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What Did the Midterms Really Tell Us?

Americans were not oblivious to the larger issues.

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Announces She's Stepping Down From Party Leadership Role
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) delivers remarks from the House Chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building on November 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

For weeks Republicans have been asking themselves how the same voters who told pollsters before the midterms that the country is going in the wrong direction could, in the end, fail to generate a remedial “red wave.”

Commenting on an article in the New York Post, a man named Michael Young seemed to encapsulate the astonishment of so many conservatives when he wrote, “The results of the midterm election are a head scratcher. Are voters not paying attention to what the politicians are doing? NONE of the policies that the Democrats support are in the interests of the American people!”

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Was the Republicans’ surprising underperformance really due, as many pundits have suggested, to poor candidate quality? Did Roe v. Wade end up being a much bigger issue than predicted? Or were party professionals simply lacking an adequate strategy for the growth of early voting? The relative importance of each factor will likely continue to be debated for months to come.

But every time I see another report of Americans still paying exorbitant airfares and hotel rates to make up for time lost to pandemic lockdowns, I think that historian John Kukacs’s highly regarded book Five Days in London may suggest a fourth and very different explanation. Detailing the British War Cabinet’s May 1940 debate over whether to seek a last-minute peace with Hitler, the author notes how most Londoners were busily planning their seashore vacations and overwhelming city travel agents with summer plans, as if nothing were wrong.

It was not that average citizens were unaware of their defeated army being hastily evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk or of the very real possibility of full-scale war with Germany. It was just that they were not emotionally ready to steal themselves to a bloody conflict so soon on the heels of the Great Depression. Most British just wanted their peaceful interlude from worldly hardship to last as long as it could.

All this is not to suggest that those midterm voters who hesitated to fully empower the GOP to tackle what they had told pollsters were the country’s biggest problems—inflation, national debt, urban crime, low defense spending, failing schools, and open borders—feared the equivalent of wartime sacrifice. But neither was giving an overwhelming mandate to the Republican Party going to be pain free.

Even before the November 8 election day, it was already clear from what the Federal Reserve had done to bring down inflation that righting the country’s long-term economic problems was going to require significant sacrifice. And it did not take much imagination to foresee that all the groups that had become dependent on government spending over the years were going to fight any GOP Congress that tried to “cut the fat.”

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The same teachers unions that had deprived public school children of needed instruction during Covid would have no problem using strikes or work slowdowns to stop Washington threats to their power. And the same Democrats, academics, and mainstream journalists who for two years had been turning a blind eye to violations of U.S. border law and urban violence would do everything they could to thwart what they would label a “systemically racist” GOP.

Midterm voters old enough to have been adults during the Reagan years likely recalled how his conservative economic policies, while essential to the prosperity that eventually followed, first produced one of the deepest financial downturns in the country’s history. A six-month recession immediately following the president’s election in 1980 was followed by a short burst of productivity and then a sustained recession from July of 1981 to November 1982. By December of 1982, unemployment stood at 10.8 percent and did not fall below 6 percent until September 1987.

Perhaps many midterm voters even realized, or at least sensed, that the problems they told pollsters needed to be fixed were also problems whose resolutions could severely disrupt their own private interests. Must Congress learn to live within its means? Sure. But what about promised entitlements? Or the big contract one’s employer has with a federal agency? Or the neighborhood hospital (university, foundation, community center), that is so heavily dependent on government grants?

Did most voters think that every school board should be accountable to the academic demands and values of local parents? Pre-election surveys said “yes.” But what would happen to real estate values across the country if families no longer felt they had to pay up to live in a zip code where the school district is already fairly responsive to the community?

Should the U.S. be investing more in its military, so that China does not dominate the Pacific? Absolutely. But doesn’t that mean reducing other parts of the federal budget even more, thereby putting one’s own government benefits in even greater jeopardy?

Likely contributing to many voters’ sense of their own vulnerability to needed reforms was the recent tendency of both parties to treat control of Congress as a license to pass sweeping reconciliation bills, bills with provisions never really discussed during the preceding election. Absent a guarantee of “regular order”—committees hearing expert testimony and legislators having to publicly defend favored amendments—anyone attracted to what a Republican candidate said he or she was for had every reason to doubt what party insiders might actually pass.

Indeed, Democrats played very effectively on this fear in the final weeks of the campaign when they accused their rivals of secretly plotting to balance the budget with steep cuts to Social Security and Medicare. GOP candidates were understandably outraged by these baseless accusations, but the fact that the charges were effective suggests at least some suspicion of what the Republican Party might actually do in the wake of a red wave.

Not that the electorate trusted Democrats to be any more faithful to their own campaign promises. Certainly not since 2020 when newly elected President Biden, having run for office as a moderate unifier, took a sharp left turn. To many voters, the best outcome might have seemed the one they actually got: a Congress where a Republican House and Democrat Senate could check each other’s worst instincts.

Conservatives are clearly disappointed that the midterms left Republicans without control of the Senate, and it is only natural that they should blame some combination of candidate quality, Roe, and lax organization for the outcome. But, as the polling told us before November 8, Americans were not oblivious to the larger issues. They knew that a federal debt of $31 trillion was pushing the limit of what could be safely financed, that tolerance of crime would eventually make cities unlivable, that porous borders were unsustainable, and that failing schools were a prescription for national decline.

Maybe all many midterm voters really wanted on the heels of Covid was a little more time before undertaking the painful cures they knew had to come.

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