It could have been so much worse for Barack Obama

Yesterday the American electorate voted to punish President Obama for the economic failings of President Bush, by making it impossible for Obama to legislate without securing the support of the Republicans, who now have the majority in the House of Representatives.

They could have made things worse. They could have overturned the Senate majority as well. Instead they left him with the narrowest of majorities in the upper house, and two years in which to make the best of a bad job before standing for re-election in 2012.

It was a night of goodbyes to some colourful and scary characters, and a night of hellos to some other … colourful and scary characters. Goodbye to Christine O’Donnell, the Republican senatorial candidate in Delaware, known previously for her principled stand against masturbation. O’Donnell had to reassure voters that she was not a witch, even though she had confessedly once dabbled in witchcraft. Bizarre to the last, she gave a concession speech claiming that she had
actually won.

Goodbye to Carl P Paladino, the Republican contender for the governorship of New York, who had promised to take a baseball bat to Albany (the seat of government in New York State). He was angry, he let it be known, and that seemed to be the right line for a Republican to take. Everyone was saying the electorate was angry. Surely they would choose an obviously angry candidate.

Excepting that, when the candidate looked like Mr Paladino — to put it politely, like the wrong sort of Italian in a movie that was about to turn bloody — the thought of this angry man with his baseball bat going off to Albany suddenly seemed scary in the wrong sort of way. His opponent, Andrew Cuomo, son of a well-known governor who had made a point of being the right sort of Italian, suddenly looked like the only option.

For his concession speech, Mr Paladino brought along a bright orange baseball bat and told the voters they hadn’t heard the last of him.

In Kentucky, the voters welcomed Rand Paul as their future senator, and he lost no time in reminding us what he stands for: balanced budgets and the recognition that governments do not create jobs (people create jobs).

One of the things Senator Paul will be called upon to do, perhaps as early as March next year, is to vote to raise the level of federal debt. If he goes along with this, he votes against his principles. If he stymies it by use of the filibuster, he brings the US economy crashing about his ears. But Rand Paul is an ideologue, and beholden to no one. He can do a great deal of damage.

The vaunted Tea Party ideology, where it can be said to have triumphed last night, did so by giving the angry electorate a general sense that a vote for the Republicans was going to be an effective sort of protest. But the public desire to protest was not quite so burning as to bring success to all Tea Party candidates, or to every name endorsed by Sarah Palin.

Nowhere was the failure of the Tea Party brand more notable, more dramatic than in Nevada, where Democrat Harry Reid, the Republicans’ most coveted sacrificial victim, managed to survive all that could be thrown at him. As Senate majority leader, Reid had become a hated figure for having enabled Obama to get his legislation, particularly the health bill, through the Senate.

The reason he survived last night was clear: his opponent, Sharron Angle, was just too low-grade, too racist and too nutty to appeal. Her campaign ads demonised the Latino population. Her response to political questions from the press was to run away or tell the questioner to shush. She was dreadful, but the Tea Party seemed to like dreadful.

Reid however survived, and by the end of the night there was one intriguing contest left to be decided: who had won Alaska’s senatorial seat?

The Palin candidate, Joe Miller, turned out to be a dishonest lawyer who had been caught using government law office computers for a voting scam and had tried unsuccessfully to lie his way out of a corner. To read the documents in this case is to get a pungent whiff of small-town Alaskan skulduggery.

Miller had been chosen as Republican candidate over the incumbent senator, Lisa Murkowski. She herself is not exactly a deserving case, having been originally appointed to the senatorship by her father. She resented being ousted in a primary, and decided to run as a write-in candidate.

This tactic almost never succeeds — a write-in candidate has to persuade a plurality of the electorate to add his or her name to the ballot paper and to spell it correctly. It’s a tall order. But this morning, with 88 per cent of the Alaska votes counted, Murkowski was in the lead.

All this will have been watched with some frustration by Sarah Palin, Alaska’s former governor, who is currently waiting for the call of the American nation before she commits to running for the presidency in 2012. Palin has been carefully doling out support to like-minded candidates in the hope of building up a web of indebtedness.

It hasn’t gone quite according to plan. Her endorsements have had an erratic effect, as the failure of O’Donnell, Angle and perhaps Miller has demonstrated.

Had the Republicans fielded better candidates in Delaware and Nevada, they would now have two more seats in the Senate. A word in the ear of the Independent senator, Joe Lieberman, and who knows if that might not have been three.

One can say that Barack Obama had some luck yesterday — and that the person who made his luck for him was Sarah Palin.

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