Last Updated Nov 3, 2010 12:28 PM EDT
That's the central question that faces everyone as we shake off the spasm of the election. Because in the cold light of morning, there's really little that has changed with the change of control in the House of Representatives.
Eric Cantor, the former minority whip, spent a good part of last night's election coverage appearing on every network. His message was simple: the Republicans are grateful for a second chance; they've heard the people's complaint. But when it comes to solving the impossible problem of creating growth in country saddle with layers upon layers of debt -- personal, municipal, state, federal and, even, international -- the junior partner in the Republican congressional leadership talks about rolling back spending to 2008 levels and repealing Obamacare.
Rationales for would-be radicals
These are hardly radical ideas that will address the fundamental lack of jobs in the U.S. economy or reduce the national debt. And John Boehner seems to think he can stay out in front by lagging behind the president and nipping at his heels for two years. Obama's having none of that. He has closed up shop and disappeared from center stage.
In truth, there was little more that Obama could have done in the last two years. He inherited an economy hitting a brickwall at high speed. It took trillions of dollars to keep the economy from collapsing. It will continue to consume a huge amount of money to support the long-term unemployed and aid the States.
It's also true that if Obama had done less, he might have still carried some of the great stores of trust he built up with the American people during the dark days of the financial panic. On the other hand, the anger directed at Washington isn't about real policies or difficult choices.
What the Tea Party stands for is very hard to translate into policy. What its supporters want -- balanced budgets and fiscal restraint -- hasn't been a Republican strength for generations. Now that hard choices and real pain will be called for to meet their goals, it doesn't seem evident that any of those elected this week are being honest with themselves or their constituents.
Fear the wrath of the Tea Partiers
Yet Marco Rubio, the Tea Party candidate who won in Florida, was quick to remind the Republicans that his supporters would be watching to see if they strayed from the Tea Party's agenda. So how will Boehner and Cantor continue to ride this tiger?
The Republicans used the threat of higher taxes as a stalking horse in the campaign, but no one seriously thinks about raising taxes during an anemic recovery that still feels like a recession. The $100 billion in budget rollbacks Cantor used as his talking points sound like real money until you see the size of the deficit. The Tea Partiers say they want the deficit brought down to a manageable size. How's that going to happen?
Even in our reduced state, we remain seriously overextended with many more bills still to come due. The first job for the new Republican leadership is to find a leader. The second is to come up with a meaningful set of policies that might bring jobs back to America. That's going to be hard. The unemployed aren't just victims of the recent bubble. The Bush administration's response to the previous jobless recovery of 2002 and 2003 was to shift a huge portion of the working population into an unsustainable housing industry.
What's going to drive economic growth?
Everyone agrees that the U.S. needs a new industry to drive growth. What's that industry going to be? It's a conundrum with no easy answer. The reality of which is going to sink in for the tea party and the independents who voted for them over the next two years. In many ways, Obama may have played his cards right.
Instead of seeing the 2010 election as a sea change, we should see it as a replay of 2008: a repudiation of the repudiation. The loss of the House was a tantrum, not a tectonic shift. Obama seems to know this. You saw no one from the administration on television last night. Nor has the President done much to announce a new team to replace the dominant figures like Rahm Emmanuel and Larry Summers who are departing.
Obama is doing the smart thing. He's hunkering down and letting the Republicans fail for awhile. This was partly Bill Clinton's strategy. He let Newt Gingrich overplay his hand -- remember the M&Ms on Air Force One incident? -- and reminded the country that they preferred Slick Willie to the Newt.
Perhaps a dynamic leader will emerge from the amalgam of the Republican leadership and the Tea Party insurgents. It could be someone like Marco Rubio himself. But Sarah Palin, John Boehner and Eric Cantor will have a long two years ahead of them because now they're trapped between strategically safe position of "no" and the electorate's demand for a "yes."