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How Big Is the Republican Victory?

The Republicans scored a huge victory in yesterday’s elections. Right now it looks like they will pick up around 65 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate. That’s more seats than they picked up in 1994 and or in any other election in the last 70 years. It’s also enough to give them their largest majority in the House since 1928. It’s not enough to allow them to control the Senate, even if Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) were to switch sides and caucus with them. But since Democrats will have to defend more than twice as many Senate seats as Republicans in the next election, it does give Republicans a good chance to retake the Senate in 2012. The Republican strategy of distancing themselves from the previous administration and making it difficult for the Democrats to accomplish much in Congress worked well. And the Republicans deserve credit for rebounding from their resounding defeat in 2008, when the party appeared to be in total disarray.

But the election almost certainly isn’t the beginning of a long-term shift back toward the Republicans. As bright as the Democrats' political prospects may have seemed two years ago, winning this election was never going to be easy for them. The President’s party usually suffers a defeat in midterm elections, as reality sets in and his supporters realize he won’t accomplish everything they hoped. The size of the swing back toward the Republicans has something to do with the size of the swing toward the Democrats two years ago. Dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and enthusiasm for Obama meant the Democrats were able to win seats in generally conservative districts, which were always going to be tough for them to recapture in an ordinary year. Most significantly, the Democrats had to take responsibility for failing to fix an economic crisis they didn’t create and almost certainly couldn’t resolve in two years.

In any case, as I have argued, this election wasn’t so much a referendum on Obama as an expression of the nation’s frustration with Congress and its inability to fix the sputtering economy. Although Republicans won the House—and managed to win the national vote for the House by a 6.7 point margin—their new majority in the House isn’t as large as the Democrats' majority in 2008. The truth is that although they won the election, Republicans aren’t terribly popular either—in September, Gallup found that just 32% of Americans approved of the job Republicans are doing in Congress. In fact, more Americans consider themselves Democrats than Republicans. Republicans won this election anyway because Republican voters turned out in huge numbers, while Democratic voters didn’t. But that "enthusiasm gap" is unlikely to persist. And, as I have also argued, long-term demographic trends—the country is becoming less white, less rural, and less Christian, and older voters are dying off—work against the Republicans.

What the election probably does mean is that not very much is going to get done in Congress for the next two years. As Ezra Klein writes, this election was probably the worst outcome if you wanted a functioning Congress:

Republicans don't fully control Congress, so they don't have enough power to be blamed for legislative outcomes. But Democrats don't control the House and they don't have a near-filibuster proof majority in the Senate, so they can't pass legislation. Republicans, in other words, are not left with the burden of governance, and Democrats are not left with the power to govern.

As Klein says, this will be “a time of implementation for the White House, oversight for the House, and paralysis for the Senate.” And, in the end, the main fight in Congress will probably not be over what to do, but over who deserves the blame for its inability to do anything.

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