With more than 60 House seats and 650 state legislature seats changing hands and decades-long office holders of all political stripes losing their jobs, we’re still coming to grips with what happened in last week’s congressional midterm elections, let alone what it means for the future.
Yet several emerging lessons that will shape the work of the Jewish community in the days ahead are quite clear: court decisions — especially from the Supreme Court — really matter; it has been and always will be the economy, stupid; decisions are made by those who show up; and, some years, having a D or an R next to your name is the No. 1 ticket to failure.
Aside from Rep Eric Cantor (R-Va.), likely to be elected the first Jewish House majority leader, Jewish members of Congress didn’t fare particularly well in this election, and the leadership of longtime friends like campaign finance reform champion Russ Feingold, as well as the lost gavels of key committee chairs like Henry Waxman, Howard Berman and Barney Frank, will be sorely missed.
But the election fate of Jewish members barely scrapes the surface. This was not an anti-Jewish electorate; it was an anti-Democrat electorate. This was a vote about jobs and a response to the perceived failure of Democrats to respond adequately to economic crisis.
Every factor — from how members voted on climate or health care to whether their districts voted for Obama — points in the same direction. As political reporter Stuart Rothenberg explained, “Republican, conservative and swing voters fired Democrats — even Democrats they liked, and even Democrats who took care to vote as their constituents wanted.”
Blue Dogs lost, progressives lost, and so did Democrats in between. In just one example, Gene Taylor of Mississippi, who served 20 years and opposed the administration’s three key agenda items, went down to defeat despite winning his last election with nearly three-quarters of the vote.
And it’s not just the federal House and Senate that are about to change dramatically. Republicans took 16 state legislative chambers, gained complete control of state legislatures across the Rust Belt and grabbed governorships across the country.
For those holding liberal/moderate views, including most Jews and Jewish organizations, the domestic legislative challenges will be daunting. Policy priorities from immigration reform to climate change will likely be put on hold.
The need for campaign finance reform is clearer than ever, even as we face a more hostile Congress devoid of past champions. We’ll take a step-by-step approach in areas where we can forge compromise, rather than push for comprehensive overhauls.
And on issues from health care to gay rights to reproductive choice to tax policy, we’ll likely be playing a considerable amount of defense.
Gridlock seems all but guaranteed, but we have a choice. We can bemoan the likely gridlock, let the economy continue to struggle, and watch all the issues we care about fall off the radar, or we can continue to work for public policies that reflect our values of social justice, fundamental equality for all people, and a more peaceful and prosperous world.
There are a few bright spots. Some of the most extreme candidates were soundly rejected by voters. U.S. policy on Israel is unlikely to change thanks to long-standing relationships with members from across the political spectrum. And, though it’s not yet clear what the election of so many Tea Party candidates will mean for church/state separation, so far we have not seen attacks in this area.
Our nation feels divided, and there is no clear way forward. Yet, as Jon Stewart so eloquently put it in his recent Washington rally, “Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do — often something that they do not want to do — but they do it — impossible things every day.”
I think Stewart is right, and I think it is incumbent upon us as people of faith to forge a way forward. The things we work for — access to fundamentals like good food, clean water, and education; security for Israel and human rights across the world; a sustainable energy future — are not Democratic or Republican issues. They are human and moral issues, and it’s up to us to make this case in the next Congress.
After his 2008 victory speech President Obama spoke of shared values, humility and uniting as a nation to face the big challenges. That was two years ago, and it’s amazing how much has changed since then.
Yet we look ahead with hope — hope that our policy-makers and our government can still tackle big issues, make our country and world a better place, and work together when it matters most. We stand ready to work with all members of Congress — veteran and newly elected, Democratic and Republican, in the House and in the Senate — to make those hopes a reality.
Mark J. Pelavin is associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.
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