Peggy Noonan this morning gives us the conventional, question-begging GOP account of the election results:
The question for the Democratic Party: Was it worth it? Was it worth following the president and the speaker in their mad pursuit of liberal legislation that the country would not, could not, like? And what will you do now? Which path will you take?
Citing no evidence whatsoever, Noonan assumes that the mid-term results hinged on disputes over policy. That is, voters repudiated Democrats’ “mad pursuit of liberal legislation,” such as, presumably, the health care bill, the financial regulation bill and the stimulus package. Noonan’s assumption is comforting: It implies that she and her fellow Republicans successfully persuaded the public of the merits of their policies and the deficiencies of the Democrats’. Not unimportantly, it also upholds a cherished myth of representative democracy, namely, that elections mean something in the sense that voters get to influence the laws by which they are governed.
Noonan doesn’t cite any evidence to support her assumption for the very simple reason that there isn’t any. Imagine that, instead of pushing through health care reform, Dodd-Frank and other measures, Obama, content to bask in the adulation he enjoyed during his campaign and upon his inauguration, had adopted an attitude of benign neglect and achieved by this time no domestic policy reforms. Would the voters have rewarded the Democrats for prudently letting the system work out its own problems? Unlikely. Instead of the “Democrats angered the voters by drastically overreaching” narrative that has become so familiar, we would have another one, equally tiresome, such as “Democrats angered voters by not doing anything to address their concerns.” This latter narrative could just as easily have satisfied pundits’ and politicians’ craving to attribute intelligence to voters as the former.
In fact, the actual evidence if anything cuts against the thesis that voters punished Democrats for their leftwing policies. As Ilya Somin points out, exit polls found that only 18% of voters cited health care as the most important issue, and of these more than half actually voted Democrat. Consistent with the view that voters were naively punishly the Democrats for the nature of the (bad) times, regardless of actual policy, most voters cited the economy. Opposition to Democrats’ actual policies accounts for very little, if any, of the Republican surge.
To quote myself writing on Monday:
As surely as the sun will rise Wednesday morning, pundits will over-interpret the results of Tuesday’s elections. Conservatives, for example, will call the results a clear repudiation of Obama’s policies. They will be no such thing. After you take into account “nature of the times” voting (i.e., voters holding the party in power responsible for today’s high unemployment and sluggish growth), there will be very little left in the GOP victory to explain. Any apparent ideological change will be illusory.
Indeed, the sun did rise on Wednesday morning (at least where I was) and pundits such as Noonan did over-interpret the election results. They will continue to do so until doomsday.