Certainly, Republicans have much to be happy about in the wake of last week's landslide at the polls. Republican leaders and conservative commentators have hit the nail on the head by pointing out that voters are unhappy with the direction of government and the policies pursued by the Democrats in Washington in particular.
Much like the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, the GOP was the beneficiary of a populace angry at a government it saw as too big, too ambitious, too wasteful and flat-out incompetent.
The GOP runs the risk of reading this election as a mandate, however. The only edict the voters delivered is that they are sick of Washington.
Barack Obama came to Washington promising to change politics as usual, and instead has shown himself to be yet another creature of Washington, cutting backroom deals with labor unions and Big Pharma, assaulting civil liberties and shattering promises about naming lobbyists to serve in his administration. In this regard, we've noted that Obama is much like George W. Bush before him, who came to office promising to be "a uniter, not a divider." Of course, Bush turned out to be one of the most polarizing presidents in history who left office with a historically low approval rating, effectively gifting the opposition party complete control of government upon his exit.
Voters served notice on the Bush administration and congressional Republicans in 2006 and 2008 that they were not only sick of deficit spending and the skyrocketing deficit, but also the incompetence exhibited in the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans came to be viewed as big-spending politicians who were less concerned with governing competently and more concerned with making mountains out of social-issue molehills like gay marriage and Terri Schiavo. Through it all, Bush became a sort of caricature -- stubborn, obstinate, out of touch and completely paralyzed as the housing bubble burst, the financial markets crumbled, and America shed jobs by the thousands.
And in 2010, voters let Obama and the Democrats know how unhappy they've become with the new party in charge. When Obama took office in January 2009, it was almost unthinkable that the electorate would rebuke this administration so harshly. Even I've been surprised. After ramming through the "economic stimulus package" and swatting away Republican efforts to meet in the middle on a smaller, less economically cumbersome package, Obama made the biggest mistake of his presidency -- choosing to focus on healthcare rather than jobs. The stimulus failed to do much of anything, and Obama spent his remaining political capital on an issue that, as FactCheck.org has noted, is much less dire than liberals would like voters to think. It's still unbelievable to me that the Obama administration made this choice. It was an enormous political miscalculation. And they paid an enormous price.
Voters are sick of it. They want responsible, adult leadership. They want to be spoken to like adults. And quite frankly, I think they want their leaders to be direct and honest. How else to explain the immense popularity of America's two best governors, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels?
Republicans now have a choice. They can spend the next two years trying to repeal the healthcare bill and investigating the Obama administration's sausage-making, or they can legitimately try to get America back to work. If the White House is unwilling to work with them, voters will see it. But it is a recipe for disaster to re-litigate last year's battles. While voters may not have approved of the healthcare bill, they remain out of work and the economy shows no signs of turning around. They don't want politics. They want solutions.
If Republicans return to the stalemating ways of the past, voters will rebuke them harshly in 2012, and potentially return Obama to a second term. A lot falls on the shoulders of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Their party's fate, and the fate of the as-yet-undetermined 2012 presidential nominee, rests in their hands.
Republicans were simply the beneficiaries of voter anger last week. In 1994, they ran on a platform, the brilliantly crafted and appropriately titled Contract With America. In 2010 -- again, much like the Democrats did in 2008 -- they simply ran as the anti-incumbents. It worked. But with Republicans recapturing the House and nearly evening the margin in the Senate, voters expect them to be productive.