The right role for the lame-duck Congress
The term of art that has been agreed upon for the voting that remade our politics this month is "wave election."
That's not a bad description. It summons a picture of a large swell of water, rolling in from seemingly all directions and depositing its energy on the shore in the form of hundreds of scattered individual victories. An election in which at least 60 House seats and 600 state legislative seats changed hands can certainly be called a wave.
But I think a better depiction is that it was a "swerve election." That term puts us on a highway, not a beach, and it suggests what happens when your car is flowing along in the stream of traffic and suddenly leaps across lanes, finding itself facing oncoming vehicles. It is scary at first and disorienting, and it requires immediate adjustment.
This is where the White House finds itself. At his first news conference since the returns came in, President Obama was characteristically rational, analytical and in command of his emotions. As the extent of the swerve sank in, the sense of panic grew.
There was visible discontent at the White House when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she would stay on as minority leader in the next Congress. It was plain that the president's men had ticketed her for the role of sacrificial victim. They clobbered us, so give them Nancy to appease them - that appeared to be the plan.
But with both Pelosi and Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid returning to their leadership posts, it is clearer than ever that adjusting to the dramatically different environment will require action by Obama himself - and soon after he returns from his Asia tour.
The first test will be posed by the lame-duck session of Congress. Is it legitimate for people who have been voted out of office to attempt to make policy for those who remain?
Here is a way of thinking about that question: The legislative power that was handed to a member two years or more ago and then abruptly withdrawn by the voters cannot be seriously considered a mandate for future action.
This means that those senators and representatives who failed to win reelection on Nov. 2 ought to step back and refrain from pushing their own ideas when Congress reconvenes. The agenda should be set by those - both Republicans and Democrats - who have just won fresh grants of authority from the voters. Mind you, that would include not just John Boehner and Mitch McConnell but also Pelosi and Reid.
But I would argue that it is legitimate and appropriate to consider the real lame ducks, those who will be disappearing come January, as a kind of jury that can judge the worth of the ideas that returning colleagues put forward in the next few weeks.
You could argue that their credentials have been rejected by the voters. But I think it is also proper to think of them as relatively disinterested and informed observers, well equipped to pass judgment on the work of others.
A Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, voted out in the massive upheaval that took place in his state, would lean over backward not to be or appear vindictive in his votes in this last session in which he will participate. Similarly, Mike Castle of Delaware was ambushed in the Republican Senate primary and won't be back. But I would certainly trust him to be the same independent, thoughtful legislator he has always been.
There is a role for everyone, if these members will give some thought to the process.