Frank Rich on the National Circus: Dispirited America Votes for Change, Gives Up on Hope

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WEST DES MOINES, IA - NOVEMBER 04:  Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst takes the stage on election night after being projected as the winner at the Marriott Hotel November 4, 2014 in West Des Moines, Iowa. Ernst is projected to have defeated opponent Democrat Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) after both were locked in a months-long campaign battle that had them tied in the polls going into election day.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Senator elect Joni Ernst makes 'em squealPhoto: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: The GOP’s midterm triumph, and what it means for the President, Congress, and the 2016 race.

The Republican Party triumphed in yesterday’s midterm elections, taking back control of the Senate (with seats to spare), solidifying its House majority, and prevailing in nearly all the tight gubernatorial races. Was this completely a repudiation of President Obama? Merely a consequence of an unfavorable map that featured a critical mass of red- and purple-state Democrats? Or have reports of the GOP’s demographic apocalypse been greatly exaggerated?
This deeply dispirited country wanted to throw the bums in power out, and the bums in power were the Democrats, led by the bum-in-chief President Obama. The electorate’s message could not have been more clear: Having soured on hope and change, Americans voted for change without hope.

Sure, the 2014 map favored the GOP, and so did the traditional midterm turnout, heavy on the white and the old and light on minorities and the young. And the Republicans’ demographic apocalypse remains on track as the country gets younger and more Hispanic. But that will hardly be a panacea for the Democrats’ ills. You can’t fight something with nothing. We know what the right stands for. What do the Democrats stand for? If the GOP’s only overriding strategy was to run against Obama, the Democrats’ only coherent national message was to run away from Obama, including his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. It’s only on social issues that the Democratic party has a clear profile, and as was seen last night most spectacularly in Mark Udall’s defeat in Colorado, running a narrowcasting campaign focused on the GOP “war on women” is not a blueprint for victory.

At least there is one outcome from last night that may inspire bipartisan agreement: Scott Brown’s ability to lose in this Republican blowout was awesome, though not in a good way.

After the GOP won big in the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama said that he’d taken a “shellacking,” admitted he might have been out of touch with voters, and vowed to work more with Republicans. So far, word out of the White House is that the president “doesnt feel repudiated,” and that he’s planning to aggressively defend his record and push forward on his initiatives. Will the president find room to work? Or will the next two years feel like one long government shutdown?
I expect Obama will strike a more conciliatory tone, which (often to a fault) is his true nature. Last night he made the pointed gesture of placing a congratulatory phone call to Tom Cotton, the Republican who unseated the Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas. Mitch McConnell, in his victory speech, also struck a kinder, gentler tone — especially for a man whose professed goal has been to bring down the Obama presidency. He had to, needless to say. Now that the Republicans have won Washington, they own it, and if it continues to be broken, they’ll be punished next time. As the maxim goes, they have to prove they can govern. Or prove they can do something other than bitch and moan. The shelf life of all Obama-hatred all the time as a party message expired this morning.

But the real story of what will happen in Congress over the next two years is likely to have less to do with either the president or the new Senate majority leader than with the GOP’s radicals on the right. The most misleading morning-after-the-election story line is that the Republicans triumphed because the Establishment struck back and shut down the crazy gaffe-prone candidates who have dogged the GOP in the past two cycles: no candidate was talking about “legitimate rape” or denying that she was a witch this time around. But the reality is that the radicals increased their power yesterday. Take two of the stars among the newly elected GOP Senate class. The aforementioned Tom Cotton has floated the notion that there is a collaboration between the Islamic State and “drug cartels in Mexico.” Joni Ernst, the Republican victor in Iowa, is against a Federal minimum wage, wants to outlaw gay marriage and abortion, has called for impeaching Obama, and has signed on to a nutty conspiracy theory warning that the United Nations has plans to prevent people from living in suburbs and using gas-fueled cars.

The shadow leader of Republicans in the Senate remains Ted Cruz, who campaigned for Ernst and other new Republican senators such as David Purdue (Georgia) and Dan Sullivan (Alaska). He has announced that he will once again “pursue every means possible to repeal Obamacare,” has refused to pledge support to McConnell, takes a Draconian line on immigration, and has every incentive to remain an obstructionist firebrand as he plots a 2016 presidential campaign. In House races, at least five new tea-party-right members have been added to the already unruly Republican caucus. The two most controversial and hard-line exponents of conservative governance in the states, Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Sam Brownback (Kansas), won reelection. The 2014 election was also a huge victory for the Koch Brothers, who this time spent their money well and effectively. The same cannot be said of the Democratic fat cat and climate-change-activist Tom Steyer, whose PAC millions produced close to naught. In Silicon Valley, the deep-pocketed tech team of Eric Schmidt, Marissa Mayer, and Marc Andreessen joined together to back a pro-disruption Democratic challenger to the pre-digital Democratic incumbent, Mike Honda, who nonetheless was reelected handily.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul used the midterms as an opportunity to throw the first punch of the 2016 Presidential race, saying that the GOP victories were not only a “repudiation basically of the president’s policies, but also Hillary Clinton.” That would be an awfully convenient truth for Paul and the GOP. Does his claim have any merit? And, more broadly, how do you see yesterday’s results affecting the opening stage of the 2016 election?
The fundamentals remain the same. A voting population more favorable to Democrats, a free-for-all among Republicans, and a Democratic party that has a poor bench of potential national candidates. To return to my point above: The question of what Democrats stand for (social issues aside) can have a finer point — what does Hillary Clinton stand for? The fact that she has no credible challengers within the party is far from a good thing. There was nothing about her book-tour campaign rollout to suggest that she is any more nimble in dealing with unexpected developments now than she was in 2008.

It remains a Republican Establishment hope that a “mainstream” candidate — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or (however absurdly) Mitt Romney — will triumph come primary season and restore the White House to the GOP. I just don’t see a second coming for Bush Republicanism. This party’s base wants what it wants, and the most formidable choice on the right remains Rand Paul. One thing that separates him from other GOP presidential hopefuls, as I’ve said before, is that he has never made a cause out of vilifying Obama — a plus in a general election. He is not a McCain–Lindsey Graham–Christie-Bush hawk on foreign policy. He actually tries to speak to black people. He is already trying to rattle Hillary and may well prove expert at that. To most Democrats, he is a preposterous radical — as indeed many of his positions are. But stranger people have succeeded in American politics. A cautious Clinton campaign standing for little in particular and distancing itself from Barack Obama could yet be vulnerable, just as such a Democratic campaign proved this year.