By Elvin Lim
When the dust has settled on the electioneering frenzy of these final days, 2010, the third “change” election in a row, will better be read as an equilibrium restoring election.
In the Senate, Democrats are about to hand back just over half of their recent wins (5 seats in 2006, and another 8 in 2008) to the Republicans. Most predictions for the number of seats the Republicans will pick up in the House hover around 50 because there are currently 49 Democrats occupying seats in districts that voted for McCain in 2008, and they are about to relinquish these seats. Put another way, Democrats picked up 31 seats in 2006, and another 21 in 2008, and they’re about to return just about every one of them back to the Republicans.
This is not coincidence. It is the revealed majesty of the Newtonian system that the Framers of the Constitution set up, and our subliminal internalization of its logic. The Founders weren’t too fond of waves of popular passion, which is why they applied “a new science of politics” and created institutions arrayed alongside each other with the specific principle that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
The invisible constitutional hand appears to be working. Now that Barbara Boxer has pulled ahead of Carly Fiorina in California, as has Joe Manchin over John Raese in West Virginia, it is likely that the Democratic firewall will hold just enough to prevent a Republican takeover of the Senate. To take over the Senate, Republicans must take the seats in CO, IL, NV, PA, and WA. Indeed, because Republicans are polling ahead in each of these last 5 races, a nearly perfect partisan equipoise is likely to occur in the Senate. That means the 112th Congress which starts business on January 3, 2011, will likely see a slim Republican majority in the House, and an even slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate.
Another way to think about this election as equilibrium restoring is to observe the net neutral effect of the Tea Party movement. In some places, Tea Party candidates are giving seasoned politicos a run for their money. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul now look like shoos-in for the senatorial seats in Florida and Kentucky, and Sharron Angle is in a statistical dead-heat with Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada – which means, given the enthusiasm gap in favor of Republicans this year, Reid has a mountain to climb in the next two days.
Other Tea Party candidates, however, have turned out to be poor candidates. Principally, they don’t know how to handle the media and the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics. Some, like Joe Miller, think it’s OK to hand-cuff journalists; others, like Christine O’Donnell failed to realize that telling us “I’m not a witch” does not kill a rumor but sustains it. Others who have been inducted into office, like Scott Brown from Massachusetts, have long since forgotten their patrons. Like all third party movements since time immemorial, the Tea Party movement – now a flick of sunshine on a strange shore – is not likely to last more than one or two more electoral cycles.
All told, the Republicans are going to regain the seats they lost in 2006 and 2008. But, the electoral tsunami would most likely not be enough, as it was in 1994 or 2006, to flip both houses of Congress. And because of the truncated constitutional calendar, this year’s wave will stop short of the White House. The greatest prize of them all will stay in Democratic hands (a prize that will become especially valuable now that the Vice-president’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate will likely be activated in the months to come.)
A tsunami which converts half a branch is, arguably, no tsunami at all. For this to be a really significant wave that is more than equilibrium restoring, Republicans would need to gain majorities at least as large as the ones Democrats took in 2008 (257/178 in the House and 57/41 in the Senate). That means the Republicans would need to win 118 new seats in the House and 26 in the Senate. So no, a tsunami isn’t coming; but equilibrium will be restored.
On November 2, Democrats would not be pleased, and Republicans a tad less than ecstatic. But neither should despair, for Madison had always been right:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Read Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.