The Shape of Backlashes to Come

To me it seems obvious that having the 111th Congress press hard to get big things done was the right call, even if it contributed to electoral defeat. This is especially true because as I said yesterday you need to do the analysis at the margin. Losing 65 House seats is way worse than losing zero House seats. But dropping the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t have saved 65 House seats. Maybe it would have saved 15. But that’s not nearly as big a deal. The reason you try to win elections is it gives you the chance to pass important laws, so saying you want to avoid passing laws in order to slightly reduce your midterm losses seems silly.

So I agree with Ross Douthat that I don’t quite get what all the conservative exultation is about:

Politics often gets covered as though the legislative sessions are just a long prelude to the real action of election season. But for all the breathless horse-race coverage, elections only matter to the extent that they produce (or forestall) actual legislation. And where the policies of the United States government are concerned, all the ground the Republicans regained tonight doesn’t change the fact that what liberals achieved in Barack Obama’s first two years in office was more consequential than any conservative victories in recent memory.

Or I guess I do get what the exultation is about. It’s like being a sports fan. The Wizards beat the Sixers in a close overtime game last night and the crowd was loving it. We all know the team’s not winning a championship, but it’s fun to watch your boys win. So Republicans won big and conservatives are psyched about that. But in policy terms progressives are in way better shape today than we were two years ago when we were flush with “victory” but hadn’t actually done any stuff.

What I don’t understand is Douthat’s effort to introduce more balance into this analysis:

The question is what happens next. If the backlash persists into 2012, if the Republicans get serious about policy, if this cycle’s conservative gains are a prelude to conservative legislative successes down the road, then the Democrats’ decision to gamble their majority on health care reform may come to look reckless and self-destructive, and the victories of the 111th Congress will seem pyrrhic rather than enduring.

That doesn’t make much sense to me. Whether or not the “backlash” persists into 2012 in a way that permits major conservative legislative success in the 113th congress is going to hinge on whether or not Obama gets re-elected. And it’s just not realistic to think that legislative tactics chosen in 2009 and 2010 are going to have a meaningful impact on this. Either Obama will succeed in presiding over some decent personal income growth and he’ll win, or else he won’t and he won’t. That’s a big deal, but I think it emphasizes the central importance of getting things done when you have the chance.

Meanwhile, I’m still really unclear on what this current backlash is about. Canceling the stimulus that’s already phased out? Refraining from cutting Medicare? Complaining about the deficit while refusing to name offsetting spending cuts? “[I]f the Republicans get serious about policy” I would consider that a good thing not a threatening development.