WASHINGTON -- With midterm election returns beginning to come in, Republicans are expanding their majority in the House of Representatives and picking up seats in the Senate, as voters register their anger with the direction and structure of the economy.
Attitudes measured in exit polls were negative in the extreme, with eight in 10 saying they were dissatisfied by the performance of Congress and 54 percent giving the thumbs down to President Barack Obama. A potent majority was unhappy with the U.S. economic system itself, with nearly two-thirds of voters saying it's unfair and favors the wealthy and only 32 percent saying it's fair to most people, a shift even since 2012. (One percent deemed the economy "excellent.")
Insecurity and fear, leading motivators of voters, have been in abundant supply over the past several years, exacerbated over the summer by the sudden rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and an Ebola outbreak that has captivated world attention.
Ahead of the election, John Cornyn of Texas, the number two Republican in the Senate and the next majority whip if the GOP takes control, laid out the politics in crisp terms. "It’s not as though people have all a sudden fallen in love with Republicans,” Cornyn said. “It’s just a loss of confidence in the administration. It’s national security, personal security and job security. People are on edge. And that’s not good if you’re the party in power."
It's a curious political system, in which midterm elections are a referendum on a president who is not himself on the ballot. And the vote is merely advisory, as the system includes no mechanism to translate the results on Election Day into legislative action. Though Tuesday's vote is widely seen as a condemnation against a sagging economy, there is close to zero political energy for economic stimulus.
Tuesday's election was also noteworthy for its remarkable lack of a dominant issue or question facing voters. In the two most previous midterms -- both of which were to some extent a referendum on the sitting president -- there have been major issues at play. In 2010, the economy and Obamacare drove voters to the polls. In 2006, it was the war in Iraq, which was rapidly spiraling out of control.
That year, President George W. Bush was six years into his term and took what he called a "thumpin'," losing the House and Senate to Democrats. A similar pattern has held consistently across time, but in 1998, Democrats bucked the trend. Six years into Bill Clinton's presidency, the Republicans picked up no seats, the first such failure for a party out of the White House since 1934. The difference comes down to the economy.
A dot-com boom was pushing up the stock market and 401ks in 1998, while unemployment stayed below 5 percent all year. The GDP had been surging at more than four percent annually, the strongest run since the 1960s. And hourly wage growth was more than twice the level of inflation that year, the first time workers caught up since the early 1970s.
Today, though, people don't feel the same about the direction of the economy and more than half cite it as one of their top issues, far outpacing other topics like health care, immigration or foreign policy. The percentage of Americans who say the country is on the wrong track, which has ticked up steadily since spring, now stands at about 65 percent, the highest it's been since early 2012. While the Republican Party remains more unpopular, its image has recovered since the worst days of the government shutdown, as Democrats' favorability ratings continue to sink.
Democrats and the president are in a difficult political spot, getting blamed for a sagging economy that they have little power to improve without control of Congress. But it is also a problem partly of their own making. As early as May 2010, more than six months before Democrats lost control of Congress for the rest of Obama's term, the party turned its focus away from jobs and stimulus and toward deficit reduction and belt tightening. The resulting fiscal pullback slowed the economic recovery and contributed to anger at Washington, which typically gets directed at the party that controls the White House. While pundits spent the last six years warning that voters cared first and foremost about the deficit, the news that it has plummeted under Obama was nevertheless met with a rebuke from voters.
Democrats also suffered from a flood of big money that entered the system as a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. At the same time, the collapse of the traditional media has allowed candidates with bizarre conspiracy theories to broadcast themselves as middle-of-the-road folks.
The Republican hold on the Senate, meanwhile, is tenuous. The field was tilted heavily against Democrats in 2014, with Senate races held in red states where Obama was even more unpopular than he was nationally.
But in 2016, the GOP's tea party wave will be up, with Republicans defending 26 seats while Democrats are on the line in just 10 races. Republicans will be forced to defend seats in New Hampshire, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and several other states that are likely to go Democratic in the presidential election.
Between now and then, little governing involving Congress and the White House will take place. The president will implement some form of executive action that allows undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally, while he explores other ways to implement an agenda absent congressional approval. The flow of judicial and executive confirmations will slow, the budget will run on autopilot absent another shutdown threat, and a series of standoffs will give way to the 2016 elections.
Beyond that, said one high-level Republican congressional aide, the American people should expect little. "The congressional agenda does not match up with normal people's lives," he observed.