates wish for the ideologues of the old days. "I will never let you down," said Boehner, the savvy career insider, at a tea-party rally in Ohio. It is difficult to imagine scenarios for the next two years that will let him keep that promise.
In his victory speech in Washington, he pledged to cut spending. He twice warned "it is not a time for celebration," while trying to place the onus for any future failure on the White House doorstep. "We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people," he said. "Make no mistake, the president will find in our new majority the voice of the American people as they expressed it tonight."
And what is that voice? Rand Paul, the tea party standard-bearer and senator-elect from Kentucky, didn't mention the word recession in his victory speech. He referred to America's "debt crisis," painting a picture of a government that was just trying too damn hard. "The American people want to know why we have to balance our budget, and [government] don't," he said. "Do we wish to live free or be enslaved by debt?"
Even Democratic West Virginia governor Joe Manchin's victory in the special election for Robert Byrd's old Senate seat was framed as a repudiation of Obama, with Republicans claiming Manchin would vote with them so he could keep his seat in 2012. The Senate map in 2012 looks much less favorable for Democrats, which means that the fearful grip of the centrists in at least one party will get even more white-knuckled.
"Republicans cannot afford to compromise on principles, or in two years, you're gonna see a reversal on this," said analyst Sarah Palin. John Boehner: Get ready for life in her shadow. President Obama: Get ready for subpoenas. Americans: Get ready for gridlock.