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Divided U.S. government reelected

If the norms in the era of gridlock change, it won’t be because the electorate settled it by picking one party over the other.

President Barack Obama surrounded by his family during his election night victory rally in Chicago.
REUTERS/Jason Reed

On the very slight chance that you have come here to find out: President Obama was reelected Tuesday. He appears to have won a bare majority in the national popular vote (50.1 percent to 48.4 percent for Mitt Romney as of this writing), but it translated into a solid 332-206 electoral vote margin.

It appears that, against all expectations a few months ago, the Democrats will increase their Senate majority from the current 53-47 to a likely 55-45, if very shaky leads for the Dem candidates hold up in North Dakota and Montana and assuming that Maine independent senator-elect Angus King decides to caucus with the Dems, as seems likely. The likely two-seat pickup doesn’t translate into a significantly higher level of control, and certainly is not filibuster-proof, but considering that the Dems were defending 23 of the 33 Senate seats on the ballot, I’m surprised that they managed to gain any ground.

The new Senate will have 20 women, which is by far a record. Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin becomes the first openly gay member of the Senate in history.

Republicans maintained solid control of the U.S. House, although the final numbers are still moving. Several of the few remaining moderates of both parties were defeated by more liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans, which, on its face, will not make the search for compromise any easier.

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In fact, before continuing with the details of the Election Night results, let’s just make this point loud and clear. Divided government was reelected Tuesday. Neither party has the votes to impose its will. The country faces large questions, starting immediately with the infamous “fiscal cliff” scenario, which will have to be faced even before the newly elected members can be sworn in.

In the next few days, a lot of nice statements will be made about the importance of bipartisanship and reasonable compromise. But Congressional Republicans have spent four years – and especially the last two since they took control of the House in 2010 – on a no-compromise strategy, especially on the inadmissibility of any tax increases. It seems likely that Obama and the Dems are prepared to also draw some lines – especially on the necessity of including a tax increase on top incomes as part of any fiscal deal.

The next three months will give us an updated picture of the new norms in the era of gridlock. But if anything changes, it won’t be because the electorate settled it by picking the vision of one party over the other. The electorate, once again, picked the neither/both option.

Back to the presidential race

As you have heard the pundits say, no president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the middle of the Great Depression has been reelected with a national unemployment rate as high as the current 7.9 percent rate. Exit polls suggest that voters did decide that the majority of the political blame for the lousy economy should be allocated to former President George W. Bush, rather than to Obama, despite Romney’s persistent effort to turn the vote into a referendum on the economy. Exit polls also indicated that voters were almost evenly divided about who would do a better job handling the economy.

On CNN, Republican operative Alex Castellanos said: “Right now, my silent majority that I hoped would be there — it’s not only silent, it’s invisible.”

A lot of the analysis was about race and ethnicity. The Republican Party remains the overwhelming choice of white Americans. The Dems are the overwhelming choice of blacks and Latinos. The demographics of the nation are changing so deeply and even quickly that this simple statement spells a lot of future trouble for Repubs unless they figure out how to appeal to non-whites. On ABC, Ron Brownstein said “if you can win Florida with 38 percent of the white vote, it’s a pretty ominous sign for Republicans.” And George Will seconded that motion.

The gender gap was also huge, with women breaking big for Dems and men for Repubs. Although when you add the married/unmarried layer, Repubs actually get a substantial majority of the votes of married women. One of the other demographic changes is that fewer Americans are married. I suspect that a wrinkle on the Brownstein quote would work here too, to the effect that it’s a big change from Ike’s days when the electorate is mostly unmarried.

Still, Obama is the first president since 1832 (we’re talking Andrew Jackson) to be elected to a second term with a smaller share of the popular vote than he received on his first election. The architects of Obama’s victory were all about building a “firewall” around the few key swing states they needed to reach an electoral vote majority, but in the end, he won narrowly in all of the swing states, unless you count North Carolina. Hardly anyone, except maybe Nate Silver, saw that coming.

Romney was a little slow to concede after all of the TV networks had declared Obama the winner. And Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer fought a rearguard battle against reality live on the Fox News Channel (even after Fox itself had long since called the race). But once he decided to concede, Romney was the perfect picture of grace and kept his farewell blessedly brief.

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Obama was also gracious, even going out of his way to pay tribute to both of Romney’s parents for their public service. (Mama Romney, in case you missed it, was a pioneering Senate candidate, although she never held office.)

Obama, on the other hand, was not blessedly brief. He probably talked too long, and the speech was full of familiar bromides along the lines “not a red America and a blue America but a red, white and blue America.” Still, it inspired, or at least made it difficult to maintain full cynicism.

A couple of closing jokes, except only one of them was intended as a joke.

Humorist Andy Borowitz headlined his election night piece: “Obamas return to White House as Romneys return to 1954.”

That was the one that was at least supposed to be funny. As the outcome appeared inevitable, Donald Trump tweeted: “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”