Political Passport: Election 2014 Recap & Reflections

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The votes are cast, most of them have been tallied, and the American experiment lives to see another day. To paraphrase one of the only lines that was any good from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, “Every two years we drive to a fire station and overthrow the government and there isn’t a policeman in the street.” It’s a beautiful thing and so rare in all of human history. Our structure and our system cannot be lauded enough. For all its many imperfections, it may just be the closest to perfect we can get for self-rule.

Before what many expected to be a good night for Republicans turned into a great night for Republicans, Peggy Noonan shared insight into how both winners and losers could be gracious as we wrap up another election season.

For those who think Mr. Obama has faced unusual levels of rhetoric, consider this question from a reporter to Mr. Bush:

“Thank you, Mr. President. With all due respect, Nancy Pelosi has called you incompetent, a liar, the emperor with no clothes and, as recently as yesterday, dangerous. How will you work with someone who has such little respect for your leadership and who is third in line to the presidency?”

This is how Mr. Bush replied. “I’ve been around politics a long time. I understand when campaigns end and I know when governing begins. And I’m going to work with people of both parties. You know, look, people say unfortunate things at times. But if you hold grudges in this line of work, you’re never going to get anything done. And my intention is to get some things done, and soon—we’re start visiting with her Friday with the idea of coming together.”

That is the sound of political graciousness. It would be nice to hear it from Mr. Obama on Wednesday.

As for the Republicans, if they have as good a Tuesday night as they increasingly expect, it would be nice if they were gracious and big-minded, and a real relief if they didn’t look smug and get that curled smile that says “We got it back, baby, and Harry Reid will soon be out of that pretty office.” Wouldn’t it be nice if they were happy but modest, and made it clear they’re aware of the fix we’re in? “It is not about me and it’s not, my hardworking friends, about you. It’s about this thing we were given called America. It needs our help. So we are happy tonight, but it’s work in the morning, and the kind of work that is the most important, saving our country.”

Or, more pointedly: “I know what this is. It’s the base giving the party one last chance. They are telling us we better do something. That’s the meaning I take. and I mean to come through.”

That is what the GOP should be thinking this morning. Honestly, that is what every elected official of every party should be thinking this morning. That’s what the losing candidates should be thinking as they consider next steps. And, more importantly than all of them, it is what ordinary Americans, you and me, should be thinking. It’s not about our political parties, although that’s important. It’s not about who won and lost, although I believe that is also vitally important.

It’s not about us. It’s about this thing we were given called America. It’s about the responsibilities we have to each other and to the world, as we see historic levels of evil on the move, raping, beheading, and enslaving. It’s about truly caring for the most vulnerable members of our society, both those who are born and those who are unborn.

This means we will have to forego the easy answers that do more about making ourselves feel good and self-righteous than actually empowering those who feel hopeless. It will mean pragmatism and compromise, but not without standing up for principles and truth. It will mean knock down, drag out debates, but hopefully a focus on the ones that truly matter and insisting upon dignity for all, even those we feel argue for the least dignified positions.

If you read all of this reflection as more empty rhetoric about hope and change, then you misread me. The time for talking and wishing away our country’s problems is over. There is real work to do. I hope the 2014 election results show our President that it’s time to get down to business. I pray that the President and the new GOP congressional leadership focus on getting real work down to create economic growth and opportunity for all Americans of every socioeconomic class, race, and community.

Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece, Interstellar, is ultimately about hope in the midst of hopelessness. I hope our new elected officials and every single American now realize that hope does not descend from D.C., but must be nourished in our families, neighborhoods, and communities.

Enough of my soapbox. For those of you still reading, let’s break down exactly what happened on Election Night 2014. Because I’m a conservative who believes community problems should be solved by families and communities closest to the problems, I’m going to begin my analysis with

What happened in Tennessee

I truly believe Gov. Bill Haslam is one of the best governors in our nation. And all of Tennessee believes that too, as he became the first Republican governor in our nation’s history to win every county in the state. His focus on improving education and making Tennessee one of the most attractive states in our nation for businesses paid off. Tennessee is flourishing and Haslam has effectively governed to ensure every community in our state reaps those rewards. He’s a good man and a great governor.

