Voters sweep the Republicans back into power but can't say why.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 3 2010 1:53 AM

The Elephant in the Room

Voters sweep the Republicans back into power but can't say why.

Read Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 midterm elections.

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John Boehner didn't claim a mandate, he claimed a repudiation. "We are witnessing a repudiation of Washington … a repudiation of Big Government … and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people." It's a good thing he didn't claim a mandate, because the message from the electorate wasn't clear. In exit polls, 37 percent said the highest priority of Congress should be "spending to create jobs." The nearly equal priority was reducing the budget deficit, which 37 percent said was their No. 1 goal.

Repealing health care is not a priority. 48 percent want to repeal it, but almost the same number want to expand it or leave it the same. Still, it's just not at the top of their lists. 62 percent said the economy was the most important issue facing the country. Only 18 percent said that of health care. Only 39 percent of the country believes Congress should expand the Bush tax cuts for everyone, another top GOP action item. John Boehner now has the task of pushing these tricky priorities with a caucus made up of many new members who came to Washington promising to be uncompromising.

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Obama extended a hand immediately to Boehner. He called the presumptive speaker, and the White House released a photo with the president looking calm and easy. Today the president will have to decide whether this election was a message that signaled unhappiness with the pace of progress, or unhappiness with the direction he was taking the country. President Bill Clinton, after the disastrous Democratic performance in the 1994 midterms, said, "I accept my share in the responsibility for the elections." But he seemed reluctant to accept a larger verdict. By his State of the Union address, he would declare the era of big government over.

Will Obama follow that path? We'll find out today at 1 p.m., when the president is scheduled to have a news conference. He can take solace in one part of the Clinton legacy, though. Two years later, after everyone had declared him dead, Clinton won re-election in a rout. Obama has to hope that the economy turns around for him the way it did for Clinton, and that the electorate does, too. He has to believe in the swing.