Every election has an afterglow. It rarely lasts. As formidable as the Republican romp in the midterm elections was, the lesson may be that abrupt shifts in power are the new constant. "Let's face it," says Richard Norton Smith, a history professor at George Mason University, the outcome "is schizophrenic." He says voters demand change, then punish lawmakers who made change possible. Voters insist they want representatives who work across the aisle, yet reward the ones who make sure that doesn't happen. "They claim to want to address fundamental issues, including the budget deficit, but don't want to take the costly steps to get us there," says Smith.
Now a newly empowered Republican majority in the House, with a strengthened hand in the Senate, must divine what voters really want, or at least what they will tolerate given the tough budget questions ahead. Their talk, as if they alone know the solution, may be misguided. Even Marco Rubio, a Tea Party-backed Republican who won a U.S. Senate seat from Florida, said on Election Night: "Our nation is headed in the wrong direction, and both parties are to blame."
Surveys show that many voters pulled the lever against Democrats in part because they are unhappy with government efforts so far to energize the economy and put 14.8 million jobless Americans back to work. Most newly elected members of Congress think the answer is lower taxes, making it harder for them to trim the $1.4 trillion budget deficit without dramatic spending cuts.
Or consider this: Kentucky's Rand Paul, who trumpeted a "Tea Party tidal wave" in his victory speech, said that "America can rise and surmount these problems if we just get government out of our way." He and others in this ambitious new class of lawmakers want to limit the power of bodies like the Federal Reserve, which may be the only non-gridlocked institution in Washington that can juice the economy.
Beyond such policy contradictions, another reason this Republican moment may prove fleeting is that the likely new House Speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, and his Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, face a management challenge. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who tried to lead the outsiders from the inside, warned fellow Tea Partiers in a Nov. 3 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that "The establishment is much more likely to try to buy off your votes than buy into your limited-government philosophy." He was talking about fellow Republicans.
Tea Party candidates built their victories on a coalition of grassroots enthusiasts, monied interests, and GOP leaders who battled the insurgents before embracing them. Unlike Newt Gingrich's 1994 "revolution," Republicans this time prevailed without either a galvanizing leader or set of ideas. "John Boehner, for his many virtues, is not Newt Gingrich," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "Nobody would use visionary to describe him."
If Tea Partiers get their wish and Republicans collar the Fed—a body the newcomers know little about—that could make it harder for the central bank to help the 9.6 percent of Americans who are jobless. The Fed "is the only game in town" in managing economic growth, says Vincent Reinhart, the central bank's former director of monetary affairs and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The Fed proved that to be so on Nov. 3 when it announced purchases of an additional $600 billion of Treasuries through June.
In his post-election news conference on Nov. 3, President Barack Obama acknowledged the "shellacking" that his party took and pledged to reboot his relationship with business, which has been reluctant to hire as long as consumers remain slow to unclasp their pocketbooks and the housing market stays frozen. The President confronts economic challenges more profound than Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, who saw their party suffer heavy midterm losses and went on to win second terms with ease. In 1994 the recovery was already well established and unemployment had been falling for more than two years. About the same time as Reagan's midterm losses in 1982, the Fed began easing a tight monetary policy it had maintained to control inflation; by the 1984 election the economy was growing at a rate of more than 7 percent.
A rising tide, history shows, lifts all Presidents, if it rises fast enough. The economy has expanded for five quarters in a row. In 2012 it's projected to grow at a 3 percent rate, and unemployment is estimated to be 8.7 percent, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News in October. Not exactly robust, but decent enough to convince voters progress is being made.
Some parts of the economy have bounced back strongly. By the second quarter, corporate profits had rebounded almost to the pre-recession peak reached in 2006. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index is up more than 48 percent since Obama took office. U.S. companies have amassed almost $1 trillion in cash.
Democrats like to say that a communications failure was at the root of their demise, while Republicans say that is just another measure of Team Obama not understanding rejection of his policies. Put historian Smith more in the former category. He termed the Republican victory "a cause without a rationale" and faulted Obama for failing to provide an effective counterargument. "It is as if they have confused the 24/7 news cycle with the fundamental job of the modern President," he says. "As Harry Truman said, the power of the presidency is the power to persuade."
The White House isn't likely to make that mistake again. The GOP may think it has a mandate, but midterm elections are consistent for at least one thing: They are terrible predictors of future contests.
The bottom line: The lesson of the midterms may be that voters no longer trust incumbents and are willing to keep shifting the balance of power.