In the wake of a “wave election” like the 2014 midterm, Americans will soon find out whether they actually want what they have wrought. The polls tell us that too many voters are weary of President Obama, including a significant number who actually voted for him two years ago. Polls likewise suggest that most voters today repose more trust in Republicans on such fundamental issues as economic growth, national security, and budget discipline. But do they want what Republicans in control will do now?
If they are faithful to their beliefs, the Republican leadership in Washington will now seek to advance a set of policies that are simply repugnant to the public – most notably in the Ryan budget that they have signed up to promote (except for the caucus of ultra-right Republicans who consider that wild plan too “moderate”).
House Speaker John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, will have to try to repeal Obamacare — but they will likely be pushed further than that. Proposals to reduce Medicare to vouchers, privatize Social Security, and gut the Federal agencies that protect the health and safety of ordinary citizens and the preservation of clean water and air will soon emerge. They will continue to let the nation’s infrastructure crumble. And they will attempt to shift the burden of taxation from the wealthy to the middle class, working families, and even the poor.
Attention to all these basic questions has been deflected, for the moment, by demagogic campaigns blaring the Ebola virus and Islamist militants at the border, as well as disaffection with the president. But that level of distraction will not last, once the Republicans begin to bring forward the kind of extremist legislation that their Tea Party base (and the billionaire lobby surrounding the Koch brothers) will demand.
When Americans look at real issues – even in this era of dissatisfaction and distraction – they display little interest in Republican-style solutions. The most obvious examples in this election are the referendum ballots on the minimum wage, which passed by two-to-one margins both in deep-red states such as Arkansas and in suddenly purplish places like Illinois, which elected a Republican governor. In Alaska, South Dakota, and Nebraska, where Republican candidates romped at every level, voters passed state minimum wage increases by wide margins.
While GOP candidates in this year’s election set aside their “free-market” principles in the face of voter sentiment for higher wages – including Tom Cotton, who won a Senate seat in Arkansas – the Republican platform declared plainly in 2012 that the minimum wage “has seriously restricted progress in the private sector.” They aren’t simply against federal minimum wage increases, which they consistently oppose in Congress. They are against the very idea of a legal minimum wage, period.
In the president’s home state, where the election of a Republican governor is regarded as a political bellwether, the simultaneous rejection of right-wing ideology went beyond the minimum wage. Voters in Illinois overwhelmingly approved a “millionaire’s tax” – a special 3 percent state income tax surcharge on every resident earning more than a million dollars annually. Increasing taxes on the wealthy is, of course, anathema to the Republican right.
Even worse, from the Republican perspective, is that revenues from the millionaires tax will be dedicated to public education – another element of American democracy that the GOP constantly seeks to undermine.
Finally, the Illinois electorate approved a law mandating insurance coverage of prescription birth control, directly repudiating the Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority. Like the minimum wage and the millionaires tax, this referendum was advisory and not legally binding. Republicans mocked all three as obvious attempts to draw Democratic voters to the polls. And as a political ploy, if that is what those ballot questions represented, they did not succeed.
But taken with the minimum wage referenda in other, more conservative states, they appear to represent prevailing sentiment among the American people.
Today, Republicans have every reason to celebrate a smashing victory that had very little to do with ideas and policies – and everything to do with an unpopular president’s streak of bad luck. What will happen when the right begins to implement its extremist ideology remains to be seen.