The Republican electoral wave that rolled across America on Tuesday was propelled by two powerful currents, overlapping in places and diverging in others.
It will take a day or more to sort out precisely where these results rank among the great congressional swings of the past century, but we do know that they were propelled by both the "tea party" movement and by the disenchantment of independents, many of whom voted for Barack Obama two years ago but this time deserted the Democrats in droves. These tendencies were both driven, in part, by an angry disillusion felt by many voters. Polling has found that popular confidence in every big American institution — political parties, business, labor, organized religion, the media — is at an all-time low.
On Tuesday, CNN's national exit poll found that a solid majority of voters disapproved of both the Democratic and the Republican parties. In many cases, the GOP may have benefited from the fact that the most visible symbol of the status quo was President Obama, a Democrat.
But the voters who registered their discontent Tuesday did not all come from the same perspective. The tea party populists have an ideological antipathy to government and a visceral hostility to the give-and-take of politics. They believe government and political compromise are the real sources of the country's problems. Independents, on the other hand, are by their nature non-ideological, instinctive believers in what Arthur Schlesinger called "the politics of remedy." They're angry and disenchanted because they believe government and politics have failed catastrophically. That's particularly true of voters over age 65, who cast almost one in four of Tuesday's ballots.
The Republicans' congressional leaders also are likely to resist compromise, though for reasons of their own. (If you're getting a sense of conflicting agendas as opposed to clear mandates, there's a reason.) Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who barring something unforeseen will be the next speaker of the House, has said repeatedly on the stump that "there will be no compromise" in the next Congress. Another House Republican leader, Mike Pence of Indiana — a likely presidential candidate — told a television interviewer that "there will be no compromise in ending this era of runaway spending, deficits and debt, no compromise on repealing Obamacare lock, stock and barrel."
Current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says the main objective of the next two years will be ensuring Obama's defeat in 2012. That's what's really on the Republican establishment's mind. They believe their party squandered a historic opportunity when they won 52 seats in 1994, but then pursued an overly ambitious agenda under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. That mistake resulted in a disastrous government shutdown, which, in turn, forced a series of compromises with President Clinton, who won reelection two years later.
Neither Boehner nor McConnell wants to let that happen again. For the same reason, congressional Republicans won't be pursuing anything like the fundamental overhaul of government that tea party members would like to see. Boehner, who will be the first speaker since Democrat Tom Foley to have previously served as the chairman of a congressional committee, is a firm believer in traditional seniority and a committee system with powerful chairmen, and he has already signaled that he doesn't intend to alter that.
One of the first tests of his ability to discipline populist revolutionaries fresh from the electoral barricades will come when the new Congress is asked to raise the federal debt limit from $12.4 trillion to $14.3 trillion. No Congress has ever refused to approve such an increase and, if such a refusal were to occur, the consequences for the global financial system would be apocalyptic. Many of the new senators and House members have pledged to vote against an increase in the debt. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity — one of the more active national tea party groups — told Politico this week that the Republicans' new House majority "cannot fold on the debt."
Neither is there likely to be a vote, quick or otherwise, that the insurgents want on a repeal of healthcare reform. Instead, there probably will be a series of procedural, regulatory and funding votes — the grinding legislative equivalent of trench warfare.
There will be a heated struggle, but it will be between the White House and the congressional leadership, a purely rhetorical battle over who can offer the country the best explanation for governmental stalemate, one that fixes the blame on the other side.