Wednesday, November 03, 2010

EDITORIAL >>An historic tidal wave

Tuesday was the third election in a row governed by intense national discontent, and the result was predictably the same. The voters gave the party in power a hearty kick in the seat of the pants.

Republicans took control of the U. S. House of Representatives by a good margin, perhaps the largest turnaround in a century, but the Democrats retained a majority in the Senate, albeit an ineffective one since it now takes a three-fifths majority in the Senate to enact more than routine legislation. Nothing of the slightest consequence will pass the U.S. Congress in the two years after the new Congress convenes in January, which may have been the voters’ unconscious wish.

The Republican and Tea Party tsunami, to use the metaphor of the season, wrought far more havoc than the two preceding landslides, which swept the Republican Congress from power in 2006 and then ended the party’s eight-year reign in the executive branch in 2008. But the ruin for Democrats this time went far down the ticket in most places, turning statehouses over to Republicans in at least 10 more states and strengthening Republican control of state legislatures.

In Arkansas, Republicans won a seat in the U.S. Senate for only the second time since the decade after the Civil War, and for the first time they will own three of the state’s four seats in the U. S. House of Representatives. Republicans won three constitutional offices — lieutenant governor, secretary of state and land commissioner — and strengthened their minority in both the state Senate and House of Representatives.

Two prominent Democrats stood against the tide, the supercautious Mikes. Gov. Mike Beebe, riding the crest of good management and good luck, defeated Jim Keet, the hapless businessman from Florida who moved to Arkansas last year to make the race, by a margin of almost 2 to 1. Beebe slashed the sales tax on groceries from 6 percent to 2 percent and promises to repeal the rest of the tax in his next term. The depression that settled on the country in 2007 has been kinder to Arkansas than to almost any other state. Beebe took credit, and he may or may not have deserved it. At any rate, he handled the affairs of state and the politics with equal and unusual flair when it seemed that no one else on the state or national stages could do either. The voters rewarded him.

Mike Ross, the cagey congressman from South Arkansas, kept a close watch on the polls and the changing currents of public opinion and never got out in front on anything.  

Whatever his personal convictions on the big issues like health insurance reform, he divined how voters in his district were reacting and stepped in front of them. He will never be a profile in courage or be accused of leadership, but he will always be an incumbent congressman. He defeated a former Miss Arkansas and Mike Huckabee aide handily.

Sadly, Jacksonville’s Pat O’Brien, running for secretary of state, lost to Mark Martin, who ripped off the taxpayers as a member of the House but who shares the name of a popular racer.

Political scientists will be analyzing this stunning election for a generation. The Democratic defeat, though not its magnitude, was predictable all along. When voters are deeply disturbed the dominant party will go. Polls showed that most voters still blamed George W. Bush and the Republicans for the recession, now three years old, but Barack Obama and the Democrats raised unrealistic hopes that they could turn things around. 

Obama had no such luxury. The economy was in free fall when he took over, sacrificing 600,000 jobs a month.

The mammoth deficit also may be largely the work of President George W. Bush — remember that the country had run three budget surpluses in a row before he took office and the genera-revenue deficit exceeded $600 billion in 2007 — but that makes no difference. It is now Obama’s deficit. The health-care law may be the best thing that has happened to Arkansas and a bonanza for the rest of the country, but he and his surrogates, most notably our own Sen. Blanche Lincoln, did an abysmal job of selling it to the voters. 

They paid a dear price. Lincoln’s vote on the health-insurance bill and her endless dithering contributed to her lopsided defeat.

The voters have spoken with a clarity and deliberateness that ought to be encouraging. 

But it is hard to see how the new divided government can address the nation’s desperate problems. If drastic action is needed to get the economy moving and forestall a deeper collapse, how can it happen? Obviously, there can be no more economic stimulus, which is what many economists say is needed. Voters were convinced that Obama’s middle-class tax cuts, extended unemployment benefits and public works did not help. There will be no more of that.

While the Republicans persuaded the country that Obama’s and the Democrats’ strategies were not working, they have proposed no remedy except more of the policies of the past: tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, fewer restrictions on financial institutions, no assistance for the unemployed and poor, no impediments to businesses moving jobs overseas. The free market will take care of everything if the government will leave it alone.

The economy and all the nation’s problems will get a thorough letting alone the next two years. We will see whether that is the magic that the country needs. It didn’t work from 1929 to 1932, but times have changed. In Arkansas, thank goodness, we will be in pretty good hands.