The tides are an excellent metaphor for what happened Tuesday. We normally measure them in a rough and ready way by treating the shoreline as fixed. That’s a serviceable simplification for most purposes, but it ignores the fact that, over time, the tides’ ebb and flow moves the shoreline. If you go to the same beach every summer for ten years, you probably won’t notice that its dimensions are changing. But revisit a beach for the first time in ten years and you’ll be amazed at how different it looks.“For all the turmoil, the spectacle, the churning - for all the old bulls slain and fuzzy-cheeked freshmen born - the great Republican wave of 2010 is simply a return to the norm. The tide had gone out; the tide came back. A center-right country restores the normal congressional map: a sea of interior red, bordered by blue coasts and dotted by blue islands of ethnic/urban density.”
Krauthammer uses the tide metaphor as a way of resisting the temptations of conservative triumphalism by denying that the election returns signal an unprecedented right-ward turn by the electorate. This election looks more like the restoration of the permanent ideological order if you take your bearings from the results of electoral competition between Republicans and Democrats for control of Congress. But that doesn’t tell you much about less immediately perceptible changes in the location of the ideological shoreline. When you allow for its movement over time you have to wonder whether Krauthammer is over-compensating.
Look at it this way. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won and enlarged their congressional majorities. But they did so primarily by reelecting members from blue state districts (or replacing retiring blue-state members with ideologically similar successors) and adding members from red and purple districts who were generally to the right ideologically of the median Democratic caucus member in the 2004 Congress. You've got to hand it to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi for holding these more ideologically disparate caucuses together as well as they did over the last two years. But that doesn’t change the fact that Democrats gained House and Senate majorities by shifting the median member of their caucuses a couple of notches to the right.
Compare the incoming Republican caucuses to the one it will replace and you’ll find that the median member has moved more than a couple of notches to right as well. In the Senate, for example, you’ve replaced Mel Martinez with Marco Rubio, Arlen Specter (who won in 2004 as a Republican) with Pat Toomey, Jim Bunning with Rand Paul, George Voinovich with Rob Portman . . . (you get the point). And you can expect the voting patterns of the median Democratic senator to move rightward as well. Here’s Mitch McConnell, gleefully contemplating how the Senate is going to work over the next two years:
Anyway you look at it, the ideological shoreline has moved some this week, and there’s no guarantee that a Democratic resurgence in the next election cycle will move it back.“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that he expects some Democrats –- wary that continued support for Democratic policies will cost them re-election in 2012 -- will ‘peel of’" from their caucus to work with Republicans for the next two years.
“’I think the most interesting thing to watch in the next Congress is how many Democrats start voting with us,’ McConnell said.
“’Every one of the 23 Democrats up [for re-election] in the next cycle has a clear understanding of what happened Tuesday,’ he said. ‘I think we have major opportunities for bipartisan coalitions to support what we want to do.’”