Meet the new bosses. And, for better or for worse, they really aren't the old bosses.
The new wave of Republican influence in Washington, Tennessee, and elsewhere is unlike previous political sea changes in the nation's history. And note: we said “influence,” not “control,” because, until each of a series of tight battles for the almost evenly divided U.S. Senate is resolved, the exact dimensions of the changeover remain unknown.
But changeover it is. Nationally, Republicans gained control of the U.S. House by somewhere between 50 and 60 votes. In Tennessee, the state's House contingent went from 5-4 Democratic to 7-2 Republican, with even arch Blue Dog Lincoln Davis in rural Middle Tennessee's 4th District falling to a Republican challenger.
In Shelby County, there was no change to speak of. Challenged incumbents, whether Democratic or Republican, all kept their seats. And perhaps even the congressional victory of Democratic incumbent Steve Cohen in the 9th District (Memphis) owes more to local trends, which showed a strong GOP turnout throughout early voting and a bit of a compensating Democratic bump on Tuesday, Election Day.
Most of the outcomes were fully expected — specifically Republican Bill Haslam over Democrat Mike McWherter for the Tennessee governorship, Republican John Boozman over incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln for the U.S. Senate in Arkansas, the GOP's Stephen Fincher over Democratic state Senator Roy Herron in the rural 8th congressional District of northwest Tennessee , and Alan Nunnelee of the GOP over Democratic incumbent Travis Childers in Mississippi's 1st district.
All of these races were romps. But so were the victories of Democrat Cohen (over Republican Charlotte Bergmann) and Arkansas's Democratic governor Mike Beebe over Republican challenger Jim Keet.
What these two cases, along with the relatively narrow loss of Democrat Chad Causey to Republican Rick Crawford in Arkansas's 1st district, had in common was that these Democrats made much less of an effort (and in Cohen's case no effort at all) to distance themselves from their party brand. The previously mentioned Democratic losers were conspicuous in their studied renunciations of traditional party loyalty.
Let us posit that you can't sell Chevys by spouting the talking points of the Ford line, and let it go at that.
So the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives will be Ohio's John Boehner — the same John Boehner who came through these parts little more than a week ago to campaign for Nunnelee (and for his own Speakership, for that matter). The same John Boehner whose “Pledge to America” was a pale and indistinct retread of GOP predecessor New Gingrich's “Contract with America” in 1994, the last time the Republicans upset a Democratic apple cart to this extent.
But in that case the GOP was coming to congressional power for the first time in more than a generation, and it set about to dramatically change the rules, downsizing government and deregulating corporate power.
Most of that having been accomplished already, the new Republican regime won't find that much to transform. Since President Obama maintains his veto power, along with strength in the Senate, it won't be as easy for Boehner and company to repeal what they call “Obamacare.” (The other semantic target of this year's GOP surge, Nancy Pelosi, will be gone from her Speakership after a pair of two-year terms.)
This inability of the victors to define their goals might well become as irksome and frustrating, both for themselves and for the electorate, as would be anybody's attempt to demonstrate just what it was about the Democrats' rule for the last two years that necessitated the mass congressional firings that just got carried out at the polls.
What kind of mess was there, in other words, that was quantitatively or qualitatively different from the one left behind by the Republicans in the final years of the George W. Bush presidency? And what was the rationale for returning to that particular failed status quo ante? Is it possible that Republicanism is now the country's default political mode, to be returned to any time the Democrats flunk a chance, however brief, to bring about something new and successful?
In any case, where we are is where we are. But even in Tennessee, where massive redistricting is bound to occur as a result of the GOP's post-census control of the shaping, just how different will the new configuration be? The Tennessee congressional ranks already will stand at 7-2, with Republicans in charge, and the two Democratic outposts in Memphis and Nashville will most likely endure for the next decade or so, regardless of whatever rough beasts take shape in Tennessee or in Washington over those years.
And, oh yes, consolidation: Can anyone be surprised at the lopsided defeat of the Metro Charter referendum — or at the reaction against the proposed merger by inner-city African Americans intent on maintaining their control of a truncated urban space? Or at the aversion to marrying up with the city on the part of county residents, so many of whom are where they are in order expressly to pursue as secure a divorce from Memphis as possible? 'Nuff said.