Figuring out the voters

So the voters have spoken, and those who opine are trying to figure out just what they said. I’m not sure anyone has that sorted just yet. The message is much more nuanced than the Republican spin about a total repudiation of President Obama’s policies. Those Democrats who are chortling that Republicans now have to govern, not just be “the party of ‘no,’ ” seem to have missed the point: that voters have had all the political sniping they are going to take. And, while voters clearly responded to the Tea Party message, they did not fully embrace the Tea Party and its candidates. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio proved themselves to be standout candidates, while Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell proved unready for prime time at best — examples of that old political axiom, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” 

The most coherent message line out of the 2010 midterms may simply be that government is broken. A popular line from the Tuesday night election coverage was that we’ve had three consecutive “change” elections in America. Certainly, in 2006 voters wanted to change the country’s direction. Two years later, in a historic “change” election, Republicans were pushed further from power — to the point that Time magazine devoted a cover story to questioning the relevance of the GOP. Now, just two years later, Democrats have lost more seats in Congress than they won in the previous two elections combined.

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So what is it voters keep trying to change? It definitely seems to be more than just the party in power — it is a system that voters don’t think works for them. Politics, as currently played, works for politicians, Wall Street, big business, organized labor and any number of interest groups. It isn’t working for families worried about a very uncertain future. Newly reelected (as of this writing) Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, may have gotten it right when he said that politics is “off topic” with voters. The question may go much deeper than Time’s wondering if the GOP was still relevant — it may simply be whether politics is relevant any longer. 

I continue to believe that America wanted healthcare reform. What it didn’t want was the acrimonious tone of the debate over just what healthcare reform was. As a nation we knew that recovering from the financial meltdown triggered by the abuses of Wall Street was the first step toward getting our economy back on track. But we also believed that rewarding those who made this mess in the first place wasn’t the solution. Americans believe government should be there to help people who really need help, not just to reward those adept at manipulating the levers of power. 

Yes, Americans are unhappy with healthcare, unhappy with TARP and unhappy about not just where the country is going but also the path we are taking to get there. Our political leadership has degenerated into a bickering scrum. Voters think they deserve better, and they are likely to keep arranging the furniture until they get it. This is likely not the last “change” election we’re going to see.

A seasoned Democratic operative and recent White House staffer told me a few weeks ago that this election was going to be all about overreaching by government — not just the faceless bureaucrats we’ve all enjoyed pummeling over the years, but by a leadership that is adept only at playing politics. We no longer trust the Congress to manage the economy, the war or much of anything else. It seems to have all come down to tactics — to positioning one’s party or oneself for narrow political advantage. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is wrong. His job is not to ensure that Barack Obama has only one term in the White House — his job is to make sure I have a job and my children have jobs. Politicians who choose to ignore this very simple truth will soon find themselves out of a job.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com