Sen. Lamar Alexander overwhelmingly won a third term to the U.S. Senate, where he is posed to become one of the leaders of the new GOP-majority Senate. As a statesman who has been governor, Secretary of Education, a presidential candidate, and Senator, expect him to continue to get things done for Tennesseans and ensure government is operating efficiently and effectively.

The most contentious election in TN was the battle over Amendment 1. I’ll avoid a deep dive into this issue, but I’ll state this: I was truly disappointed by the lies and deception employed in the campaign by the Amendment’s opponents. Whether it was mailers and commercials that did not even mention it was about abortion to outright lies about what the Amendment would in fact do, I was disappointed but sadly not surprised. It was a hard fought win by citizens in Tennessee who believe the most vulnerable individuals in our society are unborn children and the state constitution does not provide a right to an abortion and, therefore, abortion should be regulated by the politically accountable branch of government under the constitutional standards imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

To my friends who disagree with me on Amendment 1: I simply ask that you check your vitriol and ensure you know the facts. The facts are these: most of the fear-mongering done in No on Amendment 1 ads was about regulations that would be held to be unconstitutional under federal constitutional jurisprudence. Additionally, the passing of Amendment 1 changes NOTHING pertaining to state abortion regulation in and of itself. As the state legislature puts forth and debates regulations, I urge you to get involved. But do yourself and your convictions a favor – tell the truth and drop the hyperbolic deception campaign.

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What happened across America

Perhaps the most shocking and surprising result on election night was the huge success of Republican gubernatorial candidates in traditionally blue states. While Tom Wolf defeated incumbent Republican Governor Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, the other Republican gubernatorial losses that were predicted simply did not happen.

Rick Snyder in Michigan. Susana Martinez in New Mexico. Rick Scott in Florida. 2016 hopeful Scott Walker in Wisconsin, winning a gubernatorial election for the third time in four years. Brian Sandoval in Nevada. Paul LePage in Maine. Sam Brownback in Kansas. Nathan Deal in Georgia. And many more…

Not only did we avoid most of the projected losses, but the true wave occurred when GOP governors were elected in extremely blue states like Massachusetts, Maryland, and President Obama’s home state of Illinois. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. Larry Hogan in Maryland. Bruce Rauner in Illinois.

I’m also very excited about fellow Vanderbilt law graduate Greg Abbott’s win to be the next governor of Texas.

What happened in Congress

The GOP has taken control of the U.S. Senate, with at least 52 Senate seats that will likely end up being 53 or 54 once all the runoffs are complete and votes are counted. Like Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush at this point in their second terms, President Obama lost control of the U.S. Senate with two years to go in his presidency. While most prognosticators expected the Senate to flip, no one expected the blowouts that came in races in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Colorado. Few expected Thom Tillis to win in North Carolina. Much analysis has been written and will continue to be written (my favorite brief analysis comes from Ross Douthat, unsurprisingly) about why the GOP was so successful, what this election means for the next two years, for the 2016 presidential election, etc. But, stepping back, I’d just like to focus on some of the people who will now be serving in Congress.

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Mia Love became the first Republican African American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Joni Ernst (Mother, Soldier, Conservative, Example that the Establishment/Tea Party divide in the GOP is not what it’s cracked up to be) was elected to be the next Senator from Iowa. Tim Scott became the first African-American to be elected to the Senate in the South since Reconstruction… and he’s a conservative Republican.  Elise Stefanik, a 30-year-old who came straight out of Harvard to serve in  the Bush administration and Romney campaign, became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and she’s a Republican flipping a traditionally Democratic seat in New York state. Tom Cotton has an Ivy League pedigree, served in Iraq and Afghanistan, recently married with his first child on the way, and is the first U.S. Senator to be elected who was born after our nation’s bicentennial celebration. And I haven’t even mentioned Cory Gardner, who ran perhaps the most shrewd and consistently-strong campaign this cycle to win Colorado’s Senate seat quite handily.

