Course Change

Posted Nov. 04, 2010, at 8:17 p.m.

Rep. John Boehner, likely to be speaker of the House now that Republicans have won control of the U.S. House of Representatives, summarized his party’s win in three words. Voters, he said, told elected representatives they want a “change of course.” Making sense of that change in direction, coming just 21 months after voters changed course by electing President Barack Obama and giving Democrats more seats in both houses of Congress, is not easy.

Oddly, Maine bucked this trend, re-electing its two Democratic representatives — Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree — at the same time control of the State House and governor’s office was handed to the Republicans.

Nationally, the weak economy cast the largest shadow over the Democrats. That the recession began in December 2007 and the economy has begun to grow again means little to those who are unemployed, underemployed or who see the ravages of the recession around them.

A vote against the party in power was a vote seeking a better economy. Which policies the new Republican House majority will push to boost the economy remain to be seen. The GOP platform focused mostly on what the candidates didn’t want, which mostly was anything backed by President Obama.

A second explanation is that voters rejected one-party rule. With a Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in Congress, the perception was that the party rammed through the president’s agenda. President Obama did enact a remarkable amount of his agenda — health care, credit card oversight, and banking and insurance regulations. The stimulus package and auto manufacture bailout were not on the president’s agenda when he ran for office, but became necessary — as did the Bush administration’s bailout of banks — when the economy very nearly collapsed.

But the reason these laws were seen as evidence of one-party rule is because of the Republican strategy to take a hands-off approach to governing. Most GOP lawmakers turned their noses up at the health care law, stimulus package and financial regulations. Had they identified key changes they wanted to see in exchange for a good-faith pledge to support the final bills, the public could have seen Republicans as working to make Democratic ideas better. Instead, Republicans succeeded in keeping their hands clean of these controversial measures. That the results of these measures have yet to been seen worked in the GOP’s favor.

Certainly, Republicans and voters are reasonably concerned about the debt the federal government has accrued in the last two years. But GOP outrage was selective; it failed to show when the Bush administration ran up the deficit to fund two wars, a colossal tax cut and a prescription drug benefit for seniors.

The health care law certainly looked like a “government takeover,” as Republicans described it, and the process by which it was approved was ugly. But Republicans should soon see the folly of a return to a system that allows denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions or maxed-out benefits.

With a new House majority and a “change of course,” the pressing issues remain the same: getting the economy moving — which will help balance the budget and ease unemployment — weaning the nation from foreign fuels and rebuilding infrastructure.

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