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Juan Williams: Taking the right lessons from the midterms

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A trouncing! A tsunami! A shellacking! 

 That’s the conventional wisdom about last week’s midterm elections. But it’s wrong. 

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Yes, the GOP picked up 12 seats in the House and gained at least 7 seats in the Senate. But calling that a shellacking requires closing your eyes to some really big numbers.

First, the average pick-up for the opposition party in midterm elections that take place in the sixth year of a presidency is 29 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate. The GOP had an undisputed victory and was able to claim the Senate majority in emphatic fashion. But a tsunami? It did not come close to that.

Second, 60 percent of voters told exit polls they were either “dissatisfied” with Republican leaders in Congress (37 percent) or “angry” with them (23 percent).

Yet the lesson drawn by Republicans on Capitol Hill is that last week’s vote was a repudiation of President Obama. 

Admittedly, the president’s approval rating is on the low side, at 44 percent among last week’s voters. But nearly half of the voters, 46 percent, said President Obama “was not a factor” in their vote.  

The real message from the elections is that the public is turned off by the current state of our politics. Two-thirds of eligible voters did not go to the polls. Among those who did, exit surveys show a populist, angry vote against status quo politics. That vote is spearheaded by older, white men in “red,” mostly southern, states won by Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race.

Even with an electorate that skewed Republican, those same exit polls showed that 78 percent of voters said it is “only some of the time or never” that they can “trust the government in Washington to do what is right.” And, remember, 60 percent of these voters said they don’t like the Republican congressional leadership.

Even some conservative commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer and Frank Luntz, have warned Republicans that (to paraphrase Krauthammer) the GOP did not win the election so much as Democrats lost it; and (to paraphrase Luntz) that this was more an anti-status quo election than a pro-Republican one.

How can a Washington political class that is so distrusted by the American people get back on track? 

At a White House press conference after the election, the president said the looming challenge is now “actually getting some good done.” But he did not display any new ideas for dealing with the GOP. 

Critics in the media like to say Obama needs to do more outreach to Republicans: Have a drink with the likely new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellRyan seeks to put stamp on GOP in Trump era Trump and Ryan to speak by phone Bill would require nominees to release tax returns MORE (Ky.); play golf with the Speaker, John BoehnerJohn BoehnerOvernight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return GOP senator: Reid's 'ramblings' are 'bitter, vulgar, incoherent' MORE (Ohio).

The Republican leadership, however, has its hands tied by the far-right of the GOP and the talk-radio crowd. Making any deal with a president demonized by the GOP base is politically perilous for them.

President Obama is hamstrung in his attempts to make deals with Republicans by a harsh, hyper-partisan political atmosphere that would defeat even a master of the Senate such as President Johnson or a charmer like President Clinton.

The Republicans have had no agenda for the last six years except hating Obama. Even now they do not have a program for government. McConnell and BoehnerJohn BoehnerOvernight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return GOP senator: Reid's 'ramblings' are 'bitter, vulgar, incoherent' MORE are saying they will formulate their policy plans over the next few weeks through op-ed articles and meetings with the president and fellow Republicans. 

“The American people have spoken,” McConnell said in a news conference after the election. “They’ve given us divided government. The question for both the president, and for the Speaker and myself and our members is: ‘What are you going to do with it?’” 

Keep in mind that the newly-elected Republicans have ousted moderates from their own party and from within Democratic ranks. For example, in the last Congress there were Democrats willing to vote for changes to parts of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans who want total repeal of the law have replaced those Democrats.

There are some grounds for hope: 

First, Congress passes more bills when both Houses are under the control of one party and the opposing party has control of the White House.

Second, more Republicans and Democrats tell pollsters they want compromise so that bills get passed.

But there is also this compelling reality: 

“Republicans were not elected to govern [the country]…” said Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio. “The Republican Party was not elected to compromise. The Republican Party was not elected to sit down and work together with Democrats. The Republican Party was not elected to slow down the speed [at] which the country is headed for the cliff and go over it slowly.”

You might not guess from Limbaugh’s bellicose tone that the GOP in the Senate still lacks the 60 votes to halt a filibuster and is miles from the 67 votes needed to override a Presidential veto.

Yet, despite that, Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzEleven states sue Obama over transgender bathroom directive Poll: Clinton leads Trump in Wisconsin by double digits GOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo MORE (R-Texas), a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, is himself talking like a conservative radio host in demanding that the new GOP committee chairmen begin hearings on “the abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded this [Obama] administration.”

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But my weather forecast for Capitol Hill predicts more partisanship and a steady blizzard of 2016 politics starting now.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.