Sorting Out the Election
November 04, 2010, 4:00am

The New York Times.

Tuesday’s election was indeed a “shellacking” for the Democrats, as President Obama admitted after a long night of bad news. It was hardly an order from the American people to discard the progress of the last two years and start over again.

Mr. Obama was on target when he said voters howled in frustration at the slow pace of economic recovery and job creation. To borrow his running automotive metaphor, voters threw the keys at Republicans and told them to drive for a while, but gave almost no indication of what direction to drive in.

Republican leaders, who will take over the House and have a bigger minority in the Senate, say they heard the American people tell them to repeal the “monstrosity” of health care reform, in the words of the likely House speaker, John Boehner. In fact, the American people said no such thing. In polls of Tuesday’s voters, only 18 percent said health care was the nation’s top issue. While 48 percent of voters said they wanted to repeal the health care law, 47 percent said they wanted to keep it the way it is or expand it — hardly a roaring consensus.

The “loud message” to cut spending cited by Mr. Boehner was actually far more muted. The polls showed that 39 percent of voters say cutting the deficit should be the highest priority of Congress, but a statistically equal 37 percent prefer spending money to create jobs. Fully a third of those who want to spend money to create jobs were Republicans.

More voters (correctly) blamed President George W. Bush for the economic problems than President Obama, and even more (also correctly) blamed Wall Street.

The Republican victory was impressive and definitive, although voters who made it happen were hardly spread evenly across the electorate. The victory was built largely on the heavy turnout of older blue-collar white men, most in the South or the rusting Midwest.

Democratic candidates did better among voters younger than 30, minorities, city dwellers, and those living on the East or West Coasts. But women essentially split their vote between the parties — and that is a major challenge to the Democrats, who also failed to turn out their core voters among young people and minorities.

The new Republican officeholders will have to quickly address the economic pain and fear expressed by the voters who flocked to them in frustration. But it does those voters no good to say the answer is as simple as cutting discretionary government spending. It is time to show how cuts would lead to jobs and to specify which ones should be made — and how they plan to reduce the deficit while also preserving the Bush-era tax cuts.

Mr. Obama offered some specific ideas. Extending unemployment insurance. Extending tax cuts for the middle class. Providing tax breaks for companies that are investing in American research and development.

He proposed finding common ground on energy policy, developing domestic natural gas resources and encouraging electric cars. He took Republicans up on their offer to start banning earmarks, while urging greater investment in infrastructure. And he acknowledged that he could have done more to change Washington’s messy and secretive ways, and to have been in closer touch with those suffering from the recession.

The question is how the Republicans will act. For two years, they have refused to cooperate on any of those ideas, simply to deny Mr. Obama a policy victory and try to reduce his re-election prospects. If they are serious about accepting Tuesday’s mantle, they will join in governing and not simply posturing.