I’m also excited about other new Republican senators who won handily in very red states, such as James Lankford in Oklahoma. But the one who I’m most intrigued by is Ben Sasse from Nebraska. A full profile on him can be found here, but his vision laid out in National Review yesterday perfectly captures why I’m so excited to have him in Congress. Some highlights:

The media’s portrait of an agenda-less GOP rings true to many because it was true for too long: In each election, Americans had to choose between Democrats with Big Government bad ideas, and Republicans with seemingly no ideas at all and no passion for tackling the nation’s biggest problems. Heading into 2016, we cannot beat something with nothing. We have to get good at explaining what we are for.

If there is one lesson of this election, it’s that the American people are desperate for real leadership. For six years, we have watched our federal government try to do more things than ever before, inserting itself into every sector of life but not really doing anything very well.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence did not pledge their fortunes and sacred honor so the federal government could play “helicopter parent” to a free people. They saw government as our shared project to secure liberty, doing a few big things and doing them well. We need to get back to that.

The first step is explaining to Americans that we must get our house in order. That we must take a hard look at what our government is doing in D.C. and ask tough questions. We have to state more clearly that fixing the broken parts of government is not the same as opposing government in and of itself.

If elected, I want to take part in a vigorous reaffirmation of the basic American ideal of a limited government with enumerated powers. But inside that limited set of governmental duties, we should actually get the big things done. We must energetically tackle the significant problems the voters rightly want Washington to be addressing.

To do that, we need a bold agenda that is easy to understand and tackles head-on the crises we face. Republicans must sell a big-cause, problem-solving vision — low-ego and happy-warrior in tone.

In policy arena after policy arena, Democrats respond to every failure of clunky government by proposing the addition of still more layers to 1960s-era bureaucracies as they break down. Republicans should invite them instead into a conversation about actually modernizing government, by fundamentally overhauling outdated federal programs to become nimble enough for the age of Uber and of lifelong job retraining.

I recognize that President Obama is likely to veto much of what we propose. Let him. If we aren’t at least laying out a vision of what we’re for, then many voters in the 2016 presidential election are ‎going to remain skeptical that Republicans are serious about actually tackling the biggest national policy problems before us. Here are nine bold ideas we need to get behind:

1. Entitlement reform that ties the retirement age to our growing life expectancy, and that means-tests our insolvent safety-net programs instead of letting them mushroom further.

2. Health reform that affirms a societal (not governmental) goal ‎of universal catastrophic health insurance by addressing the government roadblocks that make it difficult for families to choose from a broad, private-sector menu of health-insurance policies that they can keep even when changing jobs or states.

3. Welfare reform that eliminates the marriage penalty and “dependency lock,” tackling today’s overlapping programs that absurdly disincentivize both healthy family structures and the move from welfare to work, which should be the fundamental goal of these programs.

4. Education reform that champions more choices for parents and for those needing job retraining, making clear that our policies put students rather than incumbent institutions first.

5. Tax reform that spends far less rhetorical energy on the marginal tax rate of the top 1 percent and instead begins with a goal of maximum economic growth and more opportunities for the poor and the middle class.

6. Regulatory reform that doesn’t scare the American people into thinking we might not be interested in protecting them from genuinely predatory actors, but that attempts to devolve all possible regulation to the state and local level, and that causes all major federal rules to sunset after a short period unless Congress votes to keep them.

7. Immigration reform that prioritizes securing the border but also outlines the broader changes we plan to implement once the border is secured.

8. Electoral reform that includes term limits and makes it more difficult for incumbent politicians to fundraise when they should be doing the people’s work.

9. Science- and research-funding reform that reengages the imagination of the most innovative people in the history of the world by defining concrete — but lofty — goals like the cure for cancer.

Over the next two years, it’s not enough to simply be against President Obama. We have to explain that we are actually for people.

It’s time to rally around a vision of America that creates more opportunity for all, not through government mandates, but through rediscovering an optimism about the American identity. That’s what made our country great at the Founding. Let’s do it again.

I can’t say it any better than Senator-elect Sasse. It’s time to get to work.

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Posted on by Joseph Williams in Featured, Politics

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