It was a bad election that produced a worse Congress. While gridlock was often the rule in the United States Senate for the past two years, that body is likely to be even more dysfunctional, over the next two years.
Many excellent incumbents went down to defeat, especially progressive stalwart Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). Quality challengers were also swamped by the political tidal wave.
The election year was marked at the start by the astonishing upset victory of Scott Brown (R-MA) in the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The bluest of states selected a little-known conservative Republican — a harbinger of things to come.
Then, three senior Democrats, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, announced their retirements.
The surprises continued. Three senior Republicans were denied renomination by their own party in Utah, Pennsylvania and Alaska.
The nascent Tea Party movement produced inexperienced candidates that upset establishment Republicans in Kentucky, Florida, Nevada, Delaware and Colorado.
The unusual election results were caused by a strange melding of disparate forces: dissatisfaction by the left and the right with President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress for entirely different reasons; suspicion by independent voters of government bailouts; anger and frustration over massive unemployment; and the continued American bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there was no mandate for Republican alternative policies, nor any common understanding of what those policies might be. The public remains divided about GOP advocacy for tax cuts for the wealthy and repeal of some or all of the President’s health care legislation.
Indeed, as much as voters distrust Democrats, they dislike Republicans even more. An October 2010 Washington Post poll found that 36% of the public approves of the Democrats’ job in Congress while only 30% approve of the Republicans. When government control is split between the two parties, Republicans will have great difficulty implementing their own program, whatever it may be.
The legislative outlook for the next two years is not positive. Presumptive House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) argued shortly before the election: “This is not a time for compromise.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) suggested: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
With such views, Congress is unlikely to come to agreement on reviving the economy, addressing climate change or healthcare, repairing the fraying infrastructure of the country and improving our education to prepare for the global economic challenges.
In the wreckage of the election, there are a few shards of hope. The election issues focused on the economy, jobs and the federal budget deficit. Virtually no attention was paid to national security issues.
Thus there is no election consensus against further nuclear weapons reductions, expanded efforts to safeguard nuclear weapons and materials, the nuclear aspirations of Iran and North Korea or the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Without positive evidence, we can only hope that the President and some Members of Congress will have some running room on these issues.
The Tea Party movement has been united against federal spending but split on foreign policy. Many Tea Party candidates have followed the lead of former presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-TX), father of Kentucky’s Senator-elect Rand Paul (R), who in a letter to Foreign Policy Magazine stated: “We cannot talk about fiscal responsibility while spending trillions on occupying and bullying the rest of the world.”
Most candidates simply avoided national security issues. When asked whether the Tea Party had a foreign policy platform, former U.S. Representative and Freedom Works founder Dick Armey admitted: “I don’t think so.”
Congress will be meeting in a post-election or lame duck session. Arms control advocates hope that in the coming weeks, the Senate will give its advice and consent to the New START nuclear reductions treaty. That would be one way to advance American national security interests in a difficult political environment.