Three Good Things for Progressives to Take From the Midterm Election Results

It's been apparent for some time that Election Day 2010 would not be a good one for the Democrats. Midterm elections generally don't go well for the president's party, and when you throw in high unemployment and a sputtering economy, it becomes an especially tough hill to climb.

So I had no illusions about the 2010 midterms. But there are three things about the GOP gains this year that made me especially angry.

First, it's frustrating that public perception was largely based on lies about health care, stimulus and government spending. In addition to the more publicized fabrications like death panels (Sharron Angle was pushing the death panel lie as recently as last week), GOP ads also exaggerated the costs and effect on the deficit of the health care legislation (as determined by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office). The ads also exaggerated the nature of federal spending since President Obama took office.

As I often say, I'm happy to have a debate over government policy, but the debate should be based on the actual facts, not lies manufactured by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine.

Second, it's frustrating that Americans have such short memories. It was George W. Bush and a Republican congress who, over the course of most of the last decade, plunged the United States into the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, widening the gap between the wealthy and middle class to levels not seen for nearly a century. And it was traditionally conservative principles of deregulation and unfettered corporate power that created the housing bubble and nearly brought down the financial system.

But the voters are now trusting the same people responsible for leaving the country in tatters, who are proposing the same failed strategies again, to fix the problem? It makes no sense.

It's unreasonable to think the Democrats could fix this deep mess in less than two years. And it's even more irrational to punish the Democrats, who at least made efforts to start undoing the GOP-inflicted damage, while rewarding the Republicans, who practiced strategic obstruction, putting political gain over finding solutions that would help Americans in need.

Finally, it's frustrating that the dishonest campaign waged by Tea Party-dominated Republicans was funded by a post-Citizens United flood of millions of dollars of anonymous corporate and private money, with figures like Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and the Chamber of Commerce essentially buying the election.

Back in January, when the Supreme Court, in a fit of judicial activism, made new law in Citizens United, I wrote the following:

"Corporate interests, which already dominate Washington politics and prevent any meaningful change that would be helpful to average Americans (and who own too many members of Congress, especially on the GOP side but, unfortunately, from both parties), have now had their power reinforced and expanded. Citizens United is nothing short of a massive change in the way American politics will function."

The 2010 midterms showed the first signs of what the Supreme Court has done to our democracy.

Despite my points of anger, and despite a big victory for the Republicans on Election Day, I can find three positives to take from the midterm election results.

1. Mainstream Americans rejected the Tea Party. At first glance, you may well think that I've lost my mind with that statement. But answer me this: Can you name one contest for a U.S. House, U.S. Senate or gubernatorial seat in which a Tea Party candidate won a race that a mainstream Republican would have lost? I know I can't. And I'm sure you can't either. The Tea Party didn't earn a single seat for Republicans.

But if you reverse the question, you get a very different answer. The nomination of Tea Party candidates undoubtedly cost the GOP seats. Mike Castle would have been nearly unbeatable in Delaware, but when he was defeated by Christine O'Donnell in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the party handed victory to Democrat Chris Coons. (A Democrat also defeated a Tea Party candidate for Castle's old House seat, making this a double loss for the GOP.) The Tea Party also improbably allowed Harry Reid to hold his seat in Nevada. The unpopular Senate majority leader surely would have been dispatched if the Republicans had put up any credible candidate. Instead, they offered Tea Party zealot Sharron Angle, and the result was a surprise Democratic victory. One has to wonder if West Virginia, which has voted for Republicans in the last three presidential elections, might have sent a Republican to Washington to fill Robert Byrd's Senate seat if the party had nominated a more mainstream candidate than John Raese. And if the less-than-popular Michael Bennett can hold off Tea Party extremist Ken Buck in Colorado, it will certainly only be because the Republicans didn't nominate a mainstream Republican.

Simply put, mainstream America's rejection of the Tea Party could have cost the Republicans control of the Senate.

And it's not just the races Republicans lost. In a red state like Kentucky, in a year like this one, a GOP Senate candidate should have won easily, but Rand Paul's race was fairly close, requiring the party (and its wealthy anonymous supporters) to pour millions into the state. In solidly red Alaska, what should have been a low-effort romp for incumbent Lisa Murkowski is now a free-for-all between Murkowski (now a write-in candidate), Tea Party Friend of Palin Joe Miller (who secured the GOP nomination over Murkowski) and Democrat Scott McAdams. And in Pennsylvania, Tea Partier Pat Toomey edged Joe Sestak for a Pennsylvania U.S. Senate seat. But given GOP victories elsewhere in the state (for governor and in the race for Sestak's old House seat), you have to wonder if a mainstream Republican would have defeated Sestak fairly easily.

