Democrats are having a hard time explaining away their big losses on Tuesday. First, the White House let it be known that President Obama wasn't actually watching election returns, choosing instead to tune into HBO's puerile documentary about his own presidential campaign. Talk about ego; the man just can't get enough of himself.
By evening's end, Democratic lawmakers and pundits were already taking to the airwaves to proclaim the importance of their win in one upstate New York congressional district -- one in which the Republican candidate dropped out just three days before the election and a virtual unknown Conservative Party candidate managed to win 45 percent of the vote. Never mind Democrats' losses in New Jersey, where a sitting Democratic governor outspent his opponent by three to one, or Virginia, where Republicans not only took all three statewide races by double-digit margins but ousted Democrat incumbents in state legislative races as well.
Any way you look at it, Democrats had an awful night, which should cause all of them, including President Obama, deep concern. Clearly a great many voters are having second thoughts about the direction Democrats have chosen.
If last year's election signaled Americans wanted a change from the direction in which Republicans had taken the country, then Tuesday's election suggests that voters think Democrats swerved too far left and it's now time for another course correction. They fear Democrats have pushed bigger government, higher spending and taxes, and mounting debt, at the very time that Americans are tightening their own belts and trying to pay down their personal debts.
But as impressive as the GOP wins were, Republicans can't afford to get cocky. One thing came through loud and clear Election Day: Voters' No. 1 concern remains the economy. That doesn't mean Republicans shouldn't stick to principles on social issues. But it does mean that if they want to win back Independents, they'd be wise to focus their campaigns on issues that unite, not divide -- or worse, alienate -- likely allies.
Governor-elect Bob McDonnell did that well in Virginia. He is as conservative as they come on social issues, but he chose not to make them the core of his campaign message, instead focusing on Virginia's growing tax burden. The irony was that the Washington Post tried its best to paint McDonnell as a right-wing kook in front-page articles and myriad editorials, but the attacks never stuck because McDonnell wisely chose to stay on message.
Much can happen between now and next year's congressional election. The economy could improve; but given Democrats' plans to expand government services and raise taxes to pay for them, it's unlikely we'll see a quick rebound in jobs anytime soon. What the Republicans need now is a coherent message to the American people -- and some messengers capable of delivering it in an appealing way.
Many of the voters the GOP lost in 2006 and 2008 realized that Republicans from President Bush to members of Congress were fiscally irresponsible. They were no better at reigning in government spending than the Democrats. Discretionary spending in the Bush years actually went up faster than in the Clinton years, according to a study by George Mason University economist Veronique de Rugy. And Congressional pork spiked in 2005 when Republicans were still in control, with almost 14,000 pork-barrel earmarks included in legislation that year.
Some of those spending increases were due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and homeland security at home -- but discretionary domestic spending also went up nearly 21 percent in Bush's first term. By contrast, such spending went down by almost 10 percent in President Reagan's first term and remained nearly flat in his second term.
But Bush's profligate spending is nothing compared to what the Democrats are doing now and hope to do in the future. If Republicans stick to reminding Americans that the Democrats' unprecedented spending spree will result in higher taxes and fewer jobs, they will make big gains in 2010.