The Real Casualty of the Midterms: Big Politics

The American people, more populist than not, never like “big”anything. That is, they don’t like “big government,” just as they don’t like “big business.” To be sure, neither “big” actually goes away, and so it’s no wonder that Americans seem permanently riled up. We can also observe that the folks don’t like “big politics” either—that is, the idea of one political leader or party having too much power. So whichever party is seen as “in charge”—well, that’s the one that’s headed for a fall.

The 2018 midterm elections highlighted this resistance to concentrated power. On Tuesday, the voters showed that they prefer divided government; that is, they simply don’t trust either party to have all the marbles in Washington, D.C.

It’s been this way for a long time. Since the end of World War II, power has been divided in Washington—that is, one party controlling the White House, and the other controlling at least one chamber of Congress—for 43 out of 73 years.

Specifically, midterm elections give voters a chance to “send a message” to the president, whoever he is, by depriving him of allies in Congress. Since 1945, the average loss in the House for the party in the White House has been about 26 seats. And now, with the convening of the 116th Congress in January, political power looks to be divided for the next two years, too.

There’s an enduring logic here: namely, opposition to big, including big ambition. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected to the White House by a substantial margin—seven points in the popular vote, and a two-to-one margin in the Electoral College. Moreover, his fellow Democrats gained large majorities in the Senate and House. Perhaps understandably, Obama and company believed that they had a mandate to do big things—and that’s where their trouble started.

Most notably, the Democrats pushed for the Affordable Care Act. After all, national health insurance had been a Democratic dream for decades, and now was their chance. Yet once the bill was labeled “Obamacare,” it became personalized, a symbol of Obama’s perceived grandiosity—and so it was easy for the GOP to rally the country in opposition. Thus, Obamacare became a huge negative for Democrats. The legislation passed in March 2010, and just eight months later the Republicans won a big victory in the midterm elections, gaining 63 seats in the House and thereby flipping the speakership.

The size of their 2010 congressional victory gave Republicans hope that they could follow up with a presidential victory in 2012—but that was not to be. Instead, Obama was re-elected comfortably, even as House Republicans, too, were re-elected. In other…

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