Nationally, I don’t think there is any other way to view the mid-term election than as a repudiation of the Obama administration and its allies in Congress. You can say that there was an element of irrationality to that repudiation, but then the same can be said of the wave of emotion that the administration rode in on.
Elections have consequences, and once in control, the Democrats used their governing majority to implement some of their priorities. Domestically, the highest, most far-reaching of those was health-care reform, which the administration was on the verge of abandoning before Congress forced its hand.
Although reform efforts have been around since the Clinton administration and before, this effort was not well-conceived. Nor was it well-received. Rather than let the states experiment with different mechanisms until a clear favorite emerged, Congress gave us the legislative equivalent of the bum’s rush. They passed a massive bill, which many members voted on without reading.
People reacted with serious misgivings about the extent to which the government was going to become involved in one of the more intimate aspects of their lives. They were concerned about the cost of the massive program at a time when the economy was struggling with recession.
The other big domestic decision was to extend or expand the various efforts to save our economy from ruination (the toxic asset relief program, Federal Reserve rescue effort and housing crisis relief effort, among others). Some estimate the cost of those efforts at about $3 trillion invested and about $11 trillion committed. Whatever that means.
I defer to the experts about the necessity of those measures. But they were perceived as a further bailout of Wall Street while Main Street got relatively little assistance. And Wall Street was perceived as being particularly undeserving. The Street did not improve its image by booking record profits while unemployment remained high.
On foreign policy, the new administration did not find it easy to deal with the problems that so bedeviled its predecessor. That’s not surprising. They are difficult ones that require understanding and cooperation.
The biggest of those problems is how to combat international terrorism effectively and without unacceptably compromising ourselves. The Obama administration continued and extended many of the practices of the Bush administration, such as airport security screening, Guantanamo, drone attacks and warrantless wiretapping. Because they were effective.
Where it varied from previous practice, the Obama administration found the ground tough going and its policies not necessarily superior. Civilian criminal trials for terrorists do not appear to be a reliable way to protect America from terrorists. Admittedly, that was an avenue that the Bush administration started down, but largely because it was brow beaten away from the option of employing military tribunals. Elsewhere, North Korea confirmed that it is a rogue state toward which the Jimmy Carter approach does not work. Russia did not respond to the reset button.
The magnitude of the swing from the 2008 election to the 2010 election seems almost spasmodic. The pundits go from pronouncing the death of one party to pronouncing the death of the other. Instead of a well-oiled political system we seem to be inhabiting a machine that is vibrating in alarming fashion.
Here in Maine, the trends were dampened. We saw the logical extension of a gradual trend that has been in the works for several election cycles since Peter Cianchette got 41 percent to John Baldacci’s 47 percent of the popular vote for governor in 2002.
The people of Maine have been uncomfortable about the balance between the size and cost of their government relative to the size and vigor of their private sector. They expressed that unease in a variety of ways, most notably with the 2004 Palesky tax cap, and the 2006 and 2009 taxpayer bills of rights.
But the government was not responsive to those concerns. Its signature piece of legislation, the Dirigo health program, costs a lot, insures a little and had a problematic funding mechanism. Rather than provide real, clear tax relief, the Legislature passed a convoluted plan to stabilize revenue and tried to sell it to the people as the tax relief they had been demanding. It was vetoed earlier this year.
Along with a favorable wind from the national election, that’s what produced Republican control of the Blaine House and Statehouse. (Democrats retained control of the two congressional seats, proving once again that Mainers are idiosyncratic.) The margins would have been even wider if things had gone a bit differently. This leaves the governor-elect in a position similar to that of the president-elect in 2008. Whether the trend continues depends on the use Republicans make of the opportunity they’ve been given.
I hope the LePage administration starts by using its opportunity to hit a few singles up the middle. It may be difficult to find those openings. I would start by downsizing and consolidating government, while streamlining regulation of business.
Easier said than done. For example, I favor school consolidation, but it runs against the grain of many Mainers who want to retain local control over such a fundamental government service. We have a lot of people who depend on government. They may not react well to having their benefits streamlined. The LePage administration needs to be firm, compassionate and understanding.
In Portland, Republicans did not do so well. While we continue to have an admirable representative in one of nine seats on the City Council, most of our candidates were decisively defeated. We came closest to winning a seat on the School Committee.
The elected mayor proposal passed. It will be difficult for Republicans to win that office given that we are significantly outnumbered in terms of registered voters and the mayoral election is now synchronized with the presidential vote, when turnout is traditionally high.
The gubernatorial election produced a clamor, or at least a shout, for similar structural changes in the process of picking a governor.
I am skeptical of these post-partisan proposals. We have had supposedly non-partisan politics in Portland for years. People were unhappy enough about it to rewrite the City Charter. It might make sense to see how rank choice voting for mayor fares in Portland before rolling out similar reform statewide.
In the meantime, I hope that the political parties improve their game.