Roger’s Rules

Reading the Tea Leaves

My friend James Robbins, writing in the Washington Times, today articulates a thought that I’ve heard bruited about often these past weeks:

“Tonight, Republicans will watch the election returns hoping for an upset takeover of the U.S. Senate. And if President Obama has any sense, he will be rooting for the GOP as well.”

Why should Obama hope that the Senate change hands? Robbins acknowledges that he “would enjoy the epic Democratic humiliation symbolized by a Republican Senate takeover as much as the next guy” — not, I believe, as much as I would, but you know what he means.  But here’s the rub: the “thrill would be short-lived” because, even assuming the GOP takes the Senate, it would only be by a seat or two: its “governing majority would be slim; there would be little chance of getting meaningful legislation passed, and no chance at all of getting it past the White House.”

Robbins thinks that, on balance, it would be better if the GOP took only the House: it would make it much harder for the Obama press office — I’m thinking in particular of the satellite offices with call signs like CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, etc. — to blame  Republicans for what’s ailing the country.  But the GOP winning both houses would make it easier for the LM (that’s “legacy media,” formerly known as the “mainstream media”) to adulate Obama as the sole repository of liberal virtue:

“The liberal-friendly mainstream media’s story line is much cleaner if the Republicans control both houses. The White House will then be the ‘thin blue line of sanity’ against the newly energized congressional red tide. Like President Clinton after the 1994 election, Mr. Obama will be the sole focus of resistance to reform — or what they will call ‘preserving change.’”

I’ve heard several intelligent people whose judgment I respect offer some variation of this rationale for why, given the “realities” of politics in Washington, it would be better (from the point of view of Republicans) to win the House but only almost win the Senate. It sounds plausible. But I incline to reject it. Why? For one thing, I am suspicious of the intellectual minuet that leads people to forgo local victories in the hope that, by second guessing opponents (or “enemies,” as President Obama puts it in unguarded moments),  they can achieve larger strategic advantages.  That sometimes backfires. Moreover, there’s a lot to be said for winning.

But the chief reason I am inclined to dissent from the strategy Robbins outlines is that I suspect that the Washington “realities” he invokes are due for a thorough revision,  with the first redaction coming later today. Here’s the question: is this mid-term election just another mid-term election, one that the template of 1994, for example, can help explain? Maybe.  But my reading of the tea leaves (yes, it has to be tea leaves, doesn’t it?) makes me wonder whether this election is the first step in a much more fundamental political realignment. As I’ve argued before in this space (and here), the tea party is not so much anti-Democrat or anti-incumbent as it is anti-business-as-usual when it comes to how we govern ourselves.

Let me put it the other way around: the tea party is for the maximum amount of individual liberty consistent with public order. It is for economic growth. It is pro-prosperity, pro-self-reliance, pro-American. It is in favor of seeking the most local feasible solution to problems: individuals should take care of themselves where they can, and where they can’t families ought to step in first, then local communities. The federal government, that distant leviathan, should be the resource of last resort.

All of that, of course, is diametrically opposed to the realities that govern present-day Washington and present-day politics at the state level as well. The question is: will this election simply deliver a new slate of the same old thinking to Washington and state governments? Or will it, along with the many establishment Republicans predicted to win, mark the beginning of a sea-change in the way we look at government and the sorts of things we the people are willing to put up with from those whom we have elected to do our business? It could, of course,  go either way. I jiggle the tea cup and what I see swirling around at the bottom suggests that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would be happy to see what is unfolding in this country.