As an unalloyed liberal, I sought assurance against regression. Will the Republican rout spell the undoing of some of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments? It certainly could. But repealing health care and financial reform is apt to be a lot harder than talking about repealing them; the Democrats still control the presidency and the Senate. And the Republicans undertake a wholesale rollback of such measures at their own risk. American voters may be angry and frustrated with Obama and the Democratic Congress, but do 30 million people really want to give back their promised health-care coverage? Do most Americans really want to deregulate Wall Street? Yes, it’s likely that certain measures will be watered down, but it’s by no means clear they’ll be obliterated.
Will the Republican victories usher in a still greater level of Washington gridlock? Absolutely. But even paralysis has its upsides. On the simplest level, if you’re a Democrat, it means the Republicans can’t, in fact, enact their agenda. And there are certain political advantages. If the economic policies that the Obama administration has put in place are working by 2012, the president will get all the credit. If they’re not, he gets to spread the blame. “From a crassly political standpoint,” says Robert Reich, a secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton who worked with a GOP-controlled Congress (and, obviously, a Democratic partisan), “Republican control of the House gives the president a foil against which he can more easily define what he’s for and against.” Recall that in 1994, the GOP took over the House for the first time in 40 years; in 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic second-termer in 28.