Perhaps the biggest political question in 2010 is whether the American people will blame the nation's mess on the long-term impact of Ronald Reagan's "government is the problem" ideology (and on his successors from the Bush Family) or on Barack Obama for not solving enough of the problems in less than two years.
The Republicans hope that public impatience with Obama will work to their advantage, while the Democrats must pray that the voters will recognize that the mess developed over several decades and that it makes little sense to hand power back to the party that dominated those years of national decline.
While most smart money is on the American people's famous lack of historical memory (thus favoring the Republicans), there is a case to be made that it was Reaganism a combination of anti-government ideology at home and tough-guy policies abroad which led to many problems that America now faces.
Over the past 30 years, Reaganism and its spinoffs under George H.W. and George W. Bush caused or contributed to: Deregulation of corporations, union-busting, tax cuts for the wealthy, a shrinking middle class, lost manufacturing jobs, unprecedented federal debt, unbridled Wall Street greed, bubble-and-bust cycles, the worst recession since the Great Depression, two unfinished wars, erosion of civil liberties, environmental degradation, and a continued dependence on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil.
Yet, many U.S. pundits suggest that the American people are up in arms, Tea Party-style, against Big Government, that they want more unrestrained capitalism, less regulation of Wall Street banks, continued freedom for health insurance companies to operate as they wish, more tax cuts tilted toward the well-to-do, reductions in social programs like Social Security and Medicare, more belligerence toward enemies abroad in short, more Reaganism.
So far, however, this analysis has not been confirmed by election results, including those on Tuesday. To the surprise of many pundits, a relatively conservative blue-collar district in Pennsylvania, which voted against Obama in 2008, elected Democrat Mark Critz to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat who used government programs to get his constituents jobs.
Granted, other special elections and primaries have delivered other messages about what American voters want. Conservative Republican Scott Brown won in Massachusetts to fill the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, although his victory may have been more a rejection of his over-confident Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, than a referendum on Reaganism v. Obama's "change you can believe in."
In other states, incumbents and party-backed candidates have lost primaries to insurgents, from the defeats of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, to the victories of Tea Partier Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pennsylvania. Also, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a conservative Democrat criticized for her pro-corporate positions, was forced into a run-off in Arkansas by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
However, the Critz victory in Pennsylvania combined with Sestak beating party-switcher Specter in the state's Democratic primary and Lincoln's troubles in Arkansas suggest that many voters may not be looking for a retreat to Reagan's anti-government ideology but rather want pragmatic efforts by government to address the nation's 30-year economic and fiscal decline.
Organized labor, in particular, played important roles in some of the recent election results, as union workers try to recover after three decades during which Reaganism was dominant. In a recent conversation, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told me that he traced the sharp decline in good-paying jobs for average Americans to Reagan's anti-union policies.
"It was like night and day," Trumka said, regarding how the fortunes of organized labor and its members turned with Reagan's election in 1980.
Tea Party Goals
Though the rightist Tea Party movement has received lavish coverage from both the right-wing media and the mainstream press, the recent election results also don't prove that Americans are eager to dial the clock back to days even before Reagan, to the laissez-faire capitalism of the early Twentieth Century, policies that led to the Great Depression.
It's even less clear that Americans favor a more distant trip back into the past to the Andrew Jackson-era battles over the rights of "sovereign" states to "nullify" federal laws, a struggle that both in the 1800s and later in the 1960s gave cover to white racists opposed to granting blacks and other minorities their civil rights.
The Tea Partiers bristle at suggestions that they are racist, but their excessive hostility to President Obama and their neo-Confederate attitudes about states' rights have created a reasonable suspicion that many Tea Party activists don't like the idea of a black man in the White House and favor putting racial and ethnic minorities "back in their place."
Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, fed those suspicions after winning Kentucky's Republican primary. In interviews, Rand Paul indicated he was opposed to the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that required restaurants and other businesses to serve blacks.