Once again, the electorate demanded a new start

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 12:56 AM

There is no blunter way for voters to send a message. For the third election in a row, Americans kicked a political party out of power.

So you would think that, by now, politicians in Washington would have gotten the message: They must be doing something wrong.

From the moment they lift their right hands to take the oath of office, lawmakers are now on notice that their hard-won power may be short-lived.

"Let's start right now by recognizing this is not a time for celebration," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumed speaker-to-be, declared in his victory speech. "This is a time to roll up our sleeves and go to work."

In 2006, both chambers of Congress changed hands, from Republican to Democratic. In 2008, control of the White House followed, and this year, the GOP has won back the House.

Incumbency is no longer the protection it once was, particularly in districts where the balance between the two parties is close. Among the hardest-hit in Tuesday's election were first- and second-term House Democrats whose elections two and four years ago were heralded as the beginning of a new era for the party.

Such rapid reversals, particularly in the House, are relatively new in modern U.S. politics. It took four decades of Democratic control before voters turned over the House to Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and his band of Republican revolutionaries in 1994. A mere 12 years after that, Democrats won back control. And now, just four years later, Republicans have seized it again.

Voters, GOP pollster Bill McInturff said, "are going to keep throwing people out until they get it right."

Congress has never been a popular institution, but Americans have generally had a favorable view of their own individual representatives.

No longer. The past three elections have created the kind of successive upheavals in Congress that haven't been seen in more than half a century.

And the jubilation that Republicans are feeling about Tuesday's election results, which also brought GOP gains in the Senate and in state races down the ballot, is tempered by the knowledge that voters don't hold them in particularly high regard, either.

As Florida senator-elect Marco Rubio, an early tea party favorite, put it in his victory speech, the election was not an "embrace of the Republican Party" but a "second chance."

But a chance at what?

This election was less a mandate for Republican ideas than a brake on Obama's.

Recent history suggests that for the GOP, the risk of overreaching is at least as great as that of not doing enough. Gingrich learned that the hard way, when Republicans defiantly shut down the government in a budget standoff with Bill Clinton - and opened the way for Clinton's political resurrection.

In the next two years, the test for both parties will be how well they handle the economic recovery.

Though the economy was at the top of voters' concerns, the Obama administration invested much of its energy - and political capital - in transforming the health-care system, making an unsuccessful attempt to pass climate change legislation and in grappling with such crises as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Those diversions cost the Democrats dearly. An early read of exit polls suggests that voters who were most worried about the economy were also the ones who swung the hardest in favor of the GOP.

And while Democrats argued that the bailout of the financial system and their economic stimulus package helped prevent an even worse catastrophe, the election results showed they never convinced voters of that.

Governance - and particularly building consensus on tough and complicated challenges - can be painstaking and require a degree of trust between the parties that is not likely to be restored anytime soon.

The Democratic caucus that will return to Capitol Hill in January is likely to be more liberal than before, after some of its most moderate and conservative members were wiped out Tuesday.

And in the tea party, Republicans must grapple with a new political force for whom compromise is seen as a problem, not a solution.

Particularly when it comes to spending, the safest vote for a Republican incumbent will be "no" - or the risk will be a primary challenge similar to the ones that upended the GOP political order this year in places such as Alaska, Delaware, Kentucky and Utah.

Another challenge for both parties is that even as voters are demanding solutions, they are feeling a growing skepticism about the role and reach of government.

When Obama was elected, a slim majority told exit pollsters that they thought the government should do more to solve their problems. But most of those surveyed in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll said they prefer a smaller government that does less.

Moreover, there is now a stronger sense in the GOP that Obama could be more vulnerable in 2012, which means that the presidential campaign will begin in earnest almost immediately and that the parties will be more focused on drawing blood than on looking for places where they can agree.

In his final e-mail message to supporters before Tuesday's election, the president once again argued that his administration has delivered, and he pleaded for voters to allow more time for his policies to work.

"This movement was never just about one election," Obama wrote. "It was about building a movement for change that endures. It's about understanding that, in America, anything is possible if we are willing to work for it and fight for it - and most of all, believe in it."

But he also signaled that Democrats have been chastened - and will wake up Wednesday "ready to focus on the business of keeping this country moving forward. That is a calling that requires patience and humility."

Obama is scheduled to hold a day-after news conference in an effort to regain control of the political narrative and to seize what leverage he can in a city where the political landscape has been transformed.

In 1995, after Democrats lost both the House and Senate, Clinton faced the same thing. He was reduced to declaring that he was still relevant.

Obama hasn't reached that point. But his days of muscling through an ambitious legislative agenda on strength of Democratic votes is over.

His best hope is to convince Republicans that they now share with him the responsibility to govern.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company