It Could Have Been Worse

The consensus is that it could have been worse. As Mona Charen put it on the morning after, "Yes, some horrible candidates won, and a few more may yet succeed. But the red wave is looking more like a small toxic spill" (quoted by Charlie Sykes, The Knives Are Already Out, The Bulwark, November 9, 2022). As I write on Friday afternoon there remains a possibility the Democrats can retain the Senate. If Republicans prevail, they will only flip over to the same thin margin that bedeviled Democrats for the past two years. There is astoundingly enough a slim possibility that Democrats will somehow hang onto the House. Not likely, with pretty much everything having to fall into place, but it has been a strange week.


In some quarters among the punditocracy, grizzled experts, gray eminences, and cigar-puffing, whiskey-swilling politicos the outcome is being touted as evidence that warnings about threats to democracy, rule of law, and constitutional governance were overblown if not outright hooey. I cannot cite anyone off the top of my head, but I know I have seen or heard commentary along these lines, I swear—and, I know, famous last words. The argument tends to come from conservatives and some centrists eager to play down the MAGA faction's clout in the Republican Party. At present I see no reason to believe this line of analysis is likely to go anywhere other than the trash bin of history alongside all those prognostications of a red wave, my own among them. There was ample reason for concern about shenanigans, chaos, even violence going into the election. While the threat may be diminished somewhat for the moment, now is not the time to sit back with our lattes and favorite innocuous diversions, be they Netflix, drag queen story hour, or college football.


Even a small toxic spill can cause damage. A significant number of election deniers lost up and down the ballot. Many, however, won. As of Wednesday afternoon at least 145 Republican deniers running for the House had won their races (Brown, Gardner, Key election deniers). Early reporting I have seen indicates that victories by election deniers came preponderately in certifiably red states, where an election denier as governor or secretary of state is of less concern than one in a swing state. Even there they can still cause mighty mischief by joining in lawsuits, spreading misinformation, and generally undermining trust in elections, but they are less able to subvert outcomes they do not like.


A perverse consequence of the narrow margin in House, whichever way it swings, is the clout it gives the radical dingbat faction headed by its spiritual supreme leader Marjorie Taylor Greene. The next Republican Speaker or minority leader, as the case may be, presumably Kevin McCarthy, will be obliged to appease the Greene contingent as he scrounges for every vote he can muster, with scant margin for error. McCarthy is not noted for political or moral courage. "Every single time he has had to make a choice between what's right or his political future, he chooses his political future" (Rep. Liz Cheney on political violence, Jan. 6 committee and future of GOP, interviewed by Judy Woodruff, PBS NewsHour, November 1, 2022). Any resistance to the Greene faction figures to be passive at best.


We can expect a carnivalesque House of horrors whether Republicans are cast in the role of the majority or as the rowdy opposition. A Republican majority can be trusted to launch multiple investigations, file articles of impeachment against the President, the Attorney General, and other members of the administration, risk default when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling, and try to roll back Medicare and social security, make life easier for wealthy tax scofflaws by defunding the IRS, betray Ukraine, and promote climate crisis by increasing reliance on fossil fuels. This list does not pretend to be inclusive. Issues related to crime, abortion, education, race, and a host of others are also on their radar. As a rowdy opposition they will have to be content with gumming up the works wherever and whenever they can.


For all that there are reasons for guarded hope, optimism being too much to ask of this eternal pessimist. The nature of the Republican base and its enablers in the Republican establishment can lead us to forget that there are decent people out there who are uncomfortable with Democratic policies and the rhetoric that comes from some factions within the party at the same time they see MAGA politicians and their policies for what they are. I know some of these people. They voted for Democrats because they simply could not in good conscience vote Republican. I will grant that it appears not many of them are to be found in Florida.


Election Day came off smoothly, with the usual, almost routine glitches that occur in every election, for which procedures exist for addressing them, but largely free from chaos and violence that I still believe it was not unreasonable to fear would occur. A number of losing candidates from both parties were gracious in their concession remarks. That too is welcome.


Two of the three Democrats endorsed by Liz Cheney, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, won, and the third, Tim Ryan, ran a good campaign in Ohio where he was at best a very long shot. Slotkin, Spanberger, and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer come to mind off the top of my head among an impressive array of younger Democrats who won on Tuesday in no small part by speaking to the concerns of citizens who are neither dyed-in-the-wool Democrats nor die-hard Republicans. Perhaps they will become more the face of the party in the weeks and months ahead. The country and the party will be well served if they do.


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