As we look back at the 2010 election cycle to try and divine what the outcomes mean, we must pick our way through a maze of information that ultimately provides little concrete insight into what the next two years will offer. In an effort to distinguish this re-cap from countless others and to help inform public affairs professionals looking for a way to describe the climate to their clients, I have channeled three noted Englishmen whose influence has been felt for more than 450 years to offer insight.
The First Englishman
In Act 5, Scene 5 of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s title character speaks his famous soliloquy in which he rages against a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Without a doubt the fury directed at incumbent Democrats (and a few Republicans) across the country seemed greater and more virulent than in any recent election. The rage began building in the summer of 2009 when Americans turned out in record numbers at town hall meetings to protest health care reform, government bailouts, and seemingly unrestrained spending.
In the ensuing year we saw the rise of the Tea Party, which sought to remake the Republican Party and to punish a demoralized Democratic party struggling to jumpstart the economic recovery. The Tea Party claimed early victories by knocking off Sen. Bennett in Utah during the primaries and choosing Marco Rubio over incumbent Governor Charlie Crist in Florida. From there the Tea Party continued its march with wins by Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and Rand Paul in Kentucky and Dan Coats in Indiana. If a Sharon Angle and Joe Miller hadn’t faltered in Nevada and Alaska respectively, the gains would have been even more dramatic.
As the dust settles we see a Republican controlled House of Representatives with a significantly more liberal Democratic Caucus due to the dramatic losses among the Blue Dog Coalition. The very narrowly Democratic controlled Senate will act as a check on the House Republicans, and on occasion conservative Democrats join Republicans to tilt legislation to the Right, but without out enough votes to override a Presidential veto there will be no sweeping repeal of any legislation passed in the last two years. As a result, there will be very little federal legislation addressing our nation’s multitude of challenges. Instead, I expect to see greater regulatory activism among the Obama Administration’s regulatory agencies in an effort to advance its agenda.
Finally, while the election results were an astounding repudiation of Democratic control at the state and federal level, polls indicated they were not an affirmation of the Republican Party or its ability to solve our country’s problems. In the end after all the sound and fury we are left with a more partisan House, a more evenly divided Senate with fewer moderates, and an electorate that clearly distrusts both parties. Has anything really changed from four, six, or even 16 years ago?
The Second Englishman
In 1971, the album Who’s Next hit the shelves of record stores with the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” written by Pete Townshend appearing as the final track. In it Townshend writes about the disillusionment of revolution when he concludes, “Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss,” which sums up the Congressional leadership that will take office when the 112th Congress convenes in January 2011.
After a “change” election with historic turnover, the leaders who will control Congress are the same as they have been for long time. Despite the Tea Party’s gains and voters’ strong message that they do not like the direction of the country, the elected leadership of each party within Congress remains the same. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, an early and fervent supporter of the Tea Party, abandoned her bid to enter leadership when it became clear she didn’t have the support among other Republicans. Speaker-elect Boehner who first entered leadership when he chaired the Republican Conference from 1995-1998 has served as the highest ranking Republican since February, 2006, while others like Rep. Eric Cantor have been a part of leadership even longer.
While previous Speakers who have presided over historic losses have resigned, Speaker Pelosi has chosen to stay in office and assume the role of Minority Leader, a post she first filled eight years ago. Similarly, Rep. Steny Hoyer will be the Minority Whip, a post he also first filled during the 108th Congress. In the Senate, where turnover is not as quick, Senators Reid and McConnell will retain leadership of their parties, positions they have held since 2006.
The Third Englishman
Winston Churchill once said, “Americans will always do the right thing….After they’ve exhausted all the alternatives,” and it now appears—one would think—that we are quickly approaching that point.
Our current situation include: a lingering economic slowdown; U.S. troops who have been at war for nine years; budget deficits stretching well into the future; an exorbitant national debt growing greater every day; and, unfunded mandates from social programs reaching into the trillions of dollars. Surely the time for a reasonable debate that necessitates action is now? Yet, the preliminary recommendations from the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which were released a week after the elections was attacked from the Left and Right and declared dead on arrival.
Perhaps we have not yet exhausted all other alternatives.
At a time when America needs bipartisan action on major issues, we were witness to an election cycle full of sound and fury that left us with the same Congressional leadership who still cannot commit themselves to solving our obvious and mounting problems. Those seeking to undertake public affairs campaigns to influence public policy need to be mindful of this environment to structure their messages, tactics and overall strategy accordingly.