11.02.10

A Democratic Bloodbath

Yes, the Democrats managed to hold onto the Senate. But they lost their monopoly on power—and the debate about the scope of government. Howard Kurtz on Tuesday night’s toll.

Despite Murkowski likely winning a write-in upset in Alaska, Democrats held onto the Senate. But they lost their monopoly on power—and the debate about the scope of government. Howard Kurtz on Tuesday night’s toll.

Put aside the sound bites and the spin: The Democrats got whipped yesterday.

The Republican takeover of the House is no less dramatic for having been predicted by every two-bit pundit on the planet. A pickup of nearly 60 seats is a toss-the-bums-out election by any standard.

And while the Dems managed to hang onto control of the Senate, that was always the most likely outcome unless every single domino fell in the GOP’s direction.

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There were a few bright spots for President Obama’s party: Joe Manchin winning the Senate race in West Virginia, Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown prevailing in California, Harry Reid hanging on in Nevada. The MSNBC crowd had a good laugh over Christine O’Donnell, who drew an absurd amount of media coverage, losing in Delaware by 17 points. (It was odd that she asked Chris Coons to back some of her positions during a concession call. It doesn’t work that way.)

But the Democrats wake up Wednesday morning having lost their monopoly on the levers of power and, for the moment, having lost the national argument over the size and scope of government. And the GOP has hatched some new stars, including Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley.

It’s been clear all year that the Republicans have been riding a tide of disaffection with Obama and the anemic economy. They gained enormous traction with a largely negative message, vowing to stop Obama’s agenda and attempt to roll it back, and with an insurgency fueled by Tea Party anger and abetted by disaffected Democrats.

The Democratic leadership has seemed almost in denial, with now-deposed Speaker Nancy Pelosi telling reporters late Tuesday afternoon that “we’re on pace to maintain the majority in the House of Representatives.” That statement was inoperative within hours.

The media chatter the day after will center on whether the Democrats averted a tsunami and were merely struck by a strong hurricane. But the coulda-been-worse argument is pointless at the moment. When a Russ Feingold loses, you know that public sentiment has turned against you.

The Democrats wake up Wednesday morning having lost their monopoly on the levers of power and, for the moment, having lost the national argument over the size and scope of government.

Exit polls confirmed what we already sensed. Eighty-six percent say they’re worried about the direction of the economy in the next year, and four in 10 say they’re worse off financially than two years ago (recalling the old Reagan debate line).

About four in 10 support the Tea Party movement—and, guess what, they voted overwhelmingly for the GOP. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed say they’re angry, 47 percent merely dissatisfied.

Only a quarter blame Obama for the ailing economy—but about half think his policies are hurting the country. Fifty-six percent say the government is doing too much.

What more, really, do you need to know?

When John Boehner takes the speaker’s gavel and controls the flow of legislation, it will fundamentally alter the second half of Obama’s first term. The result will be either absolute gridlock or a grudging cooperation, if the two sides choose to make a few Clintonian deals during the positioning for 2012.

On the plus side, the president will have a foil, someone to blame for lack of progress. But make no mistake: the activist phase of Obama’s presidency is over and he will be fighting a rear-guard action to preserve his health care plan and other priorities.

Whatever the post-game rationales, this was a historic smackdown of the nation’s first African-American president, a stunning decline for the man who embodied hope, change and the gauzy vision of a post-racial, post-partisan future. Even White House officials stopped pretending months ago that this was anything other than a referendum, much as they tried to make it about the party from which they inherited an economic mess. With White House aides having remained mum last night, it falls to Obama to signal his direction in a news conference Wednesday.

The Republican victory ended a brief, four-year House reign for the Democrats, who seemed poised for a long run after ousting the GOP, which had controlled both chambers for a dozen years.

We could be in for a volatile period where the House swings back and forth between the parties as voters vent their frustrations on whoever is in charge. Or the Republicans could learn from their past mistakes and, despite their no-compromise rhetoric, avoid the temptation to overreach.

Obama was always going to face a difficult midterm because he brought with him a bunch of moderate and conservative Democrats in what would normally be GOP districts. With the smaller turnout of a non-presidential year, some of those new lawmakers were certain to get tossed out. But high unemployment and Obama’s own stumbles magnified what might have been acceptable losses.

Boehner, in his victory speech, called the vote “a repudiation of Washington” and “a repudiation of big government.” He called on Obama to “change course” and declared that “ to the extent he’s willing to do that, we’re willing to work with him”—not exactly a full-throated offer of cooperation.

Boehner choked back tears as he described how he started out in Ohio, as one of 12 children, mopping floors and working rotten jobs. But it’s the Democrats who should be drying their eyes. The once-glittering promise of Obama has faded, and the party’s road back looks rather steep.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.