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The bear election

AP Photo

Recent midterm elections have tended to be about something big -- an overarching national theme that drowns out local concerns.

In 2002, it was the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and security -- both at home and abroad.

In 2006, it was a rejection of President George W. Bush's policies -- in Iraq most notably -- as well as his mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina natural disaster.

So, what's the best way to understand what this election is about? We've taken to describing it as the "bear" election. And here's why:

There's an old joke that says that to survive a bear attack, you don't have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than the other guy. (A bit morbid we know but apt.)

In this election, the bear is the voting public -- a public dissatisfied with the pace of change, anxious about its economic future and ready to shake up the political status quo.

The two political parties are the two guys running from the bear. Democrats, if all the political prognostication is accurate, are the ones likely to be swallowed up. But Republicans would be making a gross miscalculation if they thought their escape from the bear merited any sort of celebration.

In the New York Times/CBS News poll released this morning, 46 percent of people had a favorable view of the Democratic Party while 48 percent saw it in an unfavorable light. The Republican Party was held in lower regard; 41 percent viewed it favorable while 52 percent regarded it unfavorably.

Those numbers only tell half of the story, however. The political atmospherics -- just one in three people think the country is headed in the right direction, one in five voters say the economy is in "fairly good" shape and just one in ten (14 percent) approve of the job Congress is doing -- all point to significant unrest in the electorate.

That unrest, coupled with the widespread understanding that Democrats are in charge of all the levers of power in Washington, seem likely to overwhelm the very real doubts that voters -- and particularly independents -- have about the Republican brand.

Never before -- in modern political memory at least -- has a party so unpopular with voters been on the verge of such sweeping gains, a development that should rightly be read by astute GOP strategists as less an affirmation of their agenda than a warning signal of what be waiting for them at the ballot box in two years time.

Returning to our "bear election" theory, being the "other guy" only works for so long. If -- and it now seems far more likely than not -- Republicans are handed control of the House or, in a much longer shot, the Senate, the bear will turn to the GOP to see what they can do.

Simply standing in opposition won't be enough. While President Obama will continue to bear -- heyooo! -- considerable burdens in terms of producing accomplishments to take to the public in 2012, he will also be able to call on Republicans to walk the walk as well.

There is always a tendency -- prevalent among both parties -- to assume that an electoral victory is a broad validation of their agenda and views.

Remember how Bush and Karl Rove were building a permanent Republican majority? Or how President Obama's election signaled a watershed moment that would alter politics forever?

Neither prediction has born fruit for a simple reason: voters are often primarily voting against one party rather than for the other.

Escaping the bear then -- as Republicans appear likely to do in five days time -- is rightly understood not as a mandate for the GOP agenda but rather a rejection of the one Democrats have pushed over the past two years.

Two years from now, of course, it could be the GOP who finds itself in the bear's sights.

By Chris Cillizza  | October 28, 2010; 1:28 PM ET
Categories:  House, Senate  
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