As I have long told my politics students at Florida International and Florida Atlantic University, politics -- at most every level -- is not a game of Texas hold 'em poker. It is
far more akin to a game of chess; a competition in which victory will more often than not go to the player who can see ahead six or seven or eight moves . . . both co's* own and co's* opponent's. ['Co,' by the way, as longtime readers of this blog might recall, is the gender-inclusive pronoun I invented a long time ago. When reading co, think 'he or she'; when reading co's, think 'his or hers.') Those who can successfully envision what their opponent will do several moves down the road, will likely win; those who can successfully compel their opponent to make the moves they envision will likely become a grand master.
Generally speaking, the same holds in politics which, like chess has, comparatively speaking, very few grand masters.
In a chess match, victory is clear; you win by capturing your opponent's king. In politics, victory is never so clear-cut, despite the fact that every campaign does wind up with one candidate winning and the other being defeated. In chess, the magnitude of victory is objective; it can be both quantified and qualified by the number of moves it takes to vanquish one's opponent. In politics victory can also be quantified and qualified . . . but it is frequently both subjective and biased.
Take the nation's recently concluded midterm election.
Without question, the Democrats did take a shellacking; indeed the most oft-used adjective describing their defeat seems to be 'crushing.' The Republicans picked up eight, perhaps nine seats in the Senate and at least a dozen seats in the House, cementing what the New York Times' Nate Cohn called " . . . a nearly unassailable majority that could last for a generation, or as long as today’s political divides between North and South, urban and rural, young and old, and white and nonwhite endure." The 114th Congress will be the most dominant Republican Congress since 1929, with an almost-certain 8 percent majority in the Senate and a better than 15 percent majority in the House. And this is not to mention what happened at the state level, where Democrats lost governorships in both Massachusetts and Illinois.
News commentators have referred to the G.O.P.'s victory as both 'a tidal wave' and 'a tsunami.' Speaking with one voice, Republicans from Maine to California call it 'a mandate,' proclaiming that "The American people have spoken." And even without the benefit of reputable pollsters concluding their post-election data mining, Republicans have determined precisely what it was that voters were against . . . or in favor of. As but one example, the conservative website Western Journalism proudly noted:
The American people have spoken . . . again. A tidal wave of victories by Republicans in the 2014 Midterm elections only matter if those in power will stop the radical transformation of the United States of America. Voters are overwhelmingly unhappy with the direction of the country. The Obama agenda must be thwarted; reckless spending must be stopped, the Constitution must be upheld, Planned Parenthood must be de-funded, families must be strengthened, marriage must be protected, Obamacare must be repealed and replaced, Common Core must be eliminated, and the borders must be secured and laws enforced.
Question: have "the people" really spoken?
Answer: No . . . unless 18.9% of the voting public constitutes "the people."
According to figures provided by the United States Election Project, only 36.4% of the voting-eligible public cast ballots in the recently concluded midterm elections. This represents the lowest voter turnout in any midterm election since 1942, when only 33.9% of eligible voters cast ballots. [In that election FDR and the Democrats lost forty-five seats in the House and 9 seats in the Senate. Despite this, Democrats maintained their majority in both chambers.] Of the 36.4% of the voting eligible public who did vote in the midterm election, approximately 52% cast votes for Republicans.
What does this mean? Let's do the math: if 52% of the 36.4% who voted cast ballots for Republicans that means that only 18.9% of all the eligible voters in America voted for the G.O.P. I wouldn't call that a wave . . . much less a tsunami. "Well," you say, "a majority of those who did turn out to vote did cast ballots for Republican candidates, and that's all that counts." Yes . . . and no.
Nonetheless, be prepared for Republican National Committee Chair Rance Priebus, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker John Boehner and the various incoming committee chairs to tell us over and over about their mandate. Get ready for statements like:
"The American people gave us a mandate to end Obamacare," or
"The American people gave us a mandate to enact the Keystone XL Pipeline," or
"The American people gave us a mandate to end Common Core," or
"The American people voted against gay marriage," or
"The American people voted against Obama, Pelosi and Reid."
It goes with saying that one of the chief benefits or rewards of handing the opposition a stinging defeat at the polls -- even when so relatively few actually participate in that defeat -- is being able to proclaim that whatever position your party takes on the issue of the moment has the overwhelming support of the American people -- even if polls show otherwise.
Interestingly, in going over what post-election data is already out there [mostly from ABC, NBC and CBS], a majority of those surveyed stated that their chief concern was "the direction the country's headed." One might think that such a response would have prompted the networks' pollsters to ask "Why? What is it that makes you concerned about the direction the country's headed in?" But they did not. They failed to discuss specifics of voters' discontent, such as the economy, foreign policy, ISIS, Ebola, climate change etc that was “driving” voter displeasure. While 33 percent of voters polled said one reason for the way they voted was to “express opposition to Barack Obama,” 45 percent said that the main issue on their minds was the economy -- this according to the exit polls sponsored by the National Election Pool. (The National Election Pool is sponsored by all three broadcast news networks and numerous other major news outlets.)
Other exit poll data indicates that only 25 percent of voters said health care was their most important issue this election, while 14 percent said their top issue was illegal immigration and 13 percent said foreign policy. And yet, you can make book on Republicans insisting that whatever proposals they make on health care, immigration or foreign policy [assuming that they do more than stand in opposition to President Obama] has the tacit -- if not vocal -- support of the American people.
I say give House and Senate Republicans a free, unfettered hand in trying to enact whatever legislation they propose. Worst comes to worst, President Obama can always veto the most egregious measures, knowing full well that there won't be enough votes to override anything he rejects. In adopting this strategy, Democrats, far from having to react or respond to Republican moves, will, like chess masters, force the G.O.P. to play their game, thereby forcing Republicans to reveal what America would look like were they to have total control after 2016. Let the Republicans show the country what they propose to do about job creation, cutting the deficit (which is now at its lowest level since 2007), climate change, immigration, health care and the rest. It might actually bring out a lot more voters in 2016.
So tell me: what's the first . . . and the next . . . and the next move going to be?
Copyright©2014 Kurt F. Stone