Voters swept Republicans out of power in 2006 and 2008, and they swept them back into power in 2010. This doesn't mean that the electorate is swinging wildly from left to right but that voters are anxious and unhappy, and they want change they're not getting. Republicans might be tempted to view their victories as a validation of the course they've pursued during the last two years, but they do so at their peril — and to the detriment of the nation.
As much as constituencies in the GOP may want to view the election as a repudiation of health care or a validation of the tea party movement, neither appears to be the case. According to exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research on behalf of several national news organizations, 56 percent of voters said the tea party wasn't a factor in their decisions, and 18 percent said they were voting to send a message against the movement. And while the exit polls found that 48 percent of voters want the health care reform legislation repealed, 47 percent want it retained or expanded.
This election came down to one thing: the economy. Sixty-two percent of voters cited it as the most important issue facing the country, precisely the same percentage of voters who said they believe the nation is seriously on the wrong track. Independent voters swung to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and back to Republicans in 2010 because they see that things aren't getting better — at least, not fast enough.
Republican leaders have made encouraging statements in the last few days, suggesting that they don't see their electoral good fortune as a validation of their agenda (such as it is). They claim not to see themselves as revolutionaries, a la the Newt Gingrich class of 1994, and they aren't talking about shutting down the government. Senator-elect Marco Rubio of Florida, a star of the tea party, got it exactly right in his victory speech when he said, "We make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party. What they are is a second chance: a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."
What that would mean would be standing for principle, not partisan advantage. Although wide gaps exist between the views of Democrats and Republicans, they can compromise and produce good legislation if they see those differences as points of philosophical disagreement, but they won't if they see them as wedge issues to manipulate voters.
President Barack Obama, likewise, has been suggesting areas of possible cooperation with the new Republicans who will be in charge of the House. He says he'd like to work on immigration, education reform and the budget deficit. At a news conference Wednesday, he said he was "humbled" by the election result and said it "is going to require all of us, including me, to work harder to come to consensus" on ways to improve the economy and make progress on other vital issues. The Democrats in the Senate need to do the same thing. A good first gesture would be for Sen. Harry Reid, now that he has been re-elected, to step aside as majority leader so that a new, less-polarizing Democrat can take over.
Some analysts argue that losing the House will actually help Mr. Obama succeed politically, as the Republican takeover in 1994 helped President Bill Clinton. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. And some Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, say they still see their primary job for the next two years as making sure Mr. Obama is a one-term president.
But if there is a simple message to take from Tuesday's election, and those of two and four years ago, it's that people want politicians to be looking out for the nation, not for their re-election. The best political strategy for President Obama and the Republicans is to fix the economy and put the partisan gamesmanship aside. That might go against the win-at-all-costs attitude that's dominated Washington for more than a decade, but it happens to be exactly what the voters want — and the right thing to do.
The next few months provide some good opportunities to test out a new dynamic, even before the next Congress convenes in January. Unless Congress acts, the Bush tax cuts will expire for all Americans — not just the wealthy — on Jan. 1. And a commission appointed by President Obama to reduce the nation's debt is due to make recommendations Dec. 1. President Obama could give some ground on taxes, such as allowing a temporary extension of the cuts for the wealthy, provided that Republicans cooperate on finding ways to offset the cost, such as reducing corporate tax loopholes and eliminating spending on obsolete or redundant weapons systems. That's the kind of leadership voters expect — and the kind Washington has failed to provide.