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John Hood: Elections are a soap opera

By John Hood

RALEIGH — The day before the 2018 midterms, I posted a column about “what to do if you lose.” Without knowing the outcome, I urged those about to be disappointed not to react to their loss in ways that would make themselves, and everyone around them, miserable. 

“While mourning a disappointing cycle is inevitable,” I argued, “don’t wallow in grief or yield to persistent bitterness. It’s probably not the first time a political result has disappointed you, and it certainly won’t be the last. While every election is important, the repeated claim that ‘this election is our last chance to avoid disaster’ is more hysterical than historical.”

Now, as I write just before the 2020 general election, please allow me to revise and extend my earlier remarks.

The fate of the Donald Trump presidency is certainly important, as is control of the U.S. Senate. Our country faces many challenges: COVID-19, the resulting recession, social unrest, an escalating culture war, the federal government’s fiscal insolvency, the affordability and accessibility of health care, and educational stagnation, just to name a few. 

By no means do I mean to suggest that the 2020 elections aren’t momentous. I have spent much of the past two years talking about them. But whatever happens this year, the republic will survive. Claiming otherwise is wrongheaded and dangerous. 

As I pointed out two years ago, our recent political history is littered with examples of pundits confidently — and foolishly — declaring the demise of the party that just lost an election. Every time “experts’ begin singing the funereal hymn, the supposedly dead faction shows up at the church, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, to disrupt the proceedings with some new political caper.

Two years after Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, for example, the GOP roared back to capture both houses of Congress for the first time in nearly half a century, as well as dozens of governorships and legislative chambers.

After the 2004 elections, triumphant Republicans proclaimed a new majority. Two years later, they took it on the chin in the midterms, then saw Barack Obama elected in 2008. Now, indeed, was the GOP truly finished? Nope. A massive red wave built over the next two years.

These shifting political winds had policy consequences, to be sure. Clinton worked with the newly Republican Congress to enact welfare reform, cut capital gains taxes, and balance the federal budget. During his first two years of unified Democratic power in Washington, Obama and his congressional allies enacted the Affordable Care Act. During his first two years, Trump and his congressional allies reformed the tax code.

Still, these bursts of legislative activity punctuated what was otherwise a long period of confrontation and stalemate. Whatever happens this year, I would not count on a sustained radicalization of federal policymaking. If the Democrats obtain full control of Congress, its stability will depend on center-left senators who may be loath to declare war on longstanding traditions and broad swaths of the business community. If Republicans retain the Senate, obviously the aperture through which federal bills must pass to become law will be even narrower. 

In other words, elections are not like movies with clear endings. They are soap operas. That shocking, cliffhanger ending on Friday? Exciting, yes. But the storylines will continue on Monday’s episode. 

Another point I made in 2018 deserves restating today. Yes, politicians may win whose views you detest. Keep in mind, however, that they truly believe their public service — for which they will likely sacrifice a great deal — will advance the public good as they see it. 

“You can disagree strongly with your political rivals without demonizing or wishing misfortune on them,” I wrote. “Just as they should avoid being obnoxious winners in the coming months, you should avoid being a sore loser. Next time around, the results could be reversed. How would you like to be treated in that case? This is always a good rule to follow. One might even call it golden.”

Still true.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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