In charting the last two years, from the euphoria of election night 2008 to the despair of election night 2010, I keep returning to Mario Cuomo's famous dictum that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The poetry of campaigning is lofty, gauzy, full of possibility, a world where problems are solved just because we want them to be and opposition melts away before us. The prose of governing is messy and maddening, full of compromises and half-victories that leave a sour taste in one's mouth.
Governing, however, is also specific where campaigning is usually vague. And that fact may provide a means for Democrats to regain the political advantage over the next two years. Now that Republicans too will be expected to at least participate in governing, they could find themselves dragged down by the prose.
In campaigns, candidates reduce their ideas to simple statements of principle and 30-second ads, and the side whose simple message is more attuned to the moment will probably win. Two years ago, the moment was about change and renewal; this year the moment was about anger and disappointment. All else being equal, this means Republicans have an easier time getting elected and a harder time legislating the things they really want to do (other than tax cuts, which are never a hard sell), while Democrats have a harder time getting elected but ought to have an easier time legislating.
Of course, all else is never equal. But this contrast explains why Democrats so often have difficulty explaining themselves to a public that is largely inattentive and indifferent to the details of policy. Every Republican understands the four simple things they believe in: small government, low taxes, strong defense, and traditional values. Ask a Democrat what she believes in, and she'll give you a laundry list of initiatives, proposals, and programs.
But Americans like those programs, and herein lies the contradiction at the center of American politics. When an elderly man pokes a finger at his congressman's chest and yells, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" he embodies everything that is so wrong with our politics. As a long history of public-opinion research has made clear -- and as events continue to remind us -- Americans are "symbolic conservatives" but "operational liberals." In other words, they like the idea of limited government, but they also like just about everything government does. Good things happen to the party that can successfully pander to both impulses, which is why we saw so many ads from Republicans (like this one) condemning Democrats for passing a big-government health-care plan because it would ... curtail the growth of Medicare.
Perhaps they're just being cautious as they get used to their new majority, but in the last week, Republicans have steadfastly refused to say what their professed desire to limit government would actually entail. Press them hard on what they want to cut, and they'll answer "earmarks," which would be fine were it not for the fact that a) earmarks do not appropriate new money; they merely direct money that has already been appropriated, and b) the value of all earmarks amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
Of course, it's only money spent in some other district that is a contemptible earmark; the money spent in my district is necessary for the health of the nation. That's why more than 100 Republican lawmakers voted against and publicly condemned the Democrats' stimulus package, then turned around and requested that some of it go to their districts for vital programs to create jobs and took credit when it did. You can make "the stimulus" unpopular, but you best not oppose that project to repair the local bridge.
If there's one thing Republicans have been clear about, it's their desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Even here, though, they don't want to get too specific. As you've no doubt heard many times, a bare majority of the public opposes "health-care reform" (or "Obamacare"), while substantial majorities favor almost all the major provisions of the law. Once again, Republicans can win the vague, general argument but not the specific one. Faced with the impossibility of repealing the entire act (which Obama would veto), Republicans have said they'll try to dismantle it piece by piece. Try that, however, and they're suddenly attacking not "health-care reform" but those particular things people like.
That isn't to say Republicans will inevitably be punished for attempting to repeal the ACA. Pushing repeal will only be dangerous for them if Democrats make it so. Republicans will suffer if they're attacked aggressively for wanting to reopen the Medicare prescription-drug "doughnut hole," for wanting to kick young people off their parents' insurance, or for wanting to give the insurance companies the ability to deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. Those are all provisions of the ACA that have already gone into effect. The Democrats are hardly guaranteed to win the battle of ACA, but they have a shot if they make the right arguments.
With only one house of Congress in their possession, Republicans may be able to get away with avoiding discussion of the particular for a while. They don't actually have to do anything, and they won't be able to do many of the things they'd like, simply because there's a Senate with its ornate powers to turn legislation into molasses and a president with his veto pen. But they can force some major confrontations, particularly when it's time to write the budget.
That budget battle could well result in a government shutdown, something many Tea Party candidates with short memories explicitly supported during the election. When Newt Gingrich caused a shutdown in 1995, Republicans learned that while much of what government does is invisible to people, they notice when services are taken away. When national parks close, when veterans can't access their benefits, when newly retired people can't sign up for Medicare, and when the media begin reporting on all the things that are grinding to a halt, things get specific very quickly. And the public will get angry all over again.