Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reining in the excesses

I agree with George Will's analysis of the Massachusetts special election, as far as it goes. But, in listing some historical parallels, he only tells only one side of the story.

Yes, I'm a Republican, and yes, I'm happy about Scott Brown's victory. But the Democrats are not the only party that voters have reined in, when, in the opinion of the middle-ground of the electorate, a party has acted in an extremist and/or arrogant manner.

In 1974, the Democrats won a huge mid-term landslide, as voters reacted to what they considered arrogance on the part of the resigned Republican President Richard Nixon.

After the Republicans' 1994 mid-term victory, to which Will alludes, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies started acting on the assumption that the American people were ready to overturn everything that Democratic-majority Congresses had done since the 1930s. That was a case of overreaching. While the Republicans maintained their House majority for 12 years, and nearly continuously maintained their Senate majority for the same period, they were never able to significantly expand those majorities. And Republican nominee Bob Dole suffered a near-landslide defeat in the 1996 presidential election.

Then, in 1998, when the House impeached President Bill Clinton on a near-party-line vote, there was again a widespread perception that the Republicans were overreaching. The mid-term elections that year, which were held while the impeachment proceedings were underway, should have gone well for the Republicans. Mid-term elections six years into a party's hold on the White House had gone badly for the president's party in 1938, 1958, 1966, 1974 and 1986. That trend, combined with the scandal involving the Democratic president, might have allowed the Republicans to expand their narrow congressional majorities. Instead, the Democrats gained five House seats, and neither party made any net gain in the Senate. Hardly a Democratic landslide, but clearly, I think, a repudiation of congressional Republicans.

Most recently, in 2006, Democrats regained majorities in both houses of Congress, in reaction to perceived extremism on the part of Republican President George W. Bush, especially in the foreign policy arena.

In light of all that, I don't think that Republicans should necessarily read Tuesday's election result to mean that voters, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, are ready to sign on to every plank of the Tea Party platform.

Democrats from President Obama on down acknowledge that the House and Senate health care bills are dead. But they plan to try to enact some of those bills' provisions. Brown himself has said that the federal government should take some action to improve the health care system. I concurred, here and here.

The American political system is reasonably efficient in bringing things back to a middle ground with which the bulk of the electorate is satisfied. That middle ground involves bigger government than I would like to see. Ideally a new Great Communicator would emerge, to explain the advantages of limited government. Such a person can shift the middle ground a bit. But, for better or worse, the voters never seem to want too big a shift.

No comments: