Firing squad. Bloodbath. Armageddon. Pick your analogy—Tuesday was a disaster for the Democratic Party. As return after return trickled in from the thousands of contested races, large and small, the conventional wisdom also suffered a blow: Liberal firebrand Alan Grayson lost badly in his Florida district; Tea Party candidates actually prevented Republicans from taking control of the Senate; and threatened Democratic incumbents in Washington, California, and Massachusetts somehow held on. Republicans elected two African-Americans to the House, and two minority women to governorships—but former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin endorsed four “Mama Grizzlies” who failed.
The losers may be tempted to embrace the glum platitude that “elections have consequences.” Instead, they should realize that votes don’t have consequences—at least not in the traditional sense. How else to explain the defeat of three Indiana Democrats who refused to vote for the health-care bill? Or the victory in Nevada for the wooden, wearied majority leader Harry Reid? How else to excuse the loss of Russ Feingold, a reliable independent whose foresight on the Patriot Act and the misguided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tracks closely with the opinions of most Americans? Or that of Congressman Joseph Cao, a Vietnamese-American Republican who voted once for the health-care bill in the interest of his lower-income minority district, yet was unceremoniously bounced from office last night? Even laughably unqualified South Carolina Senate candidate Alvin Greene won 36 percent of the vote.
These outcomes suggest that elections, however hallowed, are also overrated. Some officials—say, the judges who legalized gay marriage in Iowa—felt democratic cause and effect more acutely. But the average Democrat in Congress was just as likely to be fired for the ugly housing market than for taking any single, controversial vote. And that’s among the 40 percent of the country that actually turned out to the polls.
The 111th Congress—particularly Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House of Representatives—passed some gravity-defying laws. Banking and health-care reform stand out. But other important initiatives, from energy action to small business tax relief, were grounded by Republicans—and also by Democrats fearful that they might lose the next election. Worrywarts like Senator Blanche Lincoln bled the health-care bill dry. Retiring Democrats like Chris Dodd fought for credit-card reform. As of January, they’ll both join Alvin Greene and millions more unemployed Americans. Who has more to be proud of?
This isn’t a particularly novel insight, but one lesson of 2010 is that one’s stay in Washington can be nasty, brutish, and short. The noisy failures of democracy in America are a shame—but with two months still left on the clock, Democrats ought to shut up and drive. The last days of their historic majority could reform immigration law, repeal Bush 43's tax cuts, and dismantle the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. Why not a climate bill while they’re at it? If Democrats learn anything from last night, let it be that it is better to err on the side of boldness.