In these and other races, the effect of the Republicans choosing a Tea Party candidate as a nominee was to give life to Democratic candidates that otherwise would have been easily dispatched.

Both of the gubernatorial candidates on my Tea Party All-Star team handed gifts to Democrats tonight. While Andrew Cuomo probably would have defeated Rick Lazio, it certainly would have been closer than the non-race with Tea Party crazy Carl Paladino. And Colorado elected Democrat John Hickenlooper after the GOP chose Tea Partier Dan Maes, who was such a disaster as a candidate that by election day he was polling in the single digits, far below a conservative third-party candidate (who is so extreme, he said that Barack Obama was more dangerous than al-Qaida).

In short, while the Tea Party was successful in essentially taking over the Republican Party, its nominees were not attractive to mainstream voters. The presence of a Tea Party candidate on a ballot improved the chances of the Democrat in that race.

2. It's easy to be tough when you are just talking. Tea Party-fueled Republicans talked a tough game in this campaign. They told us that Barack Obama was the problem. They told us they are going to cut everyone's taxes. They told us they are going to lower the deficit. They told us they are going to slash spending. They told us they are going to repeal health care reform. And they told us they aren't going to compromise.

But it's easy to talk. Now some of these firebrands will have to serve in the House and Senate. Which means they have two choices, neither of which bode well for them. Either they have to compromise with the president, the man they have told us is so horrible, and go back on their promises to essentially burn the political establishment to the ground. Or, they can stick to their word, but then they will have to cast votes that may not be as easy as they thought it would be. Are they going to shut down the government? (When Newt Gingrich did it in 1994, it cost the Republicans dearly, as the American people blamed the GOP.) People are always in favor of theoretically cutting government spending, but when asked about specific programs, these same people will often oppose the specific cuts. That is a lesson the Tea Party Republicans are about to learn the hard way. Sure, their constituents loved it when they promised to cut spending, but will the voters be happy when the cuts result in fired police officers, closed schools and reduced benefits? Doubtful.

When faced with a delicate balance of trying to shrink deficits, lower taxes and cut spending, these new Tea Party-fueled Republicans are going to find themselves trying to solve a puzzle with no easy solutions.

David Brooks argued in the New York Times Monday that there will be few Tea Party zealots refusing to compromise in the House, and Republicans will govern modestly. He's living in a wishful-thinking fantasy world. A look at the candidates winning many House and Senate races on Election Day paints a very different picture. The Tea Party zealots are there, and they've painted themselves into a corner.

3. Democracy works, even if you don't like the results. One of my favorite things about American democracy is that, time and time again, the system proves itself as effective. That's not to say elections always result in the best results for the country. Far from it. No, I mean that elections give the people exactly what they voted for. A great example is 2004. After four years of Bush's presidency, we knew everything there was to know about him, from his religiously-fueled extreme right wing beliefs, to his pro-corporate/pro-wealthy/anti-middle-class economic agenda, to his simple-minded and dangerous foreign policy, to his lack of respect for the rule of law. It was all there.

And yet, the American people chose to give him four more years in the White House. And what happened? Bush continued doing what he had done the previous four years, botching the war in Iraq so badly that voters handed both houses of Congress to the Democrats in 2006, and bungling the economy so thoroughly that Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

Similarly, every one of the major pieces of legislation Obama shepherded through Congress (namely, health care, stimulus, and financial reform) were the very policies he promised to work on if he was elected. Again, Americans got what they voted for.

So now, in 2010, the electorate has decided to hand control of the House and more Senate seats to Tea Party-controlled Republicans. And by 2012, we will see what that decision brings us. Based on the track record of the Bush presidency and the GOP obstructionism of the first two years of the Obama presidency, it doesn't bode well for the country.

It's been easy for the Republicans to spend the last two years demonizing and obstructing the president, blaming all the country's problems on his policies. Well now the GOP has a share of the power, and they can no longer just sit back and throw rocks at the president.

In fact, that is my favorite takeaway from the midterm results: The Republicans are on the hook for the country's problems now, too, every bit as much as the Democrats. Let's see how that works out for them, especially if they keep their campaign promises and try and impose their failed, right-wing agenda on the